Zealot, by Reza Aslan

For the past few weeks, the Books, Brew, and Banter crowd has been reading and discussing Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, July, 2013), by Reza Aslan (a #1New York Times bestseller, named one of the best books of the year by Booklist and Publishers Weekly). Of the nine BB&Bers at the wrap-up discussion of Zealot, there were nine thumbs-up.

Aslan describes himself as “a kid raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists.” At an evangelical youth camp in northern California when he was a teen, Aslan accepted Jesus Christ as his savior and invested in the literal God-inspired truth of the greatest story ever told.  He went on to evangelize others, including his mother who converted to Christianity.  But years later, as a student of religious studies, Aslan was faced with what he saw as a fact: much of the Bible could not possibly be literally true.

In his Author Note at the end of the book, he writes, “Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him.  Indeed, the Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known and lost became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church. Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.  My hope with this book is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.”

Because Aslan is a terrific writer and a diligent scholar, ordinary readers (not people schooled deeply in history or theology) can finish the book in a kind of “Aha!” place.  Jesus as a particular person, living in a particular time and place, comes alive.  And Aslan has made his case that “Jesus the man is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ.  He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”

What may be hard for some readers is learning about all the messiahs that were wandering around that part of the world in those days, and the fractiousness between Jesus’s brother James the Just and Paul of Tarsus. And the committee decision that led to the Nicene Creed in the 4th Century. One element of the creed, the mystery of the Holy Trinity, was a committee effort to please everybody. As he grew older, Aslan found the complexity of the Trinity a stumbling block, and it became important factor in his decision to return to the Muslim faith of his roots.

Zealot is a page-turner that gives a vivid sense of the historical Jesus and a crisp, succinct explanation of what happened in the church’s development between the crucifixion of Jesus and the Council of Nicea.

—Sharelle Moranville.

A Call to Action, by Jimmy Carter

I have read many of the two dozen plus books written by President Carter over the course of his career, many of which I have found to be most enjoyable and easy reads, and all of his writings are moored by a deep-seated belief in the equality of all people.
While his new book continues in the tradition of that belief, the members of St. Timothy’s Books, Brew, and Banter book club unanimously agree that it certainly isn’t an enjoyable read as he grimly tackles head-on the subject of the subjugation of women in cultures throughout the world.  Since leaving the White House in 1981, he and his wife Rosalynn founded the Carter Center, dedicated to advancing peace and health worldwide, and they have been firsthand witnesses to the shocking and disturbing human rights abuses inflicted on women. He carefully outlines that women and girls are routinely deprived of education, forced to suffer servitude and child marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual assault and rape, and the undercurrent of discrimination that results in fewer promotions, lower pay and unequal representation in business and politics.
He examines the entrenched links between interpretations of religious texts of Christians, Muslims and Jews that exalt the status of men in the eyes of God, and connects the problems to the world’s excessive use of war and violence. In particular, he reports, that since the birth of the United Nations, American forces have been involved in combat in over twenty three nations, evidence that our previously firm commitment to peace and human rights has been largely abandoned, increasing the suffering of the innocent and defenseless.
All this makes one sad, angry, and horrified. On the other hand, though, he chronicles the Carter Center’s subsequent good works around the globe, ranging from campaigns to eradicate Guinea worm in Ghana to monitoring elections in Egypt. President Carter goes into the specifics of some important work being done, and gives numerous examples of dedicated people throughout the world who have struggled and often righted wrongs.
He concludes by listing twenty-three calls to action and invites us all to participate. It gives one hope that the world can be made better for struggling women and girls. A tough read, but a must read. —Kenneth N. Johnson, Ph.D.

Orange Is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman could be your neighbor, your daughter, your best friend, or you. After graduating from Smith College, Kerman longed for an adventure, and she found it as a courier for a drug lord. She was a small part of an international operation, but ten years later, her youthful lark landed her in prison in Danbury, Connecticut, close in miles to her friends in New York and Boston, yet eons away in the life she faced.

Stripped of her clothes, belongings, and dignity, Kerman learned what it is like to be a prisoner in 21st Century America.

Our favorite part of the book was Kerman’s acceptance of her fate and empathy for the women she lived with—she seemed to completely enjoy many of them, while acknowledging impatience with those who kept making poor choices and endangering their entire families. Kerman writes with wisdom about her own poor choices and how they not only hurt her and those she loved, but ultimately hurt the women she was living with, many of whom were caught in the drug trade she joined just to have fun.

She shows how dehumanizing and pointless prison sentences are for many of these women who were given minimal rehabilitation or education and treated like they were less than human, often because of crimes in which they were more victim than criminal.

As part of the discussion, we tasted Kerman’s version of prison cheesecake and agreed it was surprisingly tasty.

We recommend the book, and those of us who have seen the Netflix series recommend it as well, although it often wanders away from the storyline of the book. Seeing the filmed version helped us visualize the prison and its women.

— Patricia Prijatel