Reza Aslan’s Missed Opportunity

When my wife and I first started dating 11 years ago, I was prepared for some interesting conversations with my mother about my future mother-in-law’s career. My wife and I are both religiously-observant Jews who, among other things, keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, and pray regularly.

My mother-in-law, also a religiously-observant Jew, is a professor whose expertise lies primarily in…early Christianity. And in particular, a renowned scholar of the Gospel of John. My mother-in-law’s career of course makes for interesting conversation, and with good reason, so I was prepared for my mother’s surprise. What I wasn’t expecting was the precise nature of her surprise: “Is she taken seriously? Don’t other scholars all assume that she’s biased against the texts that she’s studying?”

In retrospect, I realize that that’s the obvious question for someone who doesn’t make her living in academia to ask, but at the time, it caught me totally off-guard. I had just begun graduate studies—an M.A., followed by a PhD—in Jewish literature of the 2nd to 7th centuries CE, and was quickly becoming initiated into the professional insecurity of being an “academic” researcher of a canon that has shaped so fundamentally the religious culture of which I’m a proud and active participant.

How can I be an unbiased researcher into the Babylonian Talmud, when interpretations of that text determine my community’s (and my) practice regarding prayer, gender relations, attitudes towards surrounding cultures, and every other area of my existence? I had become so self-conscious about my participation in the religious tradition that I study and the ways in which that calls into question my “objectivity” that I had forgotten how, to many, someone studying the texts and history of another religious community would appear suspect.

I thought of that conversation with my mother from so many years ago last Sunday, when Reza Aslan’s Fox News interview about his new book on the historical Jesus went viral in my Facebook newsfeed. The interview begins right out of the gate with the host, Lauren Green, asking Aslan why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus, and whether his religious affiliation necessarily stains his book with that cardinal sin in modernity: bias.

Aslan’s first response is that he wrote the book because that’s his job as a scholar of religion, and throughout the interview he repeats, like a mantra, his credentials: “…a PhD in the history of religions and 20 years of academic experience.” The intent, quite clearly, is to respond to the interviewer’s own biases—her assumption that a Muslim cannot produce an objective study of Jesus—by asserting his own objectivity.

Because of the work I do and the communities in which I participate, my Facebook newsfeed has a disproportionate number of people who are both passionately liberal and deeply religious. So it didn’t take very long—especially on a Sunday, when what else should a person do besides post videos on Facebook?—for this interview to spread like wildfire. The video was shared with the headline “The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done,” and was, in my newsfeed, invariably accompanied by outrage and, even more commonly, mocking contempt for the intellectual small-mindedness of Green, FoxNews, and by not-so-subtle implication, Fox News’s viewership.

I was of course dismayed by the silliness of Green’s interview. First of all, it is clear from the interview that she was unprepared (one need only compare her interview to the Daily Show’s to see what a difference actually reading at least a significant amount of the book can do to improve the quality of an interview). And there can be no doubt from Green’s tone and, at least based on what I’ve seen since googling her in the aftermath, from her history as well, that she does not likewise assume that Christians and Jews are inherently biased in their assessments of Islam.

But, I must admit, I have come to expect this sort of thinking from the media in general, and from Fox News in particular, so although I am disappointed, I’m not surprised. What frustrated me more was Aslan’s response, which represents not merely a lost opportunity to communicate to a broad public not only how scholarship can improve the ways in which we speak to and learn from one other, but it also concedes the terms of the debate to Green.

Because, with apologies to Reza Aslan, he is not an unbiased scholar of the historical Jesus, or of the history of Islam, or of any other phenomenon in the study of religion. Nor is any Christian or Jewish scholar, or any liberal or conservative scholar, or whatever it may be. Perhaps the most important insight of the contemporary academy is the realization that we all come to our lives with our biases, that our observations are always flavored by the assumptions we bring to them, and that we can attain the fullest understanding of our world only when we recognize those biases and try to synthesize the various perspectives that we all bring in order to make sense of the real phenomena in our lives.

Had Aslan responded by undermining Green’s assumption that all of the Christian critics she quoted were somehow unbiased, rather than with a somewhat misleading (more on that in a bit) recitation of his resume, he likely would have been more successful at unsettling the viewers comfortably-held views about who has the right to talk about what. Instead, he accepts Green’s assumption (an assumption likely held by some large segment of her viewers) that there is such a thing as objectivity, that some people have it and some do not, and therefore, that the only debate worth having is about whether my objectivity is bigger than yours.

Ironically, Professor Aslan should appreciate the flaw in this thinking better than anyone. Although, as Jeffrey Scholes pointed out in his RD piece on the interview, Aslan “began his doctoral work in history of religions,” to date, all of his published work, his dissertation included, has been in the study of contemporary religion, with a focus on Islam. And yet, for some reason—whether because of his religious beliefs, his political leanings, the conversations he has with his friends, or whatever else it may be—he has chosen to research and write a book that steps far outside of what has until now been his scholarly purview, turning from sociology of modern religion to the study of ancient primary texts in Greek and the derivation of history from them.

That’s probably good (though I, apparently like Ms. Green, have not yet had the chance to read the book, so I cannot evaluate the results). Scholarship is often improved by scholars bringing a fresh perspective to a topic and discipline not their own. But clearly something has motivated this particular scholar of religion to write about the historical Jesus rather than, say, Joan of Arc, or Manichaean ethics in the sixth century CE, or the theology of Martin Luther King, Jr. An honest response to that question—how does Aslan, as a scholar, choose what to write about, and what does he hope to accomplish through his work—would have been far more convincing and helpful to many viewers than his “calm” and unemotional response about his bona fides.

Aslan’s academic biography also makes his claim of objectivity—even for those who accept the Fox News narrative of objectivity as a possibility—deeply unnerving. I wrote my dissertation on impurity law in the Babylonian Talmud, and I teach and conduct research in the Talmud and its related literature. I might be able to write an excellent book on the theological underpinnings of 20th century European antisemitism (I don’t know—I’ve never tried), but I certainly would not invoke my academic training as some sort of trump card for asserting my expertise in that field, nor would I use my title—assistant professor in a rabbinical school—to explain why I might want to write such a book.

Again, to be clear: I fully endorse the right of scholars to work outside of their primary fields of study. Biblical studies has been greatly enriched by the work of the magnificent anthropologist Mary Douglas, and scholars of ancient Greece and Rome produce sharper work because of the contributions of French philosopher Michel Foucault. But this kind of intellectual cross-pollination makes sense only in a context where objectivity is considered a fool’s errand, not a trump card to be touted, even in response to ridiculous questioning. If someone believes that some people are experts and others are not, then Reza Aslan should stick to contemporary religion, and I should write only about Judaism in Babylonia in the 6th century. Prof. Aslan doesn’t believe that, nor do I. I just wish that he had said that.

Of course, I understand why he didn’t. Part of the recognition of the ubiquity of bias and the illusion of objectivity comes from understanding how important context is. The question “Why did you as a Muslim choose to write this book?” coming from Charlie Rose is not the same as when it comes from an undergraduate in your course, neither of which is the same as when it comes from Lauren Green on a Fox News production.

My frustration with Reza Aslan in no ways mitigates her wild unprofessionalism in this interview, nor her profound misunderstanding of the difference between confessional writing (the sort of work I do when I prepare a sermon for synagogue, for example) and academic research (the very different norms and assumptions in effect when writing an article for a peer-reviewed journal). But Aslan had an opportunity to challenge not only Green’s unprofessionalism, which he did quite well, but also her—and many of her viewers’—misunderstanding of the academic study of religion. Rather than just an opportunity to ridicule Ms. Green, I hope that one outcome of this debacle of an interview is that we educate ourselves about what is possible—and what is not—when we study religion.