Misplaced Zealotry

zealotReza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has brought public interest back to the only begotten, and it’s not even Easter time. A confession: I’ve not read Aslan’s book, so my thoughts here are purely academic. (In a time-honored tradition, I will comment without benefit, or liability, of having actually read.) My interest is, to be frank, less on what Aslan has to say than with how people are reacting to him. Within days of publication, the internet began to swell with news stories about public reaction to Aslan’s treatment. My interest was raised by the Chronicle of Higher Education, where an article by Peter Monaghan quotes Lauren Green of Fox challenging Aslan, “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” I know this is Fox, and that it is poor form to abuse the idiot, but I couldn’t help but to wonder at such a misguided question.

I would ask, honestly, how many Christians have read a book on Moses or David, or any Hebrew Bible figure, that was written by a Christian. Far fewer hands would be in the air if the same question were framed with the caveat, “written by a Jew.” Every supersessionist religion reserves the right to analyze what has gone before in the light of its own theology. We all know the Moses of Cecil B. DeMille, but how many know the Jeremiah of Abraham Heschel? Do we bother to read what the believer writes about his or her own hero? Would we need to? We already know what the conclusion is going to be. I, for one, am very curious how some Muslims perceive Jesus. That’s always a fascinating question, since Islam, in many parts of the world, superseded Christianity, and has, until recent times, often peacefully coexisted.

Is it not because the author is Muslim that the challenge was issued? How quickly we forget that western civilization (which began in the “Middle East”) owes much to Islam. While Christianity plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, Islamic scholars were rediscovering Aristotle and making genuine progress in science. And yet, we are suspicious of what is discovered by those of “alternative” cultural heritages. I would be more surprised should Muslims show no interest in Jesus. During the past presidential election, many non-Mormons flocked to bookstores (okay, that’s an exaggeration; nobody flocks to bookstores any more, now that Harry Potter is done), eager for books about Latter-Day Saints. Most of them written by non-Mormons. I don’t know what Aslan has to say about Jesus. I suspect some are disconcerted because he bears C. S. Lewis’ code-name for Jesus in the Narnia chronicles, but Aslan may well have something to teach us about ourselves. I, for one, welcome it. How can we ever learn tolerance if we’re unwilling to hear how we appear to others?

Bart’s Gospel

One of the near constants of the entertainment world is the social commentary on The Simpsons. The morality issues that get frequent play had led to a book entitled The Gospel According to the Simpsons some years back. And since Americans like their morality straight from the popular media, The Simpsons is not a bad place to look. The episode “My-Pods and Boomsticks,” although a few years old now, raises issues that are still current in our culture. I watched it with my daughter recently and she commented, “It’s just like Zeitoun.” My family read Zeitoun this summer (some high school reading programs have a way of involving more than just the student) and the revelation of just how deeply suspicious the nation is of Muslims disturbed us all. This particular Simpsons episode involves a Muslim family from Jordan moving into Springfield. Although Bart befriends their son, Homer just can’t get over the assumption that Muslim equals terrorist. In the end, however, it is Homer who ends up dynamiting a bridge rather than believing Muslims can be good citizens.

Apart from being the longest running primetime animated feature in history, The Simpsons bucks the convention of veering away from religious topics. Indeed, many episodes foreground religion and feature Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism as well as Christianity and now Islam. The religions may be gently chided, but they are not mocked, and we are given a glimpse into our own religious biases. Islam, as a religion, is not evil or bent on destruction. Like Christianity, it has many varieties and believers range from the sacred to the profane. It is not the religion that is a problem, but the society that gives the lie to true equality. Believe what you will; harm no one.

At work the other day I received an office memo about lunchtime Yoga. Whenever I see such notices I consider how this religious practice, in American minds, has become completely secular. The same may be said of some of the martial arts which, in original contexts, have a deep base in eastern spiritualities. These things do not bother us because we do not bother to learn about them as religious activities. Even Kung Fu Panda has a spiritual undertone. Religions display a wide variety of expressions throughout the world. Going to church one day a week and condemning those who believe differently all seven, many people do not stop to think of the contributions that other religions have made to our society as it exists today. American culture, while predominantly evolving from a Christian base, has strong elements of most of the major religions that go unrecognized or packaged as secular self-helps. We could still stand to learn a thing or two from Springfield.

Criticism Is Not Attack

Each administration of George W. Bush was marked by a major disaster. 9-11 was followed four years later by Hurricane Katrina. The United States had received a one-two punch. I recently read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. This is a book that should be read by every American, and it wouldn’t hurt others to read it too. This account follows the lives of a New Orleans family through the aftermath of Katrina. The main character, a tradesman named Abdulrahman Zeitoun, is a permanent resident of the United States from Syria. His wife Kathy, a convert to Islam, was American. When Katrina bore down on New Orleans, Kathy took their kids to safety with friends while Abdulrahman (known by many as Zeitoun) stayed in the city to look after the properties they owned. When the flooding had engulfed entire sections of the city, Zeitoun paddled about in a canoe, rescuing those he could, and even feeding abandoned dogs. Family and friends urged him to evacuate, but he felt he was doing good. Until he was arrested on his own property and imprisoned for being Syrian.

In a wrenching account based on interviews with Zeitoun and Kathy, Eggers describes how the US government quickly set up Guantanamo Bay-style prisons rather than attempting to rescue those stranded in their homes. Zeitoun was arrested and never informed of the charges, although he heard paramilitary guards armed with machine guns uttering “Taliban” and “al-Qaeda” at him. He watched as a mentally disabled man was pepper-sprayed by soldiers when he clearly couldn’t understand what they were commanding him to do. Despite having government issued ID and good standing as a business owner in New Orleans, Zeitoun was presumed guilty because of his profile: “Arabic” and Muslim. As Eggers reminds us, Homeland Security is now the administrative head of FEMA, and those that Homeland Security distrusts (all of us) are potential terrorists rather than citizens in need of help during times of disaster.

I grew up in a rather monochromatic part of the country, but as I traveled I met and befriended those of differing nationalities, including Syrians. Those considered “the others” by xenophobic bureaucrats are just as kind, loving, and good as those of us born under the sign of the cross with “white” skin. Zeitoun stands as an indictment of the jingoism that has come to be recognized as the only legitimate American citizenship. Zeitoun spent nearly a month in maximum security prison before being released after a makeshift trial, when no evidence existed that he’d done anything wrong. What has happened to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? They’ve become the enemies of the state. I know, Katrina engendered extraordinary circumstances. Extraordinary circumstances, from a “Christian” view, however, demand extraordinary sympathy. Do the nation a favor. Before November, read Zeitoun.

A Tiger’s Tale

When my wife finished Yann Martel’s Life of Pi she said, “You’ve got to read this book!” Philosophical novels don’t often capture the interest of publishers or agents, but when they manage to slip through the fine-mesh mail-armor of the guild, they sometimes become best-sellers. Publishers often underestimate the intelligence and the hunger of the average reader. I was glad to have something so provocative to read on my long daily commute. Since the book was published in 2001 I won’t worry too much about spoiler alerts. It should come as no surprise that the biblical flood theme comes through a book where a zookeeper’s son is stranded on a lifeboat with various forms of wildlife. The most unexpected and endearing member of this menagerie, the tiger Richard Parker, is also the most deadly. How easy it would be to spin off in a Melvillesque direction of the beast as a representation of an uncomfortable God! Indeed, when Richard Parker scampers away when the boat runs aground, Pi laments how it was like losing God.

Setting the stage for this development is the tale of three religions. As a boy raised in India Piscine (Pi) is surrounded by traditional Hindu culture. On a family vacation he notices that atop the three hills are three houses of worship: Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. Curiosity draws the young boy in, and by the end of part one he is happily and concurrently Muslim, Hindu, and Christian, to the deep chagrin of the various religious leaders. They, coincidentally, all meet Pi with his parents one day in the park and each insists that although they encourage the boy’s continued membership in their tradition, he must drop the other two. Like any sensible person, Pi has chosen the safe road when it comes to conflicting religions: accept them all. It is only religion itself that deconstructs his triune belief system.

After his eventual rescue, Pi is questioned by insurance agents concerning the fate of the ship. They cannot believe his incredible tale, because they can only believe what they have seen for themselves. Pi asks, “What do you do when you’re in the dark?” An appropriate question for us all. This story is a parable about perceiving more than what can be seen. Tigers are hidden all around. Sometimes we call them Hobbes. Sometimes Richard Parker. They are protectors and they are dangerous. Some people call them God. In the end our protagonist is left without the divine presence that had kept him alive all the way across the Pacific Ocean. When the book is over, I think we would all admit, it is the tiger that we miss most of all.

Sacred Geography

Pilgrimage. The concept that certain places are special is deep-rooted in the human psyche. So deeply rooted that we consider it a religious behavior. Even as scientists recognize the need of many animals to return to their birthplaces or areas that they sense beyond the range of human perception, as human beings they feel it too. Even scientists have the urge to revisit that special spot. Otherwise the travel industry would be in great trouble. Pilgrimage is considered a religious behavior, and the sacredness of place has been noticeably in the news this week. MSNBC reported on the find of a skeletal pilgrim to Stonehenge from 1550 BCE. Yesterday the New Jersey Star-Ledger ran a story about a temple/mosque dispute in Ayodhya, India. Both of these stories center on the sacred geography of the region.

Stonehenge has been a magnet not only for Druids and New Agers, but for anyone with a sense of connection to European prehistory. In the winter of 1990, under a chilly British sky and gusty winds across Salisbury Plain, my wife and I made our pilgrimage to Stonehenge. The low angle of the sun in the sky in a dusky British December only enhanced the experience of standing near a monument that has become an icon of the mysterious and the transcendent for modern domesticated citizens of a straightforward, technological world. The news story states that the skeleton unearthed was of a Mediterranean teenager, far from home, in the shadow of what was already a famous landmark. Even over two decades on, I can still feel the inarticulate sense of longing I felt at Stonehenge, so near the winter solstice, and I understand why that young boy went there to die.

Meanwhile in Ayodhya, the site of a mosque has been declared two-thirds under the ownership of Hindu plaintiffs who claim the site as the birthplace of Lord Ram, a Hindu god. Naturally objecting is the Muslim population that currently has a mosque on the site. Sacred sites raise emotions and tempers readily. Humans want access to their holy places – this is the power of sacred geography. It is certainly palpable in the Bible, and was obviously present the last time I was in Jerusalem. Whether it is hardwired in our biology or simply born of whimsy, sacred geography will never go away. Either we can learn to share it or fight to the bitter resolution, but no matter how much blood might be shed the site will only grow more and more significant because of that very blood.