The power of storytelling: Reza Aslan’s path to Riverside and beyond

Matt Hong/HIGHLANDER
Matt Hong/HIGHLANDER

“Well, you know I always say that you shouldn’t have a job, you should have a mission. And I think for me my mission has always been to use stories to connect people.”

Reza Aslan is an associate professor of creative writing at UCR. Most people who haven’t had him for a class, however, know him for one of a few viral videos from FOX and CNN. In said videos, Aslan, who holds multiple degrees in the study of religion, had to refute many questions about how he, as a Muslim, can write a book about Jesus (Aslan is the author of the book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”).

Recently, CNN has tapped Aslan to host a show called “Believer,” in which Aslan will travel to different areas of the world to show religious myths and rituals in different contexts around the world. Aslan describes his show as similar to one of Anthony Bourdain’s — in which Bourdain travels the world exploring different foods and cultures — only with religion instead of food. Beyond all the hubbub that has surrounded his public life, however, is something more important to him.

“My family is really — it’s not just that it’s the most important thing to me, it’s really the only thing that matters to me. Everything else is just kind of background noise,” Aslan explains. He has twin almost four-year-old boys and recently had a third with his wife, renowned entrepreneur and co-founder of the charity Kiva, Jessica Jackley. “Whatever I do with regard to work or any of the things I pursue it’s just kind of for my family. I always dreamed that I would have a family just like this and I’ve got it now so it’s just pretty wonderful.”

Aslan was born and lived in Iran until 1979, and left the country with his father, mother and younger sister right before the hostage crisis. They moved to Oklahoma, where Aslan’s father had done a study abroad program. Shortly after arriving, the family relocated once again, this time for good to San Jose, where Aslan spent most of his time growing up, eventually graduating from Santa Clara University with a bachelor’s in religion.

Though Aslan is employed at UCR as a creative writing professor, he’s always had a fascination with religion.

“I think I first became interested in religion because of my childhood experiences of revolutionary Iran,” Aslan said. “I think leaving that country and the power that religion has to transform a society for good and for bad never really left me, and so I always grew up deeply fascinated by religion, by faith, by religious history and religious phenomenology, despite the fact that I did not come from a religious family at all.”

There was, of course, another interest he could not deny.

“What I always wanted to do — and I don’t remember wanting to do anything else — was to be a writer. That was always the plan,” Aslan said.

After realizing he needed to support himself while pursuing his endeavors, Aslan went on to become an academic, and got an MFA in fiction from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He always intended to pursue his interests parallel to each other, but feels grateful for how the worlds blended together for him.

“It makes sense, you know religion is really all about storytelling and that’s what good writers do, is tell stories. So I’ve been able to combine these two expertise into a single career,” Aslan explains.

Aslan has taught religious studies courses in the past at other universities, but disliked it. After he hesitantly took a job as a creative writing professor at UCR, he realized he had found something that he loved.

“I’m really happy and lucky to be here at Riverside. It’s a great student body. The administration has been nothing but supportive. The department here is the best department that you could ever hope for, I mean I really, genuinely like the people that I work with,” Aslan said, adding that despite his increasingly busy schedule, his connection to Riverside still means a great deal to him.

Aslan explained that “Believer” is not reality TV, but more like a six-part documentary. He wants the show to be an “entertaining, experiential show about a guy trying to kind of understand the way that other people think, the way that they feel, their spiritual lives by experiencing what they experience. And I think that’s something that a lot of people would get turned on to.”

The creative writing professor is also a developer and executive producer on the upcoming ABC series “Of Kings and Pharaohs.” “Imagine ‘Game of Thrones’ meets the Bible,” Aslan says.

“I really do believe in the power of storytelling to reframe perceptions, to change people’s minds, to create new identities. What I want to do is continue to create those kinds of stories,” he continued. “For me it’s not about the genre and not about the platform, it’s about the story itself. I think the path that I’m on right now, in trying to tap into the power of stories, is one that I want to stay on for quite some time.”

And even as he gains renown, the Riverside community is not one that Aslan is quick to forget.

“I come here week in and week out because I want to and because I enjoy it, because it’s something that’s valuable to me. It’s really a great feeling to be able to say that. I have a lot of friends that are professors, and very few of them would say that they would do their job for free. I would do this job for free.” With a quick smirk, he adds, “I’m not going to, but I would.”

 

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