Thursday, May 7, 2015

‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ (Book Review)

The amount of scholarly research on Jesus Christ is mindboggling. So I can easily appreciate an author’s efforts to synthesize a lot of information into something suitable for mass consumption. In other words, an easy read. And who better to write such a book than Reza Aslan, a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside with degrees in Religion? Aslan knows how to weave layers of complexity together yet never lose track of his aim to tell an engaging (if rather irreverent) story, as No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, his work on Muhammad and Islam, attests. His latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013), continues in the same vein, reimagining the one Christians call “Lord” as not merely as illiterate peasant and spiritual teacher, but as a political revolutionary.

Now a number of authors have sought to associate the “historical Jesus” with the Pharisees; others with the Essenes. So it’s really no surprise that someone is now suggesting the Zealots. After all, as Aslan spends much of his book pointing out, many messianic claimants of the 1st century were calling for a violent overthrow of the oppressive Roman government and the punishment of crucifixion was greatly associated with the crime of sedition. With these two key arguments, along with some supporting evidence from the Gospels, it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to convince a reader that Jesus of Nazareth, filled with zeal for God like the ancient Israelite leaders, founded a movement that sought to wipe the Promised Land clean of a pagan foreign power with the same fervor that he wiped clean God’s Temple of the moneychangers. It makes for an interesting and plausible story. However, there is far more that Aslan is leaving out of his neat little narrative.

While the story told in Zealot is built on ancient histories, biblical passages, and modern scholarship, readers may notice that Aslan engages in some blatant proof-texting in order to make his point. He accepts what he wants to accept at face value, and dismisses or outright ignores anything that might suggest a contrary view. The Gospels are accurate and trustworthy only when it suits him. That is, we can believe in a whip-wielding messiah and his sword-wielding disciples because that is consistent with zealotry, but not in a message of turning the other cheek or preaching to all nations.

Aslan’s not any kinder when it comes to modern scholars. Much of what he says is commonly accepted as the “mainstream view” of the life of Christ. Yet Aslan often gives a sense of finality to his claims that scholars as a rule try to avoid, and opposing views, when he cares to mention them, are not always thoroughly cited. For example, John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography is enlisted as an ally when Aslan wants to argue against the commonly-held eschatological view of the “Kingdom of God.” However, when discussing the purpose of John’s baptism, Crossan’s reasons – given in the exact same book - for questioning the reliability of Josephus, the Jewish historian who defected to the Romans, are never mentioned. It seems that Aslan is willfully misleading his readers, working overtime to create the impression that his views make up the consensus and face very little opposition.

Now I don’t want to discourage you from taking a look at the book. While I would caution against putting too much stock in Aslan’s claims, I think that reading Zealot does have its value. Aslan brings 1st century Judea with all its political and religious conflicts to life, summarizing hundreds of years of scholarly research and archeological discoveries in a few hundred pages. For a Christian, this can help clarify the Gospels’ context. While many people might intend to read up on these subjects, too often scholarly books and articles, like those listed in Aslan’s bibliography, can appear rather intimidating or just too time consuming at first glance. Something more readable like Zealot could make a good starting point for learning more about the “historical Jesus” and the time period in which he lived.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

‘The Oklahoma Gamblin’ Man’ (Book Review)

While we might associate the gangster era with big names like Al Capone and big cities like Chicago, there were, of course, small-time country hoodlums as well. Oklahoma’s Rex Albert Tanner was one of them, and his son, musician Gary Rex Tanner, has captured his adventures and misadventures in a colorful biography titled The Oklahoma Gamblin’ Man (Two Little Frogs Publishing, 2014).

Born July 4, 1913, Rex Tanner was a bit of a trouble-making kid who developed a knack for gambling. This, we might say unsurprisingly, led to a life of bar fights, clashes with the law, and run-ins with more dangerous criminals. Eventually, Rex moved to California for work – joining the “Okie” migration without really even being aware of it – and later settled down and opened a plumber business.

Gary Tanner doesn’t pretend to be a historian writing a well-cited academic tome. Rather, the book is a compilation of the father’s stories as son remembers them with photos, newspaper clippings, and original song lyrics interspersed throughout. That means a lot of holes and repetition. This format can make it difficult to see the story unfold or to understand it in the broader context of America’s early to mid-20th century. However, it still creates a highly personable read. The dialogue boasts slang; the narration a light casual tone. You can almost hear Rex Tanner laughing as he tells one story after another. The foul language and racism can be a little off-putting, but I was glad that Gary Tanner didn’t try to sanitize it in order to present the characters in a more palatable way. While it does have its flaws, The Oklahoma Gamblin’ Man is a sweet tribute to an earlier generation.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book and music CD through Bostick Communications. There was no obligation to write a favorable review.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

‘God’s Indemnity’ (Book Review)

Many Christians are eagerly waiting for Jesus’ return. I’ve lived through a few predictions about when this was to have occurred, and I have heard a few more dates offered that are still in the future. But I’d never heard anyone before suggest 2017 was the magic number. So with my curiosity aroused, I read Cheryl Williams’ God’s Indemnity: Would 2017 Find You SCALPED or Fully Covered? (Outskirts Press, 2015).

The book wasn’t what I was expecting. The author’s intent is not to provide a succinct theological argument for Christ coming in 2017…or even “soon.” There isn’t the lengthy analysis of Matthew 24 or numerological calculations based on the Book of Revelation that we associate with authors like Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye. While Williams does see signs of the times in the ebola outbreak and the rise of ISIS, her belief rests more on gut feelings and interpretations of her own dreams. She takes Jesus’ imminent coming as a fact, and says that that fact needs to be in the forefront of people’s minds so that they will repent of their sins in time. (That’s where the SCALPED acronym comes in.)

While Williams might intend to get readers fired up about Jesus’ second coming, I suspect that it will have an opposite effect. She acknowledges that people are disillusioned by nearly two thousand years of expectation, yet she doesn’t provide any real basis for hope in her own prediction, which I’d say is vital for the success of her book. While that author never explicitly self-identifies as a Seventh-Day Adventist, the tell-tale signs are all there: Sabbath (Saturday) observance. Creation versus evolution. Even a comment about Pope Francis that seems to attack him directly instead of the Roman Catholic doctrine in question. (But she refrains from calling him the Antichrist.) As someone obviously coming from some sort of Millerite background with its history of failed predictions, she needs to put more effort into defending her date if she hopes to convince anyone.

I think God’s Indemnity represents a lot of hopes and dreams for the author, but it ultimately proves only to be an unfulfilling read. Even aside from the theological issues, there’s a general need for editing and thoughtful reconsideration of many subpoints. There’s also a problem with the term “indemnity” (i.e., insurance). Williams’ use of it apparently stems from a confusion with “assurance.” The book certainly discusses “assurance” in God, but I can’t say it discussed “insurance” at all. And if God told her in a dream to title it God’s Indemnity, then He would’ve meant the latter.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Bostick Communications. There was no obligation to write a favorable review.