I’ve decided that it’s time I need a bit of intellectual stimulation and so I returned to my academic roots and decided to pick up a copy of Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The book is written by Reza Azlan, scholar of religious studies and professor of creative writing at University of California, Riverside.
The promotion of book was a master piece in public relations. Professor Aslan got himself interviewed on Fox News and ended up making Lauren Green, his interviewer look like an ignorant child. Ms. Green played into Professor Aslan’s hands by constantly harping on why a Muslim would write about the life and times of the Founder of Christianity. The more she harped on about the fact he was a Muslim, the more he talked about his academic credentials. The result was an instant success for the good professor and the book became an instant best seller. The interview can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jt1cOnNrY5s&spfreload=10.
I’ve enjoyed reading the book. It’s brought back memories of what I used to do at A-Level and was expected to do at university. He’s delved into things like “Source Q” and talked about the link between the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Mathew and Luke). At times, the book does sound simplistic in that its premise is started as the one and only. However, on the whole, the book lays out a thought provoking idea.
The professor’s argument is simple – when we look at the life and times of Jesus or at least the Jesus of history (the man who lived) in the context of his times. When you look at him in the context of his time rather as a spokesman of a “religious” message, the picture of who Jesus was becomes rather interesting. The professor argues that Jesus was not the “pacifist” who came to unite the world in a peaceful, loving embrace. He was, if you look at him in the context of his time, a radical and revolutionary who hopped to overthrow the established order of the day.
Jesus, as Professor Aslan notes, lived in a time of great social inequality. Jesus was a rough and barely literate peasant who lived in a society where people like him existed to serve the powers that be – which in this case was the Jewish Priesthood and the Roman Empire, which supported them. There was, in his day, extreme poverty for the masses and the “chosen” few lived a life of luxury at the expense of the masses.
When you look at Jesus in this context, everything Jesus said was a dangerous and political message to the established order of the day. Professor Aslan argues that Christian messages like “the meek shall inherit the earth,” were powerful political messages to those who held power – it was a warning that God would make the poor and weak into the strong and blessed, whereas those in power (the strong and rich) were about to get their comeuppance by God. If you were to bring this argument into the modern context, Jesus was a revolutionary figure akin to the great Communist leaders like Mao or Lenin.
When you look at this argument, you got to start thinking – would Jesus, the revolutionary described by Reza Aslan, exist in the modern world.
I think of the little City State where I’ve lived for the past decade – Singapore. This little city state has become a beacon of modern success. We are consistently nominated as the best place on the planet to do business. Everyone who moves to Singapore praises the country as the ideal place to make vast amounts of money.
While that’s true, I can’t help but notice that our society is developing many of the things that Professor Aslan described in Jesus’s day. We are, for a start, becoming an exceedingly unequal society. If one looks at the Gini co-efficient, it leads to the view that wealth in Singapore is concentrated in very few hands. We have the world’s highest paid ministers and we are increasingly becoming the preferred home for the world’s billionaires. However, if one walks the streets of Singapore, one cannot escape the fact that there are people who are sleeping on the streets and people who barely have enough to eat.
In Jesus’s day, the centre of life revolved around a rather opulent temple, which was run by a select and wealthy group of priest. Back then, there was only one religion. In Singapore we have a growing number of opulent religious buildings. Ironically, many of them are run by churches, headed by charismatic leaders who claim to have a special relationship with God.
Religion is business. Interestingly enough, this was also the case when Jesus walked the earth.
Professor Aslan points out that it wasn’t uncommon for people to make a career as exorcist, healers and men of God. He argues that what made Jesus different from the rest was the fact that he provided services (healing etc) free of charge. Interestingly enough, if one looks at the way “religious enterprises” work, you’ll find that they charge for certain services – one only has to look at the fund raising powers of the likes of the New Creation Church (S$21 million in 24 hours).
Our modern society is seeing the conditions that existed in Jesus’s day. So, the question is, would Jesus gain the traction that he did, had he been around today?
I worry that the answer, especially in Asian societies is no. Somehow, the concept of gathering as much for yourself as possible has become psychologically ingrained in us as being part of “success through merit.”
Furthermore, if one looks at Singapore as an example, the powers that be have given the general population such a stake in society that few would entertain the idea of overthrowing the established order.
Ironically, the churches like New Creation and City Harvest thrive on this. Jesus’s message has been repackaged as a means to find salvation in the current social order rather than a means of bringing about a new social order. I remember the Pretend Girlfriend with No Benefits bringing me to one of New Creation’s sermons. The Pastor spent a good amount of time talking about how prayer would lead to prosperity rather than a redistribution of it.
To be fair, to the Churches, Eastern Religions can’t escape the idea of prayer for prosperity. Huong, my better half, tells me in moments of affection that she’ll pray for my business prosperity.
Religion and God have become part of the established order and people who preach a message otherwise, are cast out as dangerous radicals. I worry that if Jesus were to step into a society like Singapore’s, he’d be arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for being a dangerous radical. If anything, we’d crucify him before he got the chance to give the Sermon on the Mount.
I’m older now and I guess I’m less inclined to think that the only purpose of the established order is to be fought. However, I worry that we are becoming increasingly focused on preserving the status quo and our role in it that we have lost focus on the fact that God might have wanted us to disrupt it and make it better for us.