Reza Aslan | The Other Book

Reza Aslan | The Other Book

Handling Artifacts | unearthing Christian-Muslim engagement

Like a review, only less standard-issue, Handling Artifacts comes as an occasional, reflective post. Here, I attempt to place my unholy hands on an artifact from the inter-religious or intercultural landscape on which Christians and Muslims interact—with history's textured and tortured currents behind us and the modern, urgent moment before us.

The artifact might be a novel or a film, podcast or video, essay or album, artwork or architecture, article or poem. You get the idea. Join me in the finding.


Handling Artifacts

Book Review

Terroir-ist: How Geography, Geology and Climate Are Threatening to Make Wine, by Reza Aslan


What are we to make of the religious scholar/scholar of religions/fantastically creative writer on religion Reza Aslan, who dared—as a Muslim!—to inquire into Jesus, to write about him, and, then, to give an interview on Fox News (bastion of Muslim friendliness) that has been widely and excruciatingly parsed for any number of reasons: namely, academic posturing; the role of a person’s religious identity and his or her arena of scholarly study; more generally, faith and scholarship, including the fool's errand of intellectual objectivity; and, of course, the significance of privilege?

Naturally, the Reza mash-up is what it is. (See: the end of this post.)

The lingering question is: In a world with Syria and Egypt, extreme poverty and global warming, Neymar’s first year at Barcelona, Kanye’s summer record (called: “Yeezus”), this cat’s not surprising existential crisis, and the concluding episodes of MasterChef: Season 4, are some of us in grave danger of getting ourselves too carried away with this Reza fellow?

I say: No, we are not.

Terroir is everything.

Terroir is everything.

I say this mostly because Reza has written yet another provocative book. It’s true. Not the book, of course; that’s much harder to determine. I mean, that he’s written such a thing commonly referred to as a book. These creative nonfiction writers! They cannot be stopped—especially if they have 4 academic degrees.

However, I would submit: this book is, by far, the more provocative book. On its title alone: Terroir-ist: How Geography, Geology and Climate Are Threatening to Make Wine. You can only imagine what he discusses in the book. And can you even imagine a world threatened with more wine? I know. But to quote John Lennon: “It’s easy, if you try.”

Not that I could tell you anything about the book. (Here is where I reveal a huge secret: I have not read the book.) And I am not alone. In fact, the book is not on anyone’s radar—religious or otherwise—which makes it an astounding literary achievement and an amazing publicity feat given the pervasive realities of that thing Al Gore invented, that thing Mark Zuckerberg at least partially invented, and the irrepressible Twittersphere.

Sadly, or surreptitiously, the publication date for Terroir-ist is very much up in the air, which, if you ask me, is the very definition of dramatic irony and even regular irony (you know, because of terroir). Perhaps the interminable war on terroir is delaying the book’s release. Or it simply could be that the book is awaiting a jacket blurb from this zealot, who has called terroir “rubbish,” which, I happen to think, unbiasedly, is rubbish—so there.

Malcolm Gluck

Malcolm Gluck

Anyway, interestingly enough, a day or two ago I received an exclusive manuscript of the book after personally writing Reza. I described my story.

I said that I had once “seen” Iran from a distance, across the Gulf of Oman, in 2012, while studying Christian-Muslim relations in Oman as a visiting scholar. In truth, I was only a graduate student, taking one travel-study course in Oman, which at times felt scholarly and at other times merely felt as if I was tasting qawha, smelling frankincense, and staring off into the vast oil-carrying mysteries of the gulf.

I also told Reza about my life-altering encounter, at 30, in Oregon, on a friend’s back patio, with an Indian Wells merlot from Chateau St. Michelle. (Thank you, Ryan.) But to be entirely forthcoming, I believe the cheeses and breads influenced my experience with wine on that unforgettable night. Not to mention the exquisite early autumn evenings in Oregon. Not to mention the select company of friends. Notwithstanding, I will persist in parroting this jaded mantra, which has been passed along to me through a quasi-reputable tradition: We must separate the wine produced by the winemaker and bottled by the winemaker from the wine poured out of the bottle and consumed by unsuspecting enthusiasts.

It sounds a trifle arrogant, I know, but I don’t expect everyone to understand what I’m talking about. Or anyone, for that matter. I make the above claim, in fact, only as a person with 2.3 academic degrees. Historically speaking, the degrees don’t have anything to do with wine or terroir, although I did spend the better part of a week in a New Testament exegesis class (toward a Master of Divinity) arguing about whether or not the wine that Jesus drank was fermented to the same alcohol levels as, say, a modern Bordeaux.  Additionally, I could list the numerous other states—I’m referring here to U.S. states as well as various states of being—in which I’ve imbibed wine, sometimes on back patios, less often in wine bars, and more often on a couch decompressing from the serious toil of parenting three children.

Finally, and I think this mattered a lot to Reza, in my letter I mentioned that I very much appreciated his cultural stroke of mad ingenuity. I said it just like that: "cultural stroke of mad ingenuity." My appreciation—I made a point of emphasizing—will stand in direct contrast to some of my reflexively mean American evangelical tribesmen. (Realistically, though, many of these people either have never tasted wine or do not know how to hold their wine. Only a few of them provide actual wine when their communities celebrate the Eucharist/Lord’s Table/Communion. Reza was not aware of this.)

To generate this kind of publicity on an old subject—wine!—a subject not only exceedingly strange for a pious Muslim to be writing a book about but also one that has received hardly any treatment whatsoever in the food-and-beverage industry, well, it is, if anything, nothing short of admirable. As everyone surely knows, most everyone already agrees harmoniously about the exact range of characteristics that make for a good wine. After all, even Galileo, the Science Zealot, famously mused: “Wine is sunlight, held together by water” I dare you to get your mind around that formulation. This may or may not help...



Well, I’m off to read the manuscript of Reza’s Terroir-ist: How Climate, Geology and Geography Are Threatening to Make Wine. I'll let you know what I think in due time. For now, I quote Beck: “Things are going to change, I can feel it.”

By the way, I’m hoping to pair this reading with an earthy, spicy wine—perhaps a Rhone. For some of you, these matters have become quite divine.

In vino veritas!

Regarding the actual book—Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth—you can read Reza, in his own words, on CNN. In the context of his personal story with faith and religion, he attempts to demarcate the Jesus from the Christ. At the end of the day, Ricky Bobby’s well-known demarcation is still probably more cut-and-dry.

Equally fascinating, however, is this interview on Arsalan Iftikhar’s website, where, in a quick turn, Reza calls some of the matters he discusses in his book “equally matters of faith as they are matters of history.” This is helpful, if not unhelpful—which is why it’s so equally fascinating.

Furthermore, by Reza’s admission, this spiritual hubbub in his soul—not to mention, the intellectual hubbub—is to be blamed primarily on one book. (Hint: It’s not about Jesus; it is about Jesus.)

As for redeeming conversations surrounding the book/interview/Reza, from my perspective I think Greg Carey’s response in the Huffington Post maintains a hospitable tone all the while offering a short but substantial, and constructively critical, interaction with the actual book. Though brief, Adam Hollowell’s post at State of Formation contributes the rather significant talking-point involving, let’s say, a pot calling a kettle:

Aslan seeks to 'purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes,' even as those same flourishes define his work. It is a literary flourish to write, 'The gospels are not about a man known as Jesus of Nazareth who lived two thousand years ago,' especially when you are using those very gospels to construct your 'far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history.' It is a theological flourish to write, 'For those who view Jesus as the literally begotten son of God, Jesus’s Jewishness is immaterial,' especially when N.T. Wright is among those listed in your bibliography.

Meanwhile, on the community of believers who came to see Jesus and his mission in a certain light, John Ortberg says: “There’s very little evidence that Jesus has a radically different teaching than what the early church believed. I think it is difficult to argue that Jesus saw himself as a political zealot messiah.” On Reza’s religious identity as a Muslim, obviously it cannot be a non-factor. Perhaps Stephen Prothero’s assessment is spot on: Reza’s Jesus comes off as a failed version of Muhammad. Yet, almost paradoxically, in not denying the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion Reza’s failed version goes against the orthodox grain of Islam.

I suppose Stuart Kelly’s review in The Guardian puts a tidy bow on things by putting the British-styled scathe in scathing. He compares Reza’s book to Jesus Christ Superstar, describes his placement of Jesus in the Jewish insurrection tradition as describing the wood while managing to miss the tree, and concludes that: “[His book] seems, in its overstatements and oversights, to yearn for the very kind of furore in which it is now embroiled.”

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