Reza Aslan: Lakewood is "Less a Church Than A Pyramid Scheme"

Religious studies scholar who penned bestselling book about the historical Jesus calls out Joel Osteen ahead of his visit to Houston.

By Michael Hardy September 18, 2014

Image: Malin Fezehai

Reza Aslan
Sept 19 at 7
$18 (including signed copy of Zealot)
Christ Church Cathedral
1117 Texas Ave.

Religious studies scholar Dr. Reza Aslan made international news last year after being challenged by Fox News interviewer Lauren Green on his qualifications to write Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Why would Aslan, a Muslim, want to write a book about Jesus? Green asked. After the video went viral, drawing widespread mockery of Fox News, Aslan's book shot from fourth to first on the New York Times best-seller list. To promote the release of the paperback edition of Zealot, Aslan will give a talk tomorrow night at downtown's Christ Church Cathedral. The ticketed event, with an admission price that includes a signed copy of the book, is being organized by Brazos Bookstore.  

Aslan holds an M.A. in Theological Studies from Harvard, a Ph.D. in the Sociology of Religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and serves as an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His previous books include No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, and How to Win a Cosmic War. I spoke with him by phone last week. 

Houstonia: I confess that this wasn’t a subject I had much curiosity about before, although I was raised Catholic, but your book really reignited my interest.

Aslan: You know, the best comments I’ve gotten about the book are from people like yourself. I’ve had numerous people tell me that if this was the Jesus they had learned about in church, they would still be in church.

That must be extremely rewarding for you to hear.

It is. I felt like I had two different audiences for the book—a faith-based audience that I really wanted to introduce to a new way of thinking about Jesus, but I also wanted to reach a non-faith-based audience (or an atheist audience, however you want to put it), for whom Jesus is just this mystery—everybody’s obsessed with Jesus and they can’t figure out what it is. So I wanted to say what the big deal about this guy was.

In your introduction to the book you talk about converting to evangelical Christianity before college, and say that you’d always been fascinated by Jesus. What was it that drew you to him? 

I first heard the Gospel stories when I was in high school, and it was a transformative experience for me. It is, as is often noted, the greatest story ever told, and it was one that I gravitated towards in a passionate, passionate way. When I went to university I heard a different story about Jesus, a story about the historical man and the world in which he lived. And that too was transformative, but in a different way. In fact it allowed me to have a far deeper understanding of who Jesus was, what his message was about, and it actually made me more interested in the historical man. It made him more appealing, more accessible, than the figure I had been taught about in church. So although I left Christianity, I’ve become a far more devoted follower of the historical Jesus than I ever was of the Christ of faith.

And from your perspective, you don’t see anything incompatible about being a Muslim and a follower of Jesus’s teachings?

Well, you know Muslims actually have a fairly orthodox view of Jesus. Muslims believe that he was the Messiah, that he was sinless, that he was born of a virgin, that he ascended to heaven, that he sits at the right hand of God, and will return at the end of time to judge humanity. These are all orthodox Muslim beliefs. Jesus plays a huge role in Islam. The Koran calls him the greatest prophet. Emulation of Jesus is a standard part of Muslims’ spirituality. So it’s not that weird. Now, obviously my book overturns a lot of Islamic beliefs about Jesus, but nevertheless the idea of a Muslim being motivated by Jesus’s actions, seeing Jesus as an example to follow, is fairly common.

Based on your historical research, what would you say are the biggest misconceptions about Jesus? 

We focus on the wrong things about Jesus. Most people think that what sets Jesus apart is that he declared himself to be the Messiah. Well, what we know is that many people declared themselves to be the Messiah, and most of Jesus’s contemporaries probably had a better claim to that office. Most people believe that what set Jesus apart is that he healed the sick and exorcized demons. Actually, a lot of people exorcized demons and healed the sick; what set Jesus apart is that he was doing it for free.

How has your book been received by the Christian community?

There’s an impression out there because of the Fox News thing that there has been this massive backlash from Christians, and nothing could be further from the truth. The reason the book has been such a massive bestseller is because of the faith communities. In fact I’m inundated with e-mails from Christians who tell me that the book has actually empowered their faith, that it has grounded Jesus in a reality that has only made them more certain of his divinity and his divine message. Obviously there are those evangelicals, or conservative, orthodox Christians, for whom any attempt to try to put Jesus in a historical context is, in and of itself, a heretical enterprise. After all, if Jesus is God incarnate, then what does context have to do with it? Who cares where he lived or when he lived? His actions are universal, his words are eternal. But for those who understand that, whatever else Jesus might have been, he was a man who lived in a particular time and place, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

You argue in the book that the core message of Jesus was about social egalitarianism—a concern for the poor and a near-hatred of the rich.

I think it’s crucial to understand who Jesus himself was. He was the poorest of the poor—a marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee. He really lived at the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder in the world in which he lived. It’s important to also understand that that was primarily the audience he preached to. Jesus’s ministry was almost wholly conducted in these tiny, poor villages in the Galilean countryside. It’s not like there aren’t large cities in Galilee, but Jesus never walks into one. Instead, he preaches to these tiny, poor villages—to people like him. And then when you listen to the message itself, it is a message of such profound egalitarianism, concern for the poor, a condemnation of the wealthy and powerful—the kind of message that would have been enormously appealing to this particular audience. Often when we think of Jesus’s teachings we take them out of their context and imagine them as directed to us. That’s how Christians view Jesus’s words—that he’s not speaking to a Jewish audience 2,000 years ago, he is talking to me directly. And when you think that way you divorce his words from the context, you spiritualize them. So, for instance, when Jesus says “Woe to the rich, for they have received their consolation. Woe to those who are fed, for they will go hungry. Woe to those who rejoice, for they will mourn,” I think most Christians believe that’s a kind of spiritual message that Jesus is delivering. When in reality, the audience that would have heard those words would have heard a message of social revolution.

What was the role of Paul in creating the Christ figure that we know today? You describe him traveling around the Mediterranean world, preaching to Gentiles as well as Jews, and being accepted into middle- and upper-class households.

That’s very important. Paul’s audience was not only non-Jewish, but they were of a different socio-economic persuasion than Jesus’s audience. I think that’s really the key. When Jesus died, what he left behind was a Jewish movement—a form of Judaism—for other Jews. And by all the evidence that we have available to us, for the first generation of the Christian movement, it was a Jewish movement. It was for Jews. It wasn’t that non-Jews couldn’t join. They could—they just had to become Jews first. What we see in Paul is not just a conscious effort to expand the audience for this message to non-Jews, but a real, conscious effort to divorce this movement from Judaism. Paul quite famously says Christ is the end of the Torah. The Torah is Judaism. That statement is akin to saying that Jesus wasn’t Jewish, and that this is not a Jewish movement. Although it conflicted with the first generation of Christians, and I would say it conflicted with what Jesus said about himself, if it weren’t for Paul’s teaching there would be no Christianity. It would be a tiny Jewish sect tucked away somewhere in the Middle East.

You’ve recently made some critical remarks about the so-called “prosperity gospel” movement of people like T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen. You say that their message is essentially that Jesus wants you to drive a Bentley.

That was my flippant way of putting it. This notion that salvation and economic prosperity go hand in hand can be traced all the way to the Protestant Reformation. We heard Calvinists saying something similar hundreds of years ago. What the prosperity gospel has done very successfully is revive that in this particular American context. It has transformed the Gospels into a self-help book. There is almost no difference between what Tony Robbins preaches and what Joel Osteen preaches. The only difference is that Osteen blankets his preaching in the symbols and metaphors of the Gospels. But even that, as we heard Victoria Osteen say quite honestly, is beginning to fade away, and it’s becoming nothing more than a self-help program. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just quite in contrast to the preaching of Jesus, who was unconditional and uncompromising in his condemnation of wealth. It wasn’t a metaphor of Jesus, it was a very real thing. He lived in a deeply stratified society in which the gap between the extremely rich and extremely poor was immense—I would say about as immense as it currently is in the United States. And his preaching of liberation was not just about a spiritual liberation, it was about social liberation. And so the idea that you could transform Jesus’s teaching into an appeal for material wealth is astounding to me. And the fact that it’s been as successful as it has been is a testament to not just the malleability of the Gospels, but the way in which American capitalism and corporate greed has become a new kind of spirituality. This is about as far from the message that the historical Jesus preached as one can get. It’s less a church than a pyramid scheme.

Recently a man was thrown out of the Lakewood Church bookstore for throwing books around and reciting the Gospel verses about Jesus turning the moneychangers out of the temple. And I’ve heard that Lakewood doesn’t supply Bibles in the pews—you have to bring or buy your own. It’s BYOB. I’ve never in my life been to a church that didn’t have Bibles in the pews.

I hadn’t heard that. What Osteen preaches is actually not a lot different from what you hear in other churches. But whereas other churches teach the lines “For those that give, they will be given back 10-fold” as a metaphor, Osteen means that if you give him $10 you will get $100 back. That’s a straight-up pyramid scheme. And how he has been able to pull the wool over the eyes of so many Christians speaks less of his abilities—anyone can deliver that message—it’s an indication of the enormous desire that so many Christians have in the United States to be a part of this urge towards capitalism, the accumulation of wealth. But if there’s one thing that you can be certain about when it comes to the historical Jesus, it was precisely the accumulation of wealth that he preached against.

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