Author profile: Aslan ponders the divine in book

Peter Konerko

Reza Aslan, religion scholar and Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, will participate in a question-and-answer session Thursday in Iowa City.
Peter Konerko Reza Aslan, religion scholar and Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, will participate in a question-and-answer session Thursday in Iowa City.

Reza Aslan is many things — an academic scholar of religions; a professor of creative writing; a TV producer; a television personality — but above all else he is a storyteller.

“Religion is storytelling — that’s what it is. Politics is storytelling,” Aslan explained in a recent phone interview. “These are the stories we tell ourselves and each other in order to make sense of the world. If you’re going to go into religion or politics, and you don’t know how to tell a story, you’re not going to be successful.”

Since graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Aslan has written four very successful books on religion, including “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” which was a New York Times best-seller.

In his newest book, “God: A Human History,” Aslan presents both a history of humans’ relationship with the divine as well as an argument for why believers and nonbelievers should critically examine the ways we humanize God.

“When you construct a God who is basically a reflection of yourself, it becomes pretty easy to create a connection or relationship with that God. Because you’re basically just creating a version of yourself. No wonder you love this God — it’s just you!”

Considering God as buddy, someone easy to connect with, has its appeals, Aslan recognizes. But there’s a danger to this perspective.

“We essentially create a god that is a reflection of ourselves: a god who looks and feels and acts and thinks just like we do …. essentially a super human being but with human emotions and foibles. And we create our societies and our religions based on that idea of god which is just, ourselves.”

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“And then we wonder why the religions and societies that we build are capable of such good and evil. The answer to that is simple: they are a reflection of ourselves and who we are. That more than anything else explains why there are such great conflicts and why religion has been such a force for good and for bad. Because essentially everything that’s good or bad about our religion is nothing more than what’s good or bad about us.”

A more fruitful consideration, Aslan argued, is to start thinking about God in more pantheistic terms — that is, as the animated force of the universe.

“Then it makes it that much harder for us to either dehumanize each other or to exploit or abuse nature. Because if you see these things as God, and if you claim to want to experience and know God, then you have to treat these things with the same reference that you would give to the divine.”

One of the challenges with adopting this perspective, Aslan noted, is “it does away with the religious differences that divide us. Because once you start realizing that all things and all people are God, well — then your particular ways to absolute truth don’t really hold up any longer. And that’s another thing that’s very hard to get people to break out of.”

And while each religion has different traditions and doctrines, Aslan believes conversations about faith can be reframed to focus on what unite us instead of divide us.

“I do think that religious literacy — learning about the different religions of the world and the ways in which they answer these gigantic questions about life and the universe and the meaning of everything — it’s important. At the same time, however, I always encourage people to get past the religion part and instead focus on the values that you all hold in common.”

“If you’re Muslim or Jewish or Christian sitting around a Thanksgiving table, you could spend the entire evening talking about your different religions and maybe some kind of some measure of understanding can arise from that. But I think it’s much more fruitful to instead have a conversation about the values you all hold in common with each other. Because those values are a lot more similar than you think they are, and they too often get buried by our religions.”

These large, philosophical ideas are too often buried in dense, academic language, making them inaccessible to the general public. But “God: A Human History” reads like a conversation with a close friend who happens to know a great deal about religious thought.

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And while Aslan is an academic — he has a Bachelor of Arts in religious studies from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University, and a Ph.D. in sociology from UC-Santa Barbara — his time as a Truman Capote fellow in Fiction at Iowa Writers’ Workshop changed his writing style.

“I think part of the reason why I’ve had the success that I’ve had is precisely because I’ve been able to transform these complicated religious and sociological and anthropological issues into a story that allows people to access and understand the complex academic ideas.”

Aslan hopes others will join this conversation when he returns to Iowa City for a reading at 7 p.m. Thursday at the First United Methodist Church in Iowa City. The event will be hosted by Charity Nebbe. Tickets are required and can be purchased by calling or visiting Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City.

Aslan will discuss some of the major themes of the book and the event will have a question and answer portion, which is Aslan’s favorite part.

“This is such a gigantic topic. I always want the audience to direct where we go,” he said.

“It’s my third time coming back, and I’m really excited. It always feels like a homecoming to me.”

Author talk

l What: Reza Aslan will discuss his book “God: A Human History”

l When: 7 p.m. Dec. 7

l Where: First United Methodist Church of Iowa City, 214 E. Jefferson St., Iowa City

l Cost: $28 available through Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.,Iowa City, or (319) 337-2681

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