December 31, 2013

Fame, fury follow ‘Zealot’ author

The book, which portrays Jesus as an angry rebel, has propelled Reza Aslan into a life as an Internet-era public intellectual who has a movie deal and is a social media regular.

By Hector Tobar
Los Anglese Times

Reza Aslan began 2013 as an academic teaching creative writing at UC Riverside. In the summer, he published the book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” and everything changed. Now Aslan is ending his wild year with a movie deal for “Zealot” as well as writing a pilot for cable TV network FX, running the “transmedia” company Boomgen Studios, working on a novel – and trying to craft the next episode in his unorthodox life as an Internet-era public intellectual.

“Zealot,” which portrayed Jesus not as a divine being but as an angry rebel, had already hit bestseller lists before an interview Aslan did with Fox News made him a viral video star. Asked repeatedly by the Fox host why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus, Aslan sounded like a reasoned professor: “I am a scholar of religions. ... It’s my job as an academic.”

Buzzfeed posted a video of the awkward encounter with the headline, “Is This the Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?” The clip quickly shot across the Internet.

As one of the country’s most prominent Muslim thinkers, the 41-year-old Aslan is often invited to publicly talk about religion, politics and cultural identity. But his ambitions go far beyond the ivory tower.

Aslan lives in Hollywood, in a 1,500-square-foot cottage with hardwood floors in the shadow of the Magic Castle. He shares his home with his wife, Jessica Jackley, an Internet crowd-funding pioneer, and their twin toddler boys.

“No hair pulling!” Aslan tells one of the boys as they grapple each other in the homey living room.

When Aslan was 7, his parents fled Iran in the wake of the Islamic revolution, settling the family in San Jose. In the U.S., the Iranian hostage crisis made all things and people Iranian vastly unpopular. Aslan, with his foreign sounding name and umber complexion, had a hard time.

At 15, he was invited to a summer camp hosted by the evangelical Christian group Young Life and converted to Christianity. “I burned with the fire of God,” he says. He even managed to convert his mother.

When he arrived at Santa Clara University in 1992, he chose to study the life of Jesus. “He was not just smart, there was a great entrepreneurial spirit in him,” says Father Paul G. Crowley, a professor at Santa Clara, remembering Aslan’s days as an undergraduate at the Jesuit college.

Aslan had an epiphany, however, when presented with a basic fact of biblical scholarship: When Jesus called himself the Messiah, he had a specific Jewish idea in mind. In Jewish thought, he could never be a divine being.

“I had a spiritual breakdown,” Aslan says, and he converted back to Islam. “I became angry and bitter, and felt I had been duped in some way.”

He earned a master’s degree in theological studies at the Harvard Divinity School, but he felt he didn’t quite fit in there, ending up next at the prestigious Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

When the novel he wrote there didn’t sell, he proposed to his agent a work that explained Muhammad to American readers. That book became “No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.” It made him a fixture on cable talk shows, asked often to comment on events in the post-9/11 Muslim world.

Aslan went on to get his doctorate at UC Santa Barbara’s interdisciplinary program in religious studies, earning a degree in sociology. He arrived at his seminars “ready for a fight” and “with knives sharpened” while discussing other scholars and their work, a professor there remembers. His dissertation applied notions of “social movement theory,” which seeks to explain how people arrive at collective actions, to the jihadist movements in the Muslim world, says his adviser, Mark Juergensmeyer.

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