Unless you have been completely unplugged from all forms of media for the last week, you’ve probably seen—or at least have heard or read about—the interview that religion scholar, Reza Aslan, gave on the FoxNews.com webcast, “Spirited Debate”—or as Buzzfeed put it, “The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done.”
If you haven’t had the chance to see it, or if you aren’t able to watch it now (below, right), here’s what happened, briefly. The interviewer, Lauren Green, purportedly embarrasses herself by primarily asking Aslan not about the substance of his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, but why he, a Muslim, could and would write a book about Jesus.
After Aslan calmly provides his credentials as a scholar of religions, Green, apparently unsatisfied with his answer asks, “But it still begs the question, though, why you would be interested in the founder of Christianity?” Again, Aslan informs Green that the objectivity necessarily held by a scholar entitles him to write about anything and anyone and expect a modicum of respect as long as the subject matter falls under his discipline and that the scholarship is sound.
Attempting to fight fire with fire, Green then trots out the criticisms of Zealot lodged by Christian scholar and apologist, William Lane Craig, and Christian pastor and journalist, John S. Dickerson (on Fox News). Craig classifies Aslan’s book as unoriginal and flat-out incorrect in its labeling of Jesus as a Zealot. It’s “nothing new under the sun” that will add little to the story of Jesus—a fate met by all previous attempts to get at the historical Jesus. Dickerson accuses Aslan of purposely misleading his audience by hiding his Muslim identity in order to claim objectivity as he dismantles the orthodox Christian story. Aslan responds in the interview solely as an academic—inviting criticism, citing his repeated candor about being a Muslim, and then clamoring for a discussion of the substance of his book.
On one level, the fact that the video clip has gone viral (4.8 million views on Buzzfeed and over 2.8 million views on YouTube at the time of this writing) is surprising. Bill O’Reilly has more forcefully shown his Christian bias in interviews, especially with British evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins. And Aslan had to know that a Fox News interviewer wouldn’t fawn over his findings and nod with approval, as was the case on The Daily Show and NPR. On another level, the ability of this video to provoke such a visceral response from viewers—and hence be passed around to those with similar outrage—shouldn’t surprise us at all. It’s compelling, especially to those who side with Aslan, for several reasons.
We may be well aware of the political bias that colors the journalism at Fox News, yet for Green to foreground her religious bias in an interview with a bona fide scholar of religion (unlike O’Reilly’s aforementioned interview with Dawkins, a biologist) is beyond the pale. In addition, Green’s thinly-veiled Islamophobia is contrasted with the calm demeanor of a Muslim who proposes that had she read the book, she may have been pleasantly surprised at his conclusions about Jesus.
A classy, statesman-like takedown of an ethnocentrist at best (a bigot at worst) always sits better with the agreeable audience. The interview also exposed a double-standard—Green interviewed Christian professor Barry Vann about his book, Puritan Islam, without a hint of incredulity. This kind of inconsistency gets “The Daily Show” writers furiously typing. Those on Green’s side could gain satisfaction in the holes poked in Aslan’s statement of his credentials. His doctorate is in sociology of religion, not in the history of religions, as he claims, though he began his doctoral work in history of religions. It also must be said that the interdisciplinary nature of religious studies trains one to be at home in varied fields of study.
A more hidden reason for the captivating nature of the video lies in the type of battle going on before our eyes. Many of us want to see the scholar vs. the dilettante; the open-minded vs. the close-minded; the objective vs. the subjective; the facts vs. values. More to the point, the interview presents us with a real shot at projection: we finally get the chance to stick it to Fox News, especially as it shows itself to be less than “Fair and Balanced.” Aslan made it through the looking glass at which many of us have merely thrown our remote. And when he gets there, he says what we’ve always wanted to say if we were only given the chance. The fact that Fox News and the mass media profoundly shape the way Americans view religion irks the scholar toiling away on a book that will barely register on the religion Richter scale. Maybe, just maybe, Aslan can begin to right this ship.
In a more serious tone, Omid Safi sees Aslan’s response as a step towards “dismantling the privilege” enjoyed by Christians in American culture as expressed by Green’s implication that only Christians can talk about Jesus (or Islam or terrorism, or that only Republicans can write about Reagan). So, in addition to contending with the Islamophobia at work in this particular case, Aslan is attempting to establish the authority of the academic outsider in matters of religion over and against the authority of the religious insider who still possesses cultural ascendency in the United States. Safi is right, but there’s another aspect of privilege being demonstrated here that plagues scholars of religion in particular.
There may be a deep distrust of academics held by some Americans, but organic chemistry professors aren’t asked to state their personal biases before speaking. Cultural anthropologists have a long history of grappling with the insider/outsider problem, but it’s more of a methodological/hermeneutical issue—is it truly possible for an American to understand a Mayan corn dance?
A different scrutiny is applied to the work of religious studies academics (who have their own insider/outsider dilemma) because almost everyone they meet is a self-proclaimed expert in religion. What should we make of one commenter’s remark on the Aslan video: “Religion scholar. . . isn’t that an oxymoron?” This presumes that expertise in one’s own religion—or one’s own rejection of it—is earned without pursuing degrees. According to this view, academic training only pushes the budding scholar farther away from “real” Christianity, as Green calls it.
And as Aslan found out, the scholar’s “objectivity ID card” must be shown over and over, though the suspicion of a hidden agenda never goes away. He feels compelled to point out that his mother, wife, and brother-in-law (an evangelical pastor) are Christians to further separate his own faith from the aims of his scholarship. Whether in the classroom, at the dinner table, or on the ski lift, telling someone that you study religion is most often followed with, “Which one?,” as though a singular answer would pacify the interrogator. And if the conversation begins to go down the path of a “Green-like” interview, wouldn’t all academics state what they really do in response, just as Aslan did?
Of course there is no true Archimedean point from which to sit in these matters. Aslan chose to write about Jesus because he’s “been obsessed” with him for decades. One might want to ask whether this book was perhaps an attempt, subconsciously or not, to get over old resentments or heal old wounds. While he should not have to answer these ad hominem questions, the repeated recitation of his credentials doesn’t serve to highlight his qualifications so much as it reflects the fact that, as he wrote in an open discussion on Reddit, he already knew that writing about Jesus or religion in general would raise concerns: “I had some indication of what was about to happen from the attack piece they did on me a few days before the interview. I assumed that we would deal with that at first and then move on to the book. It was only about half way thru that realized what was happening.” This is why the interview was not a debate over the real historical Jesus but over who has the right to make claims about Jesus and what gives him or her that right.
If an overwhelming majority of viewers side with Aslan over Green/Fox News, then what did “we” win? In one sense, both Aslan and Fox News won: Zealot has shot up to the top of the Amazon Best Sellers list, and Aslan is reveling in his good fortune, while many who’d never heard of Lauren Green are likely to tune in (or, more accurately, log on) to cheer the next time she scolds a non-Christian, or to feel smug satisfaction the next time she “embarrasses” herself.
But in another sense, both sides lost. While the interview increased Aslan’s book sales, the episode only reinforces the notion that scholars must rely on controversy to do so. And while displays of Christian privilege may provide a temporary bump in traffic, the network is only doubling down on a strategy with questionable long term prospects.
Because the authority to talk about religion was at issue here, thankfully the interview never slid into a tired debate over whether or not Jesus was divine. Even though no mutual understanding was reached, the role of religious studies scholarship, as opposed to the theological, was put on a grand stage. No doubt, Aslan and religion scholars, especially in America, will continue to be asked to show their papers. Yet, perhaps the conversation at the next family reunion will start with “Have you seen the Reza Aslan interview?” instead of “What gives you the right to talk about my religion?” We can only hope.