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Last night I went to see and hear Reza Aslan part of the CIIS series: Great Minds Speaking on Provocative Subjects, at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley. I made the mistake of sitting in the first row. I’m very glad I did, even though the sound system in that church is located forty feet above the stage above and projects overhead, sending back a weird echo and no bass tones, so all of the commentator’s words and most of Reza’s were mostly unheard, especially the quips, followed by laughter. Next time I’ll sit further back.

Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan

In the question period, a woman asked him about the difference between “truth” and “history.” He leaned forward and spoke slowly and clearly. He mentioned a gospel and an example: one day a poor man came to the house of  — and asked for alms. The man who had a house had nothing else, so he gave him his shirt. That, Reza pointed out, is a generosity story to illustrate a quality.  No one who read that gospel saw that as news reporting.  There are many “one day Jesus…” gospel stories. Some contradict each other. As Reza writes: “none of the gospels we have were written by the person after whom they were named… These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s words and deeds recorded by people who knew him.” That was understood. The gospel writers were offering teachings, not the biography — in the sense that we write biographical stories today. That is, history was a very different consciousness, a very different slant from twenty-first century storytelling. Yet, the twenty-first century readers often see it as  “gospel,” kind of cell-phone recordings, or the equivalent from that time.

So my brain is running — Ah Reza, you have found the elephant in the room and taken a picture of it for me!  My attempts in the last two years are to comb through and distill stories about Fatima, daughter of Prophet Muhammad: Fatima’s name is inscribed on the leg of God’s throne. Fatima crossed a bridge as narrow as a hair with thousands of Heavenly Beings, riding a blue horse….

These fragments are preserved, shared among those who wish to know about Fatima, while the room where Fatima spent her childhood sleeping and playing, the room to the left of the front door of her mother Khadija’s house is under sand and cement, sealed off. Her birth: We have Mary, mother of Jesus; Assiyya, wife of the Pharaoh; Kulthum, sister of Moses; and Hagar or Sarah, wife of Abraham who delivered Fatima when Khadija gave birth. Umm Ayman, who delivered Muhammad and was a servant in the house — isn’t mentioned, just those legends. So there is a gap. Poetry is good for this kind of situation, since it can give wings to words when the trail ends, as long as the reader can follow the new trail through air….  My job with Fatima is to haul all of it, a pack-rat’s-vehicle-of-lifetimes, to a place where I can chose what to hold, fold, walk or run away from…. a challenge that needs one thing; a quivering antenna, a very refined radar that keeps asking the question: what needs to be said here? 

324 The next book I will begin on the plane tomorrow is Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan, Random House, 2013.

 “gospels” quote Zealot, p. XXVI

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