Reza Aslan wears many hats as an author, religion scholar, commentator and producer, but as he described during the Guilford College Bryan Series event Jan. 28, he only has one job: "to use stories to break down the walls that separate us as individuals."
In a moderated discussion before a sold-out crowd in Dana Auditorium, Reza continued to break down walls as he discussed his childhood, storytelling, religion, faith and marriage. It was the first Bryan Series program presented on campus since 2005.
Reza grew up in the Bay Area of California after his family immigrated from Iran in 1979 at the outset of the revolution that country. As a teenager he discovered "the power that religion has to transform society for good or bad," and that drove his desire to study to religion in college.
His humor and intelligence was on display throughout the program, and at one point he joked that as an immigrant he was "here to steal all the religious studies jobs Americans won't do."
A Knack for Storytelling
Reza teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and is the author of several best-selling books.
"I never wanted to be anything other than a storyteller," he said. "Stories help us define who we are. It's biological. Core stories (which we now call myths) in societies existed as a way of identifying yourself in relation to other groups ... If there is any skill I could impart to you it's the ability to weave a story because it's how we learn, how we understand, and how we know who we are."
Reza weaved his own story for the audience, explaining his journey from being Shia Muslim, to Christian, then to the Sufi Muslim tradition.
Religion is Language and Identity
Reza said religion is "the language we use to express faith, a symbol or a means for people of faith to communicate what is fundamentally an inexpressible experience," adding that we only need to learn each other's language to see that the Islamic faith experience is not that different from the Christian one.
Responding to a question about the rise of fundamentalist Christianity, Reza said religion is also an identity statement, noting, "When a religion is attacked, people react passionately because it is sense of self being targeted, not just faith. Religion encompasses every aspect of who you are, and fundamentalism is a reactionary development."
Reza spoke about his interfaith marriage since 2011 to Jessica Jackley, a Christian. "We immediately understood that we shared the same values. We just spoke different languages."
Sunday's program created conversation, sparked ideas and inspired audience members to read his books. The next Bryan Series speaker is longtime television newsman Ted Koppel, at the Greensboro Coliseum Feb. 20.