'God: A Human History', by Reza Aslan - Review

By Waugh, Alexander | The Spectator, November 4, 2017 | Go to article overview

'God: A Human History', by Reza Aslan - Review


Waugh, Alexander, The Spectator


Do not fear God, Reza Aslan tells us. You are God. But preaching this form of pantheism can be dangerous, warns Alexander Waugh

Eating human brains, burying one's face in dead people's ashes and publicly deriding the president of the United States as a 'piece of shit' are not among the activities usually associated with serious religious historians. But Reza Aslan is something else. An American academic born in Iran, brought up as a Muslim, converted to Jesus by the Jesuits and back to Islam through his own free will, he came to prominence following an interview on Fox TV to promote his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013). He was repeatedly asked how being a Muslim qualified him to write about Jesus, to which he responded by listing in pushful, indignant tones all his academic credentials.

He claimed to be a 'historian' (which strictly he isn't); a 'professor of religion' (he is actually a professor of creative writing) and a 'PhD in the history of religions' (when actually he is a doctor of sociology). This interview, which reflected badly on both participants, went viral on YouTube under the title 'The most embarrassing Fox News interview ever', and in consequence, Aslan's Zealot became a bestseller.

The excitement generated by the video, together with Aslan's boyish good looks, led to his fronting a six-part religious series on CNN, called Believer, in which he ate the aforementioned brains, smothered himself with the char, and from which he was sacked for tweeting derogatively about Donald Trump.

Each episode featured the sensational and disgusting practices of fringe groups connected to Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism, which, unsurprisingly, offended mainstream Hindus, Christians and Jews who did not care to be associated in the public mind with their pee-drinking, brain-eating, death-worshipping sub-sects. No discreditable customs of any Muslim sub-sect were shown. Since Aslan has elsewhere gone out of his way to dismiss Islamic terrorism as less of a problem than 'faulty furniture'; has described jihadism as a mere 'pop culture'; and has denied any link between the Islamic religion and female genital mutilation, he soon found (no doubt to his delight) that he had sharply divided America's liberal progressive movement. On the one hand, he was lauded for his defence of Johnny Muslim against the odious advances of populist bigotry; on the other, he was accused of failing to protect human rights and global peace by diverting attention from the obvious threats posed by the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

Aslan explained that the purpose of his Believer series was to reveal to the world how everyone is 'the same'. His detractors interpreted this to mean that Christians, Jews and Hindus should stop complaining about the unappealing practices of Muslims because there are people doing equally appalling things in the name of their religions too.

All this is useful background to anyone intending to read God, a brief and lively history of the development of the God-like type over 12 millennia. Aslan writes in clear, concise and attractive English. He is intelligent and has an uncommon ability both to marshal and contextualise seemingly random facts, and is skilful at condensing complex ideas into short, effortless paragraphs. But despite his claims to high scholarship, he is at heart a popular historian. Even his end-notes are fun.

The surface message of his book is simple. He repudiates the 'humanisation of God', by which he means man's historical desire to portray him in his own image --to give him a face, eyes, hair, hands, feet, a tongue, lips, even a womb (Job 38:29) and bowels (Jeremiah 31:20). The 'Odes of Solomon' describe God with milk-filled breasts: 'The Father is he who was milked, and the holy Spirit is she who milked him'; while the ancient Jewish Hekhalot gives precise measurements of the space between God's thighs and his neck, revealing that from head to toe he is 1. …

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