Another Response to Reza Aslan’s “The Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”

Ben Witherington posts a blog by a fellow New Testament scholar on Aslan’s “new” book on Jesus. Once again, the conclusion is that Aslan is simply offering interpretations of Jesus buried and forgotten years ago – Jesus as political revolutionary encouraging armed struggle against Roman oppression. (At this point I am suppressing my yawn!)

What Aslan does do is tap into a strain of imagination that seeks to understand Jesus in wholly political/cultural/historical categories. Jesus as God the Son, Savior, offering an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world on the cross, raised from the dead, ascended to heaven and coming again is too revolutionary for our current appetites. There is the need to calm him down, make him one of us, wholly explainable by rational and human categories. But Jesus refuses to go there. The evidence just won’t support it. It all points to the reality that we are the visited planet and God indeed walked among us and opened the door to eternal life for all to enter.

Are the Neo-Reformed Too Optimistic About Redemption of Culture? The Introduction of “Tidal Christianity”

Short answer – Yes, I think so. Church planting success in several highly secular urban cultures has given extra fuel to the imagined redemption of the spheres of the arts, law, etc., along with the influence of NT Wright and company. (I am a huge NT Wright fan, so no attempt here to diminish his scholarship and his value to the broader church). Surely there are inroads into radical secularism. But these forays remain anecdotal and will always be so. The attempt to broaden the meaning of redemption to include the beginnings of the “new earth” feels strained to me, somewhat like President Obama’s promise that the ocean’s rise will be abated during his presidency. We love to imagine it so, but it’s overstatement. 

There is a serious attempt to move away from personal salvation as the primary marker of Evangelicalism, a la Billy Graham. Christianity has come to be seen more as tidal movement that lifts all boats, what I call “Tidal Christianity.”  Yes, personal evangelism is on the agenda, but not the “embarrassing” kind, like Evangelism Explosion of the D James Kennedy kind. What this means in reality is that evangelism is not on the agenda. Most churches do not train in evangelism anymore. They train in influence. Direct announcement of the Gospel complete with an invitation to say yes to the offer of eternal life is considered so 1950s. 

This article I am linking builds a connection with Abraham Kuyper and the Neo-Reformed optimism about cultural redemption. It is worth the read and serious reflection. Neo-Reformed utopianism is, well, utopianism. As we know, utopias are always overstated, and in some cases can lead to very bad places.

Left understated or unstated is the simple and primal value of a revived and evangelistic church, sharing Christ one person at a time. I think some in the Reformed movement, such as John Piper and Al Mohler, have not bought into utopian scenarios and still have enough of the traditional views of evangelism to not sell their birthright for the promise of the porridge of influence. 

No, Contrary to the Press, Evangelicals Are Not United on Immigration Reform

The story is that Evangelical leaders are supportive of “comprehensive” immigration reform.  Rev. Michael Wilker told us so in his Washington Post op ed. But the facts don’t support him.  See  “No, Evangelicals Are Not United on Immigration Reform.”  Not only are Evangelicals not united, some are deeply suspicious of the way Wilker put together his fictional coalition.

Aside from the actual issue of immigration reform and where us Evangelicals stand, there are a couple of other issues this surfaces.

One, no one person speaks for Evangelicals. No one group speaks for Evangelicals. Evangelicalism is a movement, not an institution. The only way to find out where Evangelicals might stand on any given issue is to carefully poll them. Billy Graham does not speak for all. Rick Warren does not speak for all. What comes out of Wheaton College does not speak for all. And surely, Jim Wallis does not speak for Evangelicals. Even the National Association of Evangelicals is a marginal representative of this movement.

There are Evangelicals on most sides of any given political issue. What gives glue to the movement are four or so distinctives:

One, we are a Bible-centered movement. Don’t take that simplistically. There is nuanced interpretation and careful scholarship here. But the bottom line, Evangelicals have a fierce commitment to the authority of the Bible, not as our experience of God but as God’s Word to us.

Two, the belief that Christ atoned for our sins on the cross. Jesus dies as a substitutionary sacrifice, taking upon himself the penalty due to our sin. Salvation is not moral self-improvement or a mere assent to a doctrinal proposition. We preach Jesus on a cross, the lamb of God shedding blood to cover our iniquities.

Three, the belief that all must be born again to enter into the Kingdom of God. There must be a conversion of the heart, of man’s sinful nature. Until then we are children of wrath and under the judgment of God. Evangelicals call all people, even those who sit in pews, to the new birth through faith in Christ as the Savior.

Four, the Evangelical movement is characterized by activism. This word has often referred, in the press, to leftist social, economic and political movements. But historically it was Evangelicals across denominational lines who banded together in volunteer societies to send wave after wave of missionaries across the globe and at home engaged education for the masses, reformed the treatment of  prisoners, began temperance movements to ameliorate the scourge of alcoholism, agitated to free slaves, lifted up the urban poor, and provided for the orphans. The list goes on and on. While denominations slept and spent all their resources on themselves, Evangelical societies raised the finances to support any number of social causes.

Evangelicals are by and large not statists. They do not share utopian visions of society based on state solutions. They continue to believe that spiritual revival is at the root of all good. True, they will vote and seek support for a moral position. But they do not look at the sate as a partner to usher in the kingdom of God. They make a very clear distinction between the role of the state and the role of the church. They do not seek to convert the state and make it do the work of the church. They make a distinction between what is individually required of us as moral beings and as Christians and what is required of the state. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not the role of the state. When the Bible says to the God lover and the Christ follower, welcome the stranger in your midst, it is a huge leap to then assert therefore it is the state’s responsibility to have open borders or to saturate the nation with huge numbers of immigrants who are unable to support themselves and must depend upon the state’s largesse for their welfare, requiring by force of law that my neighbor pay more in taxes for church moral positions. My experience in Evangelicalism is that this is exactly what is not supported, contrary to any number of press releases. Some Evangelicals might, a la Jim Wallis or Tom Sine. But these are marginal figures on the Evangelical landscape who by no means have the confidence of the majority of Evangelicals.

The same ones who cry against the political involvement of Falwell’s Moral Majority or Phyllis Schlafy”s Eagle Forum or James Dobson’s Focus on the Family (of earlier years) are now working for church support of statist agendas and demanding that Christ requires it if we love our neighbor as ourselves. Evangelicals don’t see it. 

Rezla Aslan’s “Zealot” Reviewed by Christianity Today

As the CT article puts it, Rezla Aslan tells an old story about Jesus, but not, as the hymn writer puts it, “the old, old story.”

The old story Aslan tells is the story of early 20th century liberal accounts of Jesus. Jesus was not God but a Jewish apocalyptic figure who was little more than a zealot who sought the overthrow of the hold of Rome. He was executed, but his legacy “rose again” through the apostles, who spread the news that Jesus had been resurrected. Of course, Aslan concludes, he was not.

The real hinge upon which the story turns is the exaggeration of the differences between Paul and the original apostles. This is such warmed over scholarship that I am surprised at the incredulity with which the book is received. As CT puts it,

There is no question that Paul sharply disagreed with Peter and other leaders over the question of the role of the law of Moses in the lives of non-Jewish converts. Aslan would have his readers believe that the debate centered on Christology, the divinity of Jesus, rather than on Ecclesiology, life in the church. But the debate as described in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters (especially Galatians) centers on food laws, Sabbath observance, and circumcision, not on the divinity of Jesus. Aslan would have done well to consult theologian David Wenham (author ofPaul and Jesus) and others who show the misguided nature of claims that Paul invented Christianity.

This kind of approach requires Aslan to late date the New Testament manuscripts.  Aslan assumes the latest possible dates for the Gospels and Acts, dating Mark after A.D. 70, Matthew and Luke-Acts in the 90s (perhaps later), and John somewhere between 100 and 120. After assigning such late dates, he declares that there is no tradition of eyewitness accounts. My response is a simple “huh?” There is so much credible support of the New Testament Gospels as early that Aslan should at least appear to be struggling with his dating. But his thesis requires late dating. And so it goes.

The only thing that escapes me is why Aslan did not come out with this book at Christmas or Easter, the usual time popular debunkers of the traditional account of Jesus come out with their stuff. This makes front cover copy of the news magazines. Still, you can hardly do better than he is doing. #1 at Amazon and #1 hardcover at the New York Times.

The question is why the sales? How can something so 1950s end up capturing the interest of the 2013 audience? Maybe a couple of things explain this. First, the mainstream media decided to puff it. This is their kind of book–demythologizing Jesus, taking him down a notch. Aslan is all over the TV screen. And it demonstrates how late to the game the media are. Simple research would have told them that there is nothing here to see. Second, there is the sneaking suspicion on the part of a great number of people that the Church has pulled a fast one on us. Read “Church” here as “Roman Catholic.” In line with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why?, there is the doubt that the Church can be trusted with the real story. Most of the students in my classes are of this mind. The patriarchy of old men “kicked out” certain books and included certain others to keep the story going that was in their best interests. Simple as that. And Jesus gets lost in history.

Maybe some want this to be true. But the facts do not support it. There simply was never enough central control for the true story to be covered up and a newer model, more conducive to preserving power structures, shoved into place. There is surely enough evidence to show the Church being political and participating in gutter intrigue. Any news here? But creating a Jesus who is God, transforming him from either a simple first century Palestinian carpenter or a Jewish insurrectionist, is a storyline that requires evidence. And that evidence is amazingly thin. The reality is that the simplest explanation actually does the best job of describing the Jesus story – the Gospels are eyewitness accounts of the Apostles encountering in Jesus the presence of Jehovah. The so called “false Gospels” supposedly circulating in the early church were not suppressed. They just stopped being read, and therefore stopped being copied.

Much is being made of Aslan’s Muslim heritage. But the Jesus he describes is no Muslim Jesus. Islam teaches that he is a prophet and did not die on the cross, having instead another die in his place. But Aslan does propose the Quranic assertion that the New Testament is a corrupted text. This is bedrock Muslim teaching. And on this liberal scholarship and Islam find a surprising co-belligerency.