Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Aslan - Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth

Reza Aslan stirs up controversy and reflection in his latest book, “Zealot, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.” I finished this book just before the 2013 Christmas holiday and I have to admit that many of Aslan’s assertions haunted me throughout the season. His purpose in “Zealot” might most simply be characterized as tackling the inconsistencies among Biblical writers and the historical records of Jesus of Nazareth, concluding in the end that Jesus of Nazareth was more a zealot than anything else.

Much of Aslan’s analysis critiqued the role of the Jewish leaders, especially their deference to Roman dominance during the times of Jesus. He described religious leaders who perceived themselves as exceptional in all ways, based on the commandments of Yahweh of old, and committed to maintaining order and devotion among their people. There were multiple claims to being the Messiah of the Jewish people, a claim equivalent to challenging the authority of Rome. And, the label “King of the Jews” was also recognized to be a threat to the order maintained by the Jewish leaders. In Aslan’s words, “Jesus was crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered the Temple authorities.”

Aslan indicated that one of the reasons that the Bible differs from historical records is that the various authors of New Testament texts were less concerned about recording the facts than they were of revealing the truths about Jesus’ witness. He commented, “There is more accumulated historical evidence confirming Jesus’s miracles than there is regarding either his birth in Nazareth or his death at Golgotha.” Magic was widespread in Jesus’s time but the imposters who used it did so to impress and to gain favor and financial benefit. Jesus was documented to have done real miracles and he never asked for anything in return. In fact, the miracles attributed to Jesus were usually not intended as an end in themselves but were used to demonstrate a lesson that Jesus sought to teach. Jesus was not interested in having stories of his miracles touted among others – he actively discouraged his disciples from telling others but this only led to more people proclaiming the mystery of Jesus’s actions. Those who knew Jesus and observed his miracles were themselves martyred, one after another, for their unwillingness to disavow the miracles they saw.

James, brother of Jesus, was the de facto leader of Christianity after Jesus’s death and resurrection. However, the writings of James are often relegated to lower status than the other Gospels. Why? Because his message was more for the Jews, and with a zealous commitment to the teachings of the Torah, rather than to what the other apostles of the time advocated. In particular, Peter and Paul were central as the voice of Christianity in Rome, taking the message to the gentiles, which was perceived to be a more important objective at that time. Aslan proposed that neither Jesus nor James would have expected Christianity to become a separate religious group from Judaism.

The concluding pages of "Zealot" provided a compelling picture of a prophet who made an amazing statement in his own time, although not terribly different from many of the martyrs of that day. Aslan characterized Jesus as a product of his time, who challenged everything, including both Roman and Jewish leaders, and he asserted that subsequent believers in Jesus as the Messiah in many ways scrubbed the image too clean, seeking to portray a Jesus more often mild, passive, and compliant; this passive Jesus was constructed by other writers to be more comfortable to the many gentiles who were being drawn to the new religion of Christianity. The Jesus portrayed by Aslan was courageous, defiant, and subversive, the latter being the ultimate “crime” for which he would be crucified. Jesus was a threat to the political order of the time who, by challenging authorities, became a zealous activist for all those who were subjugated and oppressed. In his final reflections, Aslan concludes his historical analysis with, “Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man - is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in."

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Brown - Boys in the Boat

Capturing the bonding and development of the 1936 University of Washington 8-man crew team who won the Berlin Olympics, Boys in the Boat not only portrays a fascinating high-water point for sports in a difficult time, but it also analyzes what it takes to be a team, as well as the personal journey that many endure in life on their way to greatness.

My daughter, Darbi, was a rower during her undergraduate study at Carnegie Mellon. We went to a number, although not all, of her regattas, giving me a personal glimpse of the dedication of her team, the discipline, and endurance required by this sport. However, Brown’s description of the 1936 Olympic team moved my appreciation to an entirely different level. Honestly, rowing is perhaps one of the finest models for true transforming leadership that exists. It is a sport that requires absolute personal dedication and striving complemented by an extraordinary team that allows for all members to contribute their best to the collective effort. Any individual attempting to pull beyond his/her weight will upset the balance as quickly as any individual who falls below the potential of his/her fellows. In rowing terminology, the “swing” of the boat is an effortless, powerful, and exhilarating moment when the team is unstoppable.

Although there are 9 members to 8-man shells (adding the coxswain), and each of the members of the 1936 crew team was described in some detail, it is Joe Rantz who is the central figure in Brown’s book. Joe grew up in extremely modest circumstances, spending part of his youth in a mining town and the rest in a rural environment. He was abandoned by his father who, after Joe’s mother died, married another woman who refused to have Joe in the household. Thus, Joe grew up having to fend for himself and believing that he could never trust anyone else to care for him. Fortunately for Joe, rather than allowing neglect to result in his undoing, he pushed back in his striving to make a living and to eventually attend the University of Washington. Even while attending college, he was marginalized and ridiculed because of having to work, wearing thread-bear clothing, and not being able to join in the social experiences that were common to other students.

Joe’s struggle to achieve self-worth drove him to pursue rowing, even when for a period after his first successful year on the team, he was reduced to a less-competitive boat. Over his years on the UW crew team, the coach found 8 additional men of humble background who were able to be selfless enough to perform at their peak while still making sure others could do the same. This within a sport that is sometimes characterized as one of the most elitist of all. All of the Washington rowers who made it to be a part of the 1936 Olympics were disadvantaged by the Great Depression, by family circumstances, or misgivings about themselves. But the growing self-knowledge of crew members, coupled with respect for each other, allowed them to become one of the greatest 8-man rowing teams of all time.

The historical context for the 1936 Olympics was that Hitler was on the rise, and chose to host the Olympics as a way of staging the appearance of a progressive, modern, and tolerant country. Figures such as Goebbels, the propaganda master-mind behind Hitler, were dedicated to creating an image that would convince the world that Germany was something it was not. The Olympic teams from the United States was lucky to go at all, considering a significant boycott move. By attending, they managed to counter the deference to the Third Reich through refusing to dip the American flag during the parade of nations and most of all through their performance as athletes. The final race of the 8-man shells was manipulated by German officials to favor the German and Italian shells but this only increased the resolve of the U.S.A. tem to beat the odds and finish first.

Boys in the Boat is a touching portrayal of very common people who rise to greatness. It captures what aspiration is all about and stands as a reassurance that hard work, humility, and perseverance pay off both in personal accomplishment and in quality of life.