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Monday, July 29, 2013

Reza Aslan on FOXNews (embarrassed to be a human today) - Le Donne

In the past few hours, I have been alerted by five different friends of this interview of Reza Aslan by Lauren Green of FOXNews.  If you are a human who would like a reason to be ashamed of your species, I highly recommend viewing the nine-minute interview.

I have been asked about Aslan several times since his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth was published. To see some preliminary thoughts on this book by friend of The Jesus Blog, Larry Behrendt, click here. I am only a few chapters into the book myself, so I will withhold my thoughts on the book itself for now. A few words are warranted about this debacle of an interview.

Lauren Green begins the interview in an almost accusatory tone. According to Green, the most important thing to know about Aslan is that he is a Muslim. She barely veils her contempt and is openly offended that a voice from Islam might have something to say about Jesus. She repeatedly returns to the fact of Aslan's heritage and faith. I think that this fact is interesting. Aslan disputes a handful of beliefs about Jesus by the Qu'ran and Hadith. I also think that a case might be made for an anti-American agenda (I will have to finish the book before I can speak intelligently about this). For both of these reasons, I think that asking Aslan about his motives for writing the book are warranted. But Green does so without courtesy or tact. Because she will not accept his answer, this interview fails to cover almost any of the topics related to the book. That Green calls the exchange "a spirited debate" at the end is comical. As one friend wrote me, the interview was "quite an exercise in refusing to listen to each other."

For Aslan's part, it is generally bad form to cite one's credentials rather than supporting the merits of one's argument. Green made it about Aslan's qualifications, so Aslan was well within bounds to do so once. But to do so repeatedly sounds a bit like Anchorman's Ron Burgundy: "I'm kind of a big deal." One of the biggest problems with Aslan's book is that he has several blindspots in his research. The most embarrassing moment of the interview might be when he points out how many footnotes are in the book. The other quote that came to mind was from Hamlet's Queen Gertrude: "The lady doth protest too much."

Thank you, FOXNews. We're all just a little bit less intelligent because of you.


p.s. Some interesting discussion re: Aslan's qualifications on Jim West's blog.
http://zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/is-reza-aslan-a-liar/

To read my review of Aslan's book:
http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-usually-happy-fellow-reviews-aslans.html

___
Anthony Le Donne (PhD) is the author of The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals.

21 comments:

  1. I think "Spirited Debate" is the name of the show, isn't it?

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    1. Yes, I'm not a follower of the show, but that is the title plastered in the background. She does also conclude with these words.

      -anthony

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  2. On the question of Aslan's credentials (see the link to Jim West's blog above) I think that his Ph.D. is worth considering rather than dismissing. I think that Aslan makes too much of his credentials, but his dissertation was a sociological examination related to the history of religions. He is not a scholar of New Testament, nor is he an expert in ancient history. So leaning so heavily on his credentials is problematic.

    That said, I am all for folks outside of the confines of NT Studies trying their hands at Jesus books. There is a long history of this and I think that it allows those of us who are Jesus historians by trade opportunities to become cross-disciplinary.

    -anthony

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    1. Does anybody know what his MTS from Harvard Divinity was focused on? If he studied NT/EC there, he would at least qualify as a junior scholar in the field, wouldn't he?

      Regardless, I don't see the Fox "interview" as an attack on his credentials nearly so much as an attack on the whole idea of the secular study of religion. Ms. Green didn't seem willing to accept the possibility that one could study religion for non-ideologically-motivated reasons.

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  3. Since he is a scholar writing in an area of expertise his arguments should be weighed fairly. But his mention of the number of footnotes is problematic. It reminds me of Evanglicals writing on "cults" or new religions doing the same. Of course, what matters is the weight and applicability of the footnotes to the argument, not necessarily how many you have pulled together. Popular counter-cult volumes in the Christian bookstore usually have many footnotes, but the quality of their research and conclusions are bad, so the footnotes aren't much by way of assistance.

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  4. Larry has a link to a bio page stating that he is a professor of creative writing. However, in the interview, doesn't he present himself as a teacher of religions? What I took from the interview was that he is a noted scholar and professor of religion and/or NT or ancient history, and, at one point, he actually says he is a "pretty big deal" as a Muslim "thinker."

    As to the interview, which I watched without knowing anything beyond what you and Larry said in your posts, I did feel that the tone she employed in asking him why he was interested in Jesus as a Muslim was challenging, but I didn't think the question itself was all that unusual. A Christian author writing about Islam would get the same question, I think. But then he because defensive -- aggressively so -- if one can say that -- and seemed to want to make the rest of the interview about his credentials.

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    1. I think it is difficult to use the example that "a Christian author writing about Islam would get the same question." The underlying point behind all of this was not his qualifications, his research, his writing, or even his subject matter. It was his race and religion.

      That's why all of us are set off and feel uncomfortable when we see that interview, it was a verbal lynching based in prejudice.

      Whether his book is good or one for the dollar bin at local bookstore, we should all be able to agree that Fox News is interested in one point of view, the Conservative-WASP one.

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  5. I don't know, I heard Aslan's repeated assertions of his credentials somewhat differently. Instead of protesting too much, I think he was just responding to the not-so-subtle insinuations of Green. He realized the interview wasn't going to be about the book's arguments, at all, but about him. So he did everything he could to counter her accusations, probably hoping to make it painfully clear to even the dullest of Fox viewers that he is a legitimate scholar. Not an ideal response in an intellectual exchange (see the cringe-inducing behavior of David Barton any time he is pressed on his arguments)--but this wasn't an intellectual conversation and Aslan knew that.

    Eric

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    1. Agreed. I would have to watch again, but I did not see Aslan expound upon his credentials any more times than Green made insinuations about his Muslim agenda.

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    2. The sense I got from Green was that she was questioning Aslan how he, being a Muslim, could have anything valid to say about Jesus. Alsan held his ground against that line of questioning from Green.
      His mention of the footnotes seemed to me a way to try and help Green understand that there are people who agree with his thesis and people who don't but that both were welcome and a necessary part of the process of intellectual discourse.

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    3. I agree. Aslan was trying to stress that his view was an academic view rather than a Muslim view, but Green didn't seem to understand that answer.

      That being said, Sam Harris has accused Aslan of asserting his credentials too much as well.

      Matt

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  6. Oh, and that First Things piece that Jim West linked to and likes is almost as embarrassing as Green's interview. Had I not read it, I would never have known that Aslan made the interview about himself to dodge a serious discussion of his book. Or that "lying about your credentials" is actually worse than slandering someone and his faith.

    Eric

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    1. Yes, this was why I didn't link the First Things article. I don't think that Aslan should be called a liar. He does, however, seem to inflate his resume a bit.

      -anthony

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    2. I am more interested in where you all come out on the quality of the scholarship in the book.

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  7. The whole thing is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

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  8. If the people at Fox News knew what they were doing they should have had Aslan in dialogue with an actual NT scholar (the one thing missing from all the media coverage of this book) who could have legitimately challenged his views and represented mainline scholarship to the public. Instead they ended up embarrassing themselves (as usual), not discussing the actual issues, and inadvertently giving Aslan's views more credibility in the eyes of the public. This is why I hate the popular media.

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    1. Having a news reader carry the ball supported by a script is what they all do.

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  9. On the one hand I was concerned from the beginning by the defensive quality of Aslan's replies before the interview seemed to warrant it. And I was interested to see what was said about his actual fields of study. But I am reluctant to condemn him entirely. My training was all in classics and history, and finally in the history of mediaeval Latin exegesis. But I have been interested for a long time in NT exegesis as well as in the history of how it was done in the European Middle Ages. Now that I am retired I have slowly been moving to write about the NT. So I would hate to think that it was impossible to move between related disciplines in history or in exegesis....

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  10. And the saga continues: http://editors.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2013/07/right_goes_giddy_wild_over_not_catching_reza_aslan.php?ref=fpblg

    It turns out that Green is not just any Fox talking head, but their religion correspondent, which suggests (to me at least) that the ax-grinding questions were in fact her own. This piece also links to a post-interview commentary by Aslan--he knew what he was getting into.

    Also has a discussion of his credentials. He began his PhD in the history of religions, but switched departments/programs due to departmental fallout over one of his earlier books. Shorter: no lies, here.

    Eric

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  11. There's seems to be some backstory to this interview, this FoxNews.com op-ed here:

    http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2013/07/22/liberal-media-love-new-jesus-book-zealot-fail-to-mention-author-is-muslim/

    I've finished reading Zealot so I can tell you that the op-ed mischaraterizes both Reza Aslan and the book itself. Overall I liked the book but I do have some major disagreements with some of his arguments.

    To me it seems as if in the pre-interview Green made it clear that she was going to stick to the op-ed's line, and so Aslan from the top started defending himself.

    Regarding his credentials, I seem to recall a while back he said his field had been religious studies until he published "No god but God" as a Ph.D candidate rather than waiting until he earned his Ph.D. If I'm remembering correctly, and I might not be, he said that it was a little bit uncomfortable in his department so he changed to Creative Writing because he thinks that sharing stories is what's going to break down cultural barriers. If I'm not remembering this correctly then I apologize.

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