If you are Mormon and you read the book Rough Stone Rolling this book is sort of the equivalent of that for Christianity. Reading Rough Stone Rolling was sort of earth shattering for me. In the last ten years I've heard more and more people talk about a "crisis of faith" they are experiencing. Rough Stone Rolling started that inside of me. I thought I knew everything important to know about my religion and so I found it shocking to learn there was actually quite a bit of stuff I didn't know and quite a bit I didn't like. It puts you in a very awkward sport. That being said, I can't say I'm completely unhappy knowing. I feel like in a lot of ways it's better to not be making arguments based on faulty information. That being said, would I suggest other people read it? Well it depends on how comfortable you are knowing stuff you don't want to know, because I can guarantee you there is stuff you don't want to know. I remember very few sacrament talks, very few (I have four kids, can you blame me) but I do remember a talk where someone quoted one of the modern day apostles as having done extensive research into the life of Joseph Smith and still having a testimony of his work. The person giving the talk said something to the affect of "If it is good enough for ....then it is good enough for me." I sat there and was like, ok, sure, no biggie. But then I read Rough Stone Rolling and realized it was a whole lot bigger of a biggie than I originally thought. It made me wish that I could speak with that apostle and say, "Really you don't have a problem with any of this? I do. Does that mean there is something wrong with one of us? How can I go back to not feeling this way again?" Does that give you any idea of what knowing the truth about my own history did to me? It messed me up quite a bit and the truth is I will never be the girl who started the book. So do I recommend people read Rough Stone Rolling, maybe, maybe not. But regardless of if you ever choose to make this step you probably should refrain from ever telling the Thomas B Marsh story of the cream ever again because the truth is that story is about a lot more than cream.
Look how side track I got, but I really I felt the same way I did reading Rough Stone Rolling when I was reading The Life and Times of Jesus Christ. That feeling of sort of having the rug pulled out from under you, well I felt that anxiety again. I should point out that there is probably some bias in the book. Reza Aslan, the author, is a Muslim, although I'm pretty sure he's married into a Christian family and may have even been a practicing Christian at some point. He writes a book about the life of Jesus Christ based on the other supporting documents he can find from the time as well as sort of looking at the history of what was going on when the gospels were written and how they sort of came to be. My father-in-law says Bill O'Riley has a very similar book that I should look at called Killing Jesus. I've been hesitant about reading that one, mostly because I despise O'Riley and don't want him to have one hot little cent from my hand but maybe I'll cave if I can get it for free from the library to see if they are selling a different argument or if they stay pretty similar. In Reza's book he says these are the things that we can know for sure about Jesus. He existed. He was from Nazareth. He was a miracle worker. Reza says that regardless of how you feel about miracles, if you believe them possible or not that there is no question from all the supporting data from multiple places claims that Jesus was performing miracles, at least things recognized as miracles. He tells you that Jesus was not the only one out there doing that, claiming they were a healer or even that they were the messiah, but he says one thing that makes Jesus unique is that he healed people as part of his greater work rather than for pay. We know he was killed and Reza also says regardless of how you feel about this fact there are lots of people who say he was resurrected, an idea that may seem preposterous to unbelievers now but that people at the time were persecuted for proclaiming and continued to claim even faced with death.
Things he says we believe about Christ that are probably not true. He basically says that the nativity scene as we know it and love it as well as the story of fleeing to Egypt are probably false. He uses as supporting data for this the Roman records and histories written from that time that never mention a census being called that forces every man to return to his birth place or of a huge numbers of baby boys being killed off. Instead he argues that when the apostles wrote the gospels they were telling people that Jesus was the Messiah and so they chose some of the many prophecies that existed and said, ok he meets these requirements. Reza claims that people at the time would have known these things to be not true but would have accepted them because they were declarations of Jesus's divinity. Reza claims that Jesus was most likely John's disciple and that when John was taken to jail Jesus rose to be the new leader. His main argument is that Jesus was just as much if not more a political figure as he was a religious figure, that he was fighting against the injustices of Roman rule and the subjugation of the poor by the priestly class. He claims that the Romans probably played a greater role in the crucifixion of Jesus then we give them credit for and that their role was softened as the church left the ranks of the Jews and became it's own religion gaining popularity and converts within the Roman world. He argues that Jesus would have seen himself as a Jew and would not have separated himself off. He points out the fact that the church continued to exist as a subsection of Judaism after Jesus died under the pious leadership of Jesus's brother James. He talks about the major feud between James and Paul and there opinions on what should happen with the church and even what the basic message of Jesus Christ was. He talks about Paul being mainly an outcast of the main body of the church whose opinions only actually get to primarily shape Christianity because he was a prolific writer while most of the other apostles were illiterate as well as the fact that he happened to be in Rome when Jerusalem was sacked. He points out that it was at this very beginning in the battle between Paul and James that the battle between grace (an idea pushed forward by Paul) and works (an idea held dear by James) first came to be.
I was upset while reading this. Dr J hated my distress. He told me like he's told me many times before about things that upset me, "Obviously Reza has an agenda and you don't have to believe everything that you read. Maybe some is true, maybe some is false, no matter it is organized in a way to offer one opinion." Which is true, the man has a point. But I was bothered more by the fact that I like to think of myself as a fact oriented person and yet I'd spent so little of my religious life actually bothering to think about the pieces left behind from the time, the histories left, the facts if you will that may not entirely support the New Testament as it is written. I love Christianity. I always like to tease that is my favorite of all the Abrahamic religions but it is not a joke. The idea of a Savior, of mercy, of a call to "Love One Another" those things resonate so deeply in my soul that even writing them down makes my heart swell up within my chest. The old testament on the other hand, the laws that govern the religions of Judaism and Islam just seem so harsh to me, so inflexible to the realities of the human condition and heart. I have never been a huge fan. Christianity, the new law, the ideas of mercy and grace, they own my heart. Dr J says to me all the time that religion is an act of Faith. He says when you don't know what to believe go to the one thing you know to be true. Then expound out where you can. I teach this in my classes at church, but the truth is I was raised to think that religion was an act of Truth and I believed within my heart that religious truth should be like scientific truth, based on arguments of fact, a foundation of facts. I don't know why I believed that. Even writing it makes me feel sort of ridiculous but that is how I learned religion. "I know this church is true because..." As I grow older and I come to a point where maybe what I thought was absolute support isn't quite so steady I've seen what J means to be true. Religion is based on Faith. It is a much harder places to be. I'm sure there is a blessing to it but it can also be deeply unsettling, especially for a girl who thought she had it all figured out.
This book is well written and definitely well researched and supported. He does have an argument to make and if you don't want to hear it you will probably be uncomfortable. I should point out that there was some Fox news controversy about his qualification to write this book, which ironically pushed the book to be a best seller. Aslan's background is a bachelors of arts in religion from Santa Clara University. A Masters of Theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. A Masters of Fine Arts Degree From The University of Iowa's Writers Workshop and finally a Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology. So maybe he isn't what you would expect, but in a time where every single day I am bombarded with ridiculous Matt Wash blogs as if that man is some sort of expert in ANYTHING besides upsetting people and causing controversy worthy of a young Rush Limbaugh, Aslan certainly has the qualifications to put together a well written research paper or book and since he dedicates a 1/3 of it to actual references I think casual dismissal because his topic choice makes us uncomfortable is uncalled for. Ironically the person calling his credentials into question the Chief Religious Correspondent for Fox News, Lauren Green's, credentials are: "Miss Minnesota 1984, runner up Miss America 1985, Bachelors in Music Performance and attending graduate school in journalism". To be honest I'm pretty sure she was the wrong person to be arguing the counterpoint.