We hear a lot these days about Armageddon, the Apocalypse, the Rapture, End Times. More than a current cultural phenomenon, they appear to be a persuasive motivating force for millions of Americans. These words are now part of our vocabulary, and as metaphors, they show up all over the map — Carmageddon as the nickname for the I-405’s weekend closure in July 2011.
But, where do they come from? As many of you may know, they come from the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Christian New Testament. But how did they get there? Who wrote this? What does it mean?
This week’s guest, religious scholar ELAINE PAGELS, author of The Gnostic Gospels, considers the Book of Revelation to be wartime literature. She points out that it was written by a Jew following Rome’s resounding defeat of a Jewish uprising, and interprets it as an attack on the decadence of the Empire. Soon, however, a new sect known as “Christians” seized on it as a weapon against heresy and infidels of all kinds. I believe that weapon is still active today in American culture and politics.
We’ll talk about Revelations, and we’ll talk a bit about the Gnostic Gospels and the over 50 texts discovered hidden and preserved in Nag Hammadi Egypt in 1945. And about the impact of politics and culture on religion, highlighted by the moment when Constantine converted to the Church of Rome. Christianity went from being the religion of outsiders and freethinkers, to being the religion of the Empire. And we’ll talk about how all of this plays out today in the US and around the world.
Last summer author and scholar of religions REZA ASLAN came out with a book that utilized a great deal of historical research to give readers a sense of the man, Jesus of Nazareth. ASLAN had taken on a similar task seven years earlier with his first book NO GOD BUT GOD, in which he tells the story of Mohammed. But the problem for some folks this time around is that Reza Aslan is a Muslim. In an interview that has been viewed at least a million and a half times on YouTube, Lauren Green of Fox News demanded to know, “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” – and that interview sent Aslan’s book, ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, to the top of best-seller lists for weeks.
REZA ASLAN has been a guest on Free Forum a number of times in the past, and I’m happy to welcome him back again, to talk a bit about the reaction, but much more about the content and meaning of his book. He examines Jesus through the lens of the time and place in which he lived, first-century Palestine, and labels him in the book’s title, a zealot – a radical political opponent of the Roman occupation. Because Jesus was crucified without overthrowing Roman rule, he is one of many failed messiahs. But why did this particular failed messiah become the starting point of one of the world’s great religions, wielding enormous influence over two thousand years later among more people than even existed during his lifetime?