The USC Office of Religious Life and USC Spectrum hosted “An Evening with Reza Aslan,” an event in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Grand Ballroom in which students were invited to a talk, book sale and book signing with Aslan as he discussed his latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Aslan is a writer and religious scholar, with degrees in religion from universities such as Santa Clara University, Harvard University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. His first book, No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, is an international bestseller. He has also written two other books, and edited two volumes. Currently, Aslan is an associate professor of creative writing at UC Riverside.
Aslan experienced a brief moment of fame this summer following an interview he did with Fox News which attracted a lot of media attention. In the interview, host Lauren Green asked Aslan why as a Muslim he would write a book about Jesus. The interview went viral, shooting Aslan’s book to the No. 1 bestseller in The New York Times for a short time.
Aslan began the event by discussing his initial, earliest association to religion when he was growing up in Iran.
“I’ve always sort of joked that I come from a family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists,” Aslan said. “We weren’t a deeply religious family… So when I came to the States, if I had just a little bit of Islam in me in Iran, now it was just wiped clean.”
Aslan said much of his clean religious slate was due to the hostility towards Iranians and Muslims in the United States during the 1980s.
“I did everything that I could to divorce myself from my heritage, my culture [and] my religion,” Aslan said.
Aslan also spoke about some of the controversial suggestions he included in his book such as his balance of Jesus in the Bible with Jesus in history. He defended his stances on these hypotheses by placing them in historical context.
“We take what little we know about [Jesus] and the world we know a lot about and we use that world to create conclusions about Jesus,” Aslan said. “Ninety-eight percent of the Jews in Jesus’ time were illiterate. The only Jews in Jesus’ time who were literate were the scribes, priests and the herodian elite — Jesus was none of these things.”
Aslan said his statement about Jesus’ illiteracy garnered a greater amount of controversy from readers than he predicted would occur.
“I, for the longest time, couldn’t understand why [people were upset],” Aslan said. “And then, two weeks ago somebody was talking about this and it hit me: Because we live in a world where the literacy rate is so high, if you are American and you can’t read and write, we believe that you are stupid.”
Aslan explained that one of the reasons he wanted to write this book was to increase interest in Jesus as a person.
“I really wanted to say [in the book that] the example that Jesus provided in how to confront social injustice, how to confront the powers and gatekeepers of salvation … that example is as resonant today as it was 2000 years ago,” Aslan said.
Many students said they enjoyed the way Aslan discussed matters of faith.
“He was a really engaging speaker just with his humor and keeping you attentive,” said Daniel Dubin, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. “I really liked how he discussed religion as a language, and how only certain people understand versus others.”
Some of the students who attended said they were first introduced to Aslan and his works after his controversial interview with Fox News.
“I first saw Aslan in the interview on Fox, and he handled it pretty amazingly well,” said Jonathan Qin, a sophomore majoring in economics. “I just thought it would be really interesting to hear him speak in person, and I saw some fliers around campus so I thought, why not?”