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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 Religion Editor

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

soundoff (4,311 Responses)
  1. Peter Bishop

    Another anti-Christian piece in the "Belief" blog. Who would have thought that?

    July 21, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Another christian whining because an aspect of belief different than their own is presented on the "belief blog". Anyone surprised?

      July 21, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      If you seek nothing but fawning admiration and self-abnegating mendacity for your own favorite set of superst¡tious bilge and claptrap, I believe that "Christianity Today" has its own website, where never is heard a discouraging word. However, since CNN's middle name is "News", and this book just hit the best-seller list, you should probably expect some, you know, real journalism about it.

      July 21, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • GAW

      Is there something wrong with the marketplace of ideas?

      July 21, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
  2. Tacitus Talk

    The follower of Christ that this article is defining is an "imitator" of Jesus Christ and a bad one. Jesus did not challenge the power of Rome. He was very clear of that. He said "render unto Caesar", hardly a 1st Century Che Guevara. This type of imitator also has a Greek Word associated with it 'Hypocrite" – the word "Crit" is derived from the Greek word for "ACTOR". That is what a hypocrite is: imitates without really believing it. The word Christian means "Christlike" in the sense from the inside out. Jesus said if you would be my disciple you would believe in "ME" and that believe is absolute devotion. If you are not a Christian in the NEW TESTAMENT sense of NEW BIRTH, and REDEMPTION, and INDIVIDUAL SALVATION, then you can NEVER BE A FOLLOWER OF JESUS. Once again CNN screwed it up.

    July 21, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • Solomon

      Absolutely!

      July 21, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • Damocles

      Well, hell, man. Let CNN know exactly what type of believer you are and I'm sure they will do a story all about you and how you are the only correct believer.

      July 21, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • doughnuts

      Jesus was a Jewish teacher. That's all he was.
      No virgin birth. No miracles. Probably no crucufixion.

      Like Buddha, he had a few interesting things to say about getting right with yourself and those around you. Try focusing on that instead of all the mumbo-jumbo.

      July 21, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
    • WhatFacts

      You do know the Bible contained a lot more than the gospels that finally made the cut at the Council of Nicea. Try reading the Gospel of Thomas...

      July 21, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
      • RichardSRussell

        Technically, there WAS no "Bible" as such until the Council of Nicea said what would go into the official version. All we had prior to that was a huge collection of folk tales, some of which were only reduced to writing for the express purpose of having copies to pass around at Nicea. None of them was officially sanctioned, tho they all had their adherents.

        Yes, just as a camel is said to be a horse assembled by a committee, the "divinely inspired" collection of books in the Bible was as well — some of them on very close votes, which I take to mean that there was some static on the divine-inspiration line to quite a few of the committee members.

        July 21, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
  3. A Dose of Reality
    July 21, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  4. Peggy

    It looks like this guy read all the market research on why people like Jesus but don't like the Church and wrote a book tailor made to confirm every single bias those people have.

    But I can tell you that everything this guy is claiming is true and really historical has been refuted over and over again. But you will have to look for the information because CNN isn't going to promote it in a big feature article on their home page.

    Finally, I just wanted to say that you need to realize that this guy is promoting his own religion which has been teaching all that he is saying from the start. But here's the important thing to remember about that. Islam couldn't exist if it didn't first deny everything that the Church teaches about Jesus. If Jesus is the Son of God than any further revelation is completely unnecessary. You have to realize that everything this guy is saying is completely self-serving and serves the purpose to justify his belief in Islam.

    Don't be fooled by this smooth-talker.

    July 21, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      No, instead be fooled by the smooth talkers who erase that "IF" from in front of "If Jesus is the Son of God". After all, they KNOW, right? They tell us so themselves, and they wouldn't lie, would they? Just because their entire livelihood depends on getting gullible suckers to plank their fannies in the pews and their dollars in the collection plate?

      July 21, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
      • tallulah13

        I doubt they even understand the irony of their comments.

        July 21, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
  5. kingdomthings

    Very sad...the Word you once accepted will have to be your judge one day...my prayer is that you search your heart before He comes again. I pray that it is not too late with this proclamation of yours.

    July 21, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      If your god is the type to allow people to suffer eternally, then he's an azzhole terrorist of the worst sort.

      July 21, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Advice from somebody who's apparently spent much of his life searching his heart and almost none of it using his brain.

      July 21, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  6. Elena

    To WhenCowsAttack:

    Sorry I thought I answered this already, I believe that all that there is, is the spirit, or consciousness, and that through that spirit or consciousness, we can reach the next level of reality! There is enough evidence in Quantum Mechanics to implied that believe.

    First did you know that when you typed the electrons that make up your finger tips never come in touch, and that is what we understand of touch, with the electrons that make up every single key on your key board?.so that means that some how your thought which is created among the gazillions computational process of the electrons that make you brain!, and that somehow it is transferred to the electrons of the keyboard in the form of energy!
    Secondly, it has been observed through QM that mater is only waves of energy, a rate of vibration!, until observed! but who is observing it then? it is the spirit or our consciousness!

    i hope that answers your question!

    July 21, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
    • WhenCowsAttack

      I wouldn't disagree with you there. I certainly don't discount the possibility of some sort of afterlife- just the Biblical kind.

      Thanks for the clarification!

      July 21, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Just because you don't understand something doesn't mean you get to assign your own meaning to it.

      "I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, 'But how can it be like that?' because you will go 'down the drain' into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that." —Richard Feynman (1918-1988), American physicist

      July 21, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • MagicPanties

      Can I borrow your tinfoil hat?
      I seem to have misplaced mine.

      July 21, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
    • JimK57

      Well said Elena. Good post.

      July 21, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • Tiff

      ON POINT, Elena

      July 21, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Nothing of what you said is proof of a god or an afterlife. It is merely you assigning meaning to something that you have read about and don't really understand. It is no different than the ancient Greeks observing lightning and claiming "Zeus did it".

      July 21, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
  7. Try Logic

    One can agree with the philosophies of a person or character even if those philosophies are spake from the mouth of a fictional character. Additionally, even some of histories greatest and most hated monsters are capable of thought-provoking, valuable, and insightful passages. Stalin being an example.

    Xtians already pick and choose what parts of the bible and which religious teachings they adhere to so long as it is advantageous to them and their lifestyle. Sadly, they also conveniently shirk the accountability of their own hate, fascism, and intolerance by turning around and citing the bible for the reason they subscribe to it and would subject others to it, as if to pretend they don't have a say in the matter and are merely following the blind, ignorant doctrine of their religion.

    This in and of itself demonstrates that it is possible to follow the positive teachings of a religion while leaving behind the parts that would inflict subjective and tyrannical views on others. It is simply a shame that the majority of xtians are lacking the capacity for critical thought enough to understand this.

    If people are going to pick and choose what to believe and what not to believe, there is no excuse for abiding and allowing views that infringe on the beliefs and well being of others.

    There's nothing good in life religion brings a person that we cannot have without it.

    July 21, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  8. Gort1

    that's like asking: Can you love Led Zepplin and not like Stairway to Heaven? Yes you can, and the questions is about as relevant. Stop worshiping someone that live 5000 years ago....cmon, concentrate on the here and now...wow

    July 21, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  9. kingdomthings

    How very sad to start on an amazing journey only to end in such utter confusion. Your foundation was obviously faulty to begin with. And it wasn't Jesus who was.the faulty foundation. The Word will be our judge one day. My prayers go out to you- that you find truth...

    July 21, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      It would be impossible for him to find truth if it didn't match with your opinion, i'm guessing?

      July 21, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  10. Jesus Christ Son of God

    So I've lost my middle name and found my first name? Sheeple, I don't even exist. Wake up. If you do believe in Jesus, then listen to my command, "I don't exist. Wake up."

    July 21, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • suffer'n succatash

      Man, are you sadly mistaken!

      July 21, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  11. yeshua21

    Sometimes a myth is a story that is true on the inside whether or not it happens to be true on the outside.

    http://jeshua21.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/a-myth-is-a-story/

    (see also "Critical Reflections on Bible Based Belief Systems")

    July 21, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  12. wilams

    dear author if you say that you can be a Christian even without following Christ how could it be? what is the meaning of Christian if that so?
    Definition:
    [n] a religious person who believes Jesus is the Christ and is a member of a Christian denomination
    [adj] following the teachings or manifesting the qualities or spirit of Jesus Christ
    [adj] (religion) relating to or characteristic of Christianity; "Christian rites"

    where is the most blatant your blogs or the definition you made as say's "YOU CAN BE A CHRISTIAN EVEN WITHOUT FOLLOWING JESUS CHRIST" .... and

    why Muslim doesn't allowed to read and carry the Qur'an if you are not a MUSLIM? this is the most Blatant way ....

    July 21, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  13. Renee Marie Jones

    What is commonly called "Christianity" in the US bears no relationship to the teachings of Christ.

    July 21, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      You got that right.

      July 21, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  14. RichardSRussell

    Probably Aslan intended his t¡tle "Zealot" to refer to Jesus, but after reading his autobiographical sketch of his frantic quest to find something, ANYTHING, that he himself could plug into and devote his life to (without completely selling out his own brain in the process), I conclude that he could just as well have been describing himself. Clearly he so desperately, desperately NEEDS something bigger than himself to latch onto. This is where the zealots of the world come from — people with deep emotional insecurities. People like Mohammad Atta.

    July 21, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • Colin

      How well did YOU know mohammed atta?

      July 21, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
      • RichardSRussell

        Pick up a copy of Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer" (written in 1951 and thus much concerned with the struggle between the Communists and the Nazis in pre-WW2 Germany) for a careful dissection of the mind of the true believe in a cause much greater than himself and see if it doesn't fit Mohammad Atta's actions to a T.

        July 21, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  15. Ableza

    How about "I don't give a damn about Jesus or Christ or anything else having to do with these abusive, bigoted and exclusionary religions"? I live my life as an empathetic American, not as a member of any religious group.

    July 21, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • Lionly Lamb

      My sympathetic empathies to you...

      July 21, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
    • Cam

      If you are truly empathic as you say you are then you will know there are many good Christians as well as religious leaders. I know that all people have their problems and some problems are worse than others, but most people are good deep down, but because this world is evil they adopt bad behaviors and make mistakes. This is the reason we have Jesus Christ to allow us to repent of our ways and be forgiven of our sins.

      July 21, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
      • Ableza

        You believers make me laugh. And shake my head in sadness.

        July 21, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
  16. ????

    The true test of a Christian: read the New Testament and if the person doesn't do what Jesus taught, he might claim to be a Christian but if he's doing the exact opposite, he's anti-Christ's teaching. According to him, many of the people who are convinced that they will be 1st in his kingdom will be shut out because they oppressed the poor and were hypocritical.

    22 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

    He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

    “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

    26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

    27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

    28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

    July 21, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  17. Matt

    If only more self professed born again Christians followed the golden rule (treat others as you want to be treated) the world would be a better place. I am a catholic yet I ignore anything my church says and runs counter to that rule. If there is one thing I think we all can learn from the teachings of Jesus it is that we should hold that rule above all else when running our daily lives.

    July 21, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • Lionly Lamb

      "Treat me as you want to be treated and I will treat you likewise"...

      July 21, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
      • Tiff

        The Golden Rule is key

        July 21, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • tony

      Religion has always been about controlling other actions by trying to replace their consciences with their leaders dogma and direction.

      July 21, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  18. tony

    Never mind worrying about who or what created the Universe. What should really frightenreligious folk is "Who is god jealous of"?

    July 21, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  19. Steve-O

    The Jews have a story of Jesus also; that he was a Rabbinical student who revolted (much like the story of Luther). The whole thing with the magical powers came 100 years later.

    July 21, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  20. DocB

    HAIL SATAN! 666 HAIL SATAN!

    July 21, 2013 at 2:23 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.