Reza Aslan, researching while Muslim

It’s about time.

A real conversation about religion has begun in this country. In fact, it has gone viral. Up until now, public religion has too-often been about name-calling, confessionals, politics and cartoon versions of “the other.”

Thanks to a shockingly insensitive interview with religious scholar Reza Aslan, the author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” and a man who just happens to be Muslim, the Internet has lit up like a Christmas tree. Lauren Green of Fox News began her questioning with this: “You are a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Once wasn’t enough. She kept asking the clearly dumbfounded Aslan the same question as he tried to explain that he is a scholar of religion. Given her insistence, one might have wondered why an African American Christian woman would be interviewing a white Persian male Muslim.

Aslan is not upset about the interview. In fact, he has reason to be pleased. It has given his book wide media exposure.

“I am so glad people are having this conversation,” Aslan says. “I was surprised how it captured the zeitgeist. This is a topic usually discussed by academics in stuffy libraries.”

What’s so outrageous about the book? He calls Jesus a zealot, for one thing. But as he explains, “in Jesus’s world, ‘zealot’ referred to those Jews who adhered to a widely biblical doctrine called zeal.” They were against Roman authorities and their collaborators, wealthy temple priests and aristocratic Jews. The fact that Jesus was a revolutionary — a rabble-rouser — is not exactly news in the world of theology. He wasn’t running around passing out Easter eggs.

What’s interesting here is the backlash from what he calls “the anti-Muslim fringe, the rabid Islamophobes, who have been attacking me for a decade and calling me vile and racist names.” He wasn’t surprised by what happened on Fox News and has no hard feelings toward Green. “I have nothing but compassion for her. I understand where she is coming from. I used to be like her. I used to be a fundamentalist evangelical Christian. It’s a fear in the world of being confronted with questioning the most basic tenets of your faith.”