Jul 30, 2013

Reza Aslan's outrage

Among scholars of religion, there's no consensus on the relevance of scholar's personal religious beliefs and practices to their scholarship.

Some scholars are quite open. They mention their religious identity in the classroom, affiliate themselves in their books, explain their interests in terms of their religious identities, and even on occasion write from the position of a believer. Others are open but private. They're willing to talk about themselves and their beliefs, but keep it separate from their scholarship. This is where I'm at: I sometimes talk with students or colleagues about my own faith and religious history, but it's not something I talk about in class or in my writing, mostly because it seems like it would cause more confusion than clarity. Others, still, are entirely private, and simply refuse to answer any personal questions.

When scholars are open about their religious identities, though, it is entirely fair to ask them about their religious identities.

This seems to me to be commonsensical, but perhaps it isn't.

There's a big loud kerfuffle right now about a recent FOX news interview with Reza Aslan, author of a popular book about the historical Jesus. The interviewer, Lauren Green, started the interview with the question, "you're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?"

Aslan was outraged at the question and went on the offensive. The clip went viralPeople got pretty excited ("Reza Aslan is superhuman"; "Hats off to Reza Alsan"), and expressed their outrage at the question.

It's bullshit.

There was nothing wrong with the question.

One can assume, as many have, that the subtext of the question was that Muslims don't have the right to write books about Jesus, but that's an assumption. One can assume the question is Islamophobic, but that's an odd assumption that would need to be defended. There's nothing necessarily biased about mentioning a scholar is Muslim, especially when the scholar has regularly talked about his own religious biography in relationship to his work.

The question could also be taken at face value, as a question about this scholar's personal interest.

Aslan choose to treat the question as hostile, but he didn't have to.

He could have responded by talking about how historically important Jesus is, or talking generally about how he's interested in various religions' origins, including Christianity's. He could consistently defer personal questions, as many scholars do (saying something like "my personal beliefs aren't that interesting or important; what I want do is try to understand this subject in it's historical context").

Aslan also could have talked about his own changing relationship to Jesus -- which he has, actually, in numerous interviews. On Fresh Air, he told Terry Gross that he grew up a secular Muslim and converted to Christianity when he was 15, but left the faith shortly thereafter. On The Daily Show, he told John Oliver that his mother and wife are Christians and his brother-in-law is a Christian minister. Aslan told the Huffington Post he's been "obsessed with Jesus for a very, very long time," adding "I heard the Gospel when I was 15 years old and it just blew me away." On NPR's Weekend Edition, he explained his current religious position by saying,
I wouldn't call myself a Christian because I do not believe that Jesus is God, nor do I believe that he ever thought that he was God, or that he ever said that he was God. But I am a follower of Jesus, and I think that sometimes, unfortunately -- I think even Christians would recognize this and admit it -- those two things aren't always the same, being a Christian and being a follower of Jesus.
Aslan is clearly open to talking about his own religious beliefs, and talking about how they shaped, informed, inspired and contextualized his scholarship. He's repeatedly said that his own biographical position -- for instance, that his wife and mother are Christians -- should inform readers' opinions. It's reasonable, then, for him to expect to be asked how his religious beliefs should affect readers' opinions.

In this case, though, he opted for outrage.

It's feigned bullshit.

It's another manufactured scandal, which makes for good TV, I guess. If you're into that. It appears to be pretty irresistible on the internet, where we all apparently troll around looking for clips and snippets that confirm the stupidity and/or evilness of those we believe to be stupid and/or evil. Smugness reigns, as always, and controversy is good for sales.

This isn't an example of attacks on Muslims or attacks on scholarship. It's evidence that this is an age of viral marketing, and that publicity stunts are pretty effective marketing tools, even if they are pretty tiresome and generally shady, conning people into an emotional response that makes someone money.

The outrage, if there is an outrage, is that so many people bought into fake outrage.

"Bought" literally.

Forgive me if my distaste for FOX and for right wing anti-intellectualism doesn't compel me to rush to Aslan's defense. If he doesn't want his personal life and religious identity to be a factor in how his scholarship is seen, he's entitled to keep those things private. If he talks about them sometimes, though, and other times acts like it's outrageous to ask about what he regularly talks about, I'm going to be fairly short with my sympathies. When that inconsistency isn't just idiosyncratic, but appears to be part of a book marketing scheme, I'm not going to share the "outrage."

When, in addition to all that, the man misrepresents his scholarly credentials, he's not a hero of academic freedom. He's not a champion of scholarship in the face of the forces of anti-intellectualism. He's yet another creature of the culture of fake outrage, manipulating cultural divisions for the sake of sales of his book.