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.

Say You’re One of Them, by Uwem Akpan

Say You’re One of Them was the May read for Books, Brew, and Banter.  Written by Uwem Akpan, published in 2008, chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club Selection in 2009, it shows daily life in turbulent, war-torn, Africa.

In five short stories, all set in different parts of Africa, Akpan, an African Jesuit priest educated in America, shows us life through the eyes of African children. In “An Ex-mas Feast,” Akpan pours out Nairobian poverty on the page so vividly that it takes a reader’s breath away.  In “In My Parents’ Bedroom,” he shows us a loving, educated, enlightened Rwandan family ripped apart by tribalism.  In “Luxurious Hearses,” he narrates the ultimate sacrifice of a teenage boy to the bloodlust of people running for their lives in western Africa.

It’s a difficult book to read.  Because of the content, sometimes continuing to turn the pages is an effort.  And because Akpan sprinkles the stories generously with the mélange of languages spoken in Africa, parsing the meaning of what people are saying can be hard too.  But on those difficult-to-turn-and-understand pages, Akpan always splashes a generous measure of the best of humanity:  love, loyalty, responsibility, empathy, self-sacrifice, and faith.

In these stories of children’s lives, general themes emerge:  the variety of religions and languages in Africa, the power of faith, the role of the media, the relationship between men and women, the struggle of families to stay together, the driving force of the sex trade, the relentless force of tribalism, and always the plight of the children.

Deacon Jeanie Smith described the book as “beautifully written and utterly heartbreaking” – as the kind of book a person can’t just read.  Afterward, there’s the need to do something.

—Sharelle Moranville

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner

During most of July, the Books, Brew, and Banter group read and discussed Wallace Stegner’s 1987 novel Crossing to Safety.  Although Stegner made his literary debut with Remembering Laughter in 1937 (set in Iowa Farm country where Stegner was born), and wrote prolifically and with distinction for fifty years, most of the BB&B group had never read his fiction.  And, in the end, everybody agreed that we had found a treasure in Crossing to Safety.

The story begins in 1938 and ends in August, 1972.  It’s narrated by Larry Morgan, a novelist and academic.  In 1938, Larry and his wife Sally, of modest means and low on the academic totem pole, meet Sid and Charity, also low on the academic totem pole but from backgrounds of immense wealth.  The couples quickly become close friends and remain so until the story’s end.  Through Larry’s eyes, we follow the birth of children, academic careers, literary success and failure, illness, recovery, and death.

Although the narrator is usually the most important character in a novel, in this case, the reader soon figures out that while Larry Morgan is telling this story, it ultimately belongs to Charity – much like Nick Caraway tells Gatsby’s story in The Great Gatsby.  And like Gatsby, Charity is larger than life.  She is epic.  Iconic.  Driven.  Difficult to understand.  Awe inspiring, in her way.  And at the end, the reader is left a bit shaken and full of questions.  What does “crossing to safety” mean?  Who has managed to do it?  How have they managed to do it?

Written in really lovely prose, the joy of the book is as much in the language as the action.  It’s a sensitive, imaginative look at American academia over thirty years, an examination of gender roles, a depiction of mid-century American values, and an interesting slice of American history.

— Sharelle Moranville.