July 20th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

Reza Aslan: Why I write about Jesus

Opinion by Reza Aslan, special to CNN

(CNN) - When I was 15 years old, I found Jesus.

I spent the summer of my sophomore year at an evangelical youth camp in Northern California, a place of timbered fields and boundless blue skies, where, given enough time and stillness and soft-spoken encouragement, one could not help but hear the voice of God.

Amid the man-made lakes and majestic pines my friends and I sang songs, played games and swapped secrets, rollicking in our freedom from the pressures of home and school.

In the evenings, we gathered in a fire-lit assembly hall at the center of the camp. It was there that I heard a remarkable story that would change my life forever.

Two thousand years ago, I was told, in an ancient land called Galilee, the God of heaven and Earth was born in the form of a helpless child. The child grew into a blameless man. The man became the Christ, the savior of humanity.

Through his words and miraculous deeds, he challenged the Jews who thought they were the chosen of God, and in return he was nailed to a cross. Though Jesus could have saved himself from that gruesome death, he freely chose to die.

Indeed, his death was the point of it all, for his sacrifice freed us all from the burden of our sins.

But the story did not end there, because three days later, he rose again, exalted and divine, so that now, all who believe in him and accept him into their hearts will also never die, but have eternal life.

For a kid raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists, this was truly the greatest story ever told. Never before had I felt so intimately the pull of God.

In Iran, the place of my birth, I was Muslim in much the way I was Persian. My religion and my ethnicity were mutual and linked. Like most people born into a religious tradition, my faith was as familiar to me as my skin, and just as disregardable.

After the Iranian revolution forced my family to flee our home, religion in general, and Islam in particular, became taboo in our household. Islam was shorthand for everything we had lost to the mullahs who now ruled Iran.

My mother still prayed when no one was looking, and you could still find a stray Quran or two hidden in a closet or a drawer somewhere. But, for the most part, our lives were scrubbed of all trace of God.

That was just fine with me. After all, in the America of the 1980s, being Muslim was like being from Mars. My faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.

Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American.

I do not mean to say that mine was a conversion of convenience. On the contrary, I burned with absolute devotion to my newfound faith.

I was presented with a Jesus who was less “Lord and Savior” than he was a best friend, someone with whom I could have a deep and personal relationship. As a teenager trying to make sense of an indeterminate world I had only just become aware of, this was an invitation I could not refuse.

The moment I returned home from camp, I began eagerly to share the good news of Jesus Christ with my friends and family, my neighbors and classmates, with people I’d just met and with strangers on the street: those who heard it gladly, and those who threw it back in my face.

Yet something unexpected happened in my quest to save the souls of the world.

The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.

In college, where I began my formal study of the history of religions, that initial discomfort soon ballooned into full-blown doubts.

The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant.

The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions — just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of different hands across thousands of years — left me confused and spiritually unmoored.

And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying.

I began to rethink the faith and culture of my forefathers, finding in them a deeper, more intimate familiarity than I ever had as a child, the kind that comes from reconnecting with an old friend after many years apart.

Meanwhile, I continued my academic work in religious studies, delving back into the Bible not as an unquestioning believer but as an inquisitive scholar. No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text.

Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him.

The Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church.

Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.

I have modeled my life not after the celestial spirit whom many Christians believe sacrificed himself for our sins, but rather after the illiterate, marginal Jew who gave his life fighting an unwinnable battle against the religious and political powers of his day on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed – those his society deemed unworthy of saving.

I wrote my newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" in order to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.

Because I am convinced that one can be a devoted follower of Jesus without being a Christian, just as I know that one can be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus.

Reza Aslan is a bestselling author and a scholar of religion. This article was adapted from his newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." The views expressed in this column are Aslan's alone.

- CNN Belief Blog Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Church • Jesus • Opinion

soundoff (4,311 Responses)
  1. 00 00

    10,000,000 directions
    just a waste

    he was god
    let it rest

    just a taste
    is all
    dine with him
    have one meal

    be his guest
    drink talk laugh
    stay just a while

    inside out
    if you care
    from whatever is
    to beauty beyond

    January 19, 2014 at 2:33 am |
    • Keith Grove

      I think you have chosen an appropriate name, you are just a big fat ZERO which also suits your god another big fat ZERO.
      Your few lines of doggerel are pathetic and meaningless, please keep them to yourself and go back to the hole you crawled out of.

      January 19, 2014 at 9:14 pm |
  2. chief of sinners

    We have all been battered in life. A wise man searches the riches of the heart. A foolish man chases riches of the flesh. I know you are hurting inside, there is hope-www.prayerfromasinner.com.

    January 15, 2014 at 3:56 pm |
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  5. yavaid

    I am pretty sure This Relegious scholar will not write about mohammed....and its not hard to find out why he wouldnt.

    October 19, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • wjshelton

      You would be wrong: No god but God, his first book, is about Islam. Yes, he writes about Muhammad in that book. No, you don't know anything about Reza Aslan. I would also suspect that you know nothing about Islam as well, given your comment.

      October 19, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
      • Keith

        You talk about "his book" I assume you are talking about the bible, why is it that no matter how many times it is pointed out that much of the bible is a rebelling of stories from much older civilizations that you just IGNORE this fact.
        Of course you IGNORE it because it undermines your own agenda. Your god did NOT write the bible and you know it. Yet you deliberately continue to spread your twisted story so that those who cannot or will not see through your deceptions continue to believe your fairy tales. It is clear that what you write is not credible.

        October 20, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
        • wjshelton

          Do you have a reading comprehension problem? My statement is clear. I am referring to "No god but God", Reza Aslan's first book. Please tell what rationale you were using to assume that I was talking about the Bible. Your comment has NOTHING to do with anything I wrote. Period.

          October 20, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
  6. Frank A

    A Biblical tale begins – "It says in the Bible..." A fantasy story begins – "Once Upon a Time.." A sea story begins – "Now this is no s–t!" All seems the same to me.

    October 18, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Doris

      They might say the "old" and the "new"
      To me, "Gullible's Travels, Part One and Part Two"

      October 19, 2013 at 1:17 am |
      • Keith

        There should be a campaign to require book stores and libraries to move all religious writings to the fiction section, bad fiction preferably.

        October 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
  7. Ol' Yeller

    "I have modeled my life not after the celestial spirit whom many Christians believe sacrificed himself for our sins, but rather after the illiterate, marginal Jew who gave his life fighting an unwinnable battle against the religious and political powers of his day on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed – those his society deemed unworthy of saving."

    Does anyone recognize the disconnect between the Jesus he is talking about and the leaders of today who thump that Bible and chatise any who dare speak against it? Our 'Christian' leaders of today give not one whit about the poor and dispossessed. Their only thoughts and actions go to protect the rich and powerful who need no help or protection.
    When you Folks get this straightened out and start practicing what you preach, maybe the masses will once again start listening to you. For now, your greed and hateful words speak volumes of what is really in your heart and this Jesus you imagine would look down on the lot of you in shame.

    October 17, 2013 at 3:12 pm |

    Why and how can we believe in Jesus Christ?


    October 16, 2013 at 4:00 am |
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      It is of course complete HOGWASH.

      October 16, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
      • chief of sinners

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        January 15, 2014 at 3:47 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.