Speaking of the Lord, I wanted to point you all to Ross Douthat’s new column in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. I really like Douthat, and this piece is a good example of why. He is responding to Reza Aslan’s new #1 New York Times Bestseller, Zealot: The Life & Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
As Douthat points out, Aslan’s books is just the newest shot in the two-century long war for the “Historical Jesus“, a series of “quests” in which the assumption is that the Jesus of history is entirely different than the Jesus represented of the Bible. (I’ve recently defended some of my own thoughts on this here and here).
Now some have effectively critiqued much of Aslan’s scholarship, and even his academic credentials to write such a book (it doesn’t seem he’s ever written a peer-reviewed piece on anything in the New Testament!). But Douthat, in usual style, zooms out to the 50,000-foot level and speaks to the bigger context in which these sorts of books seem to always be written. It’s fantastic, and you should read it. Here are the money quotes:
The fact that Aslan’s take on Jesus is not original doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong. But it has the same problem that bedevils most of his competitors in the “real Jesus” industry. In the quest to make Jesus more comprehensible, it makes Christianity’s origins more mysterious.
Part of the lure of the New Testament is the complexity of its central character — the mix of gentleness and zeal, strident moralism and extraordinary compassion, the down-to-earth and the supernatural.
Most “real Jesus” efforts, though, assume that these complexities are accretions, to be whittled away to reach the historical core. Thus instead of a Jesus who contains multitudes, we get Jesus the nationalist or Jesus the apocalyptic prophet or Jesus the sage or Jesus the philosopher and so on down the list.
There’s enough gospel material to make any of these portraits credible. But they also tend to be rather, well, boring, and to raise the question of how a pedestrian figure — one zealot among many, one mystic in a Mediterranean full of them — inspired a global faith.
That’s not a question such books are usually designed to answer. They’re better seen as laments for paths not taken, Christianities that might have been. The mystical Jesus is for readers who wish we had the parables without the creeds, the philosophical Jesus for readers who wish Christianity had developed like the Ethical Culture movement. And a political Jesus like Aslan’s is for readers who feel, as one of his reviewers put it, that “Jesus’ usefulness as a challenge to power was lost the moment Christians first believed he rose from the dead.”….
And they’re reminders that every modern account of how an alternative Christianity might have changed the world is itself indebted to the many ways the historical Christianity actually did.