Reza unchained

On Monday, I participated in a panel discussion with some other faculty from my department about Reza Aslan’s Fox News interview. Part of my comments were directed toward putting Aslan’s book in a broader context of American religious minorities writing about Jesus (as described in Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus). But here’s what I had to say about the interview itself.

I was surprised by how quickly Aslan became defensive when asked why he, as a Muslim, was interested in writing about Jesus. Granted that Green’s intentions proved “confrontational,” certainly, if not “hostile,” and probably Aslan went in expecting that. But he could have handled the question differently. Rather than responding as if it were an attack (even if that’s what it was), he could have treated the question as a softball pitch allowing him to dive right into explaining his fascination with understanding the historical Jesus, just as he does it in the introduction to his book. Certainly, after all, the novelty of a Muslim writing a “historical Jesus” trade book is part of what makes his book stand out from the many other extant instances of the genre. So why not play that up to advantage? Why not acknowledge, and embrace, the “Huh, interesting,” factor–rather than responding to it immediately as an attack?

My answer to that question is this: Aslan does not want to be pegged as a Muslim writing about the historical Jesus because he rests his authority for writing the book on a claim that he has advanced beyond religious bias or investment. Repeatedly in the interview, Aslan insists that he is “a scholar.” Not “a Muslim scholar.” Just “a scholar.” The subtext (or one subtext, anyway) of that insistence becomes clearer when you read the intro to his book. There the narrative he presents for himself is this:

When Aslan was 15 years old, he became a born-again evangelical. Then he went to college, where in the process of preparing himself to defend the Bible from “the doubts of unbelievers,” he was dismayed to discover that “the Jesus of the gospels” and “the Jesus of history” are not the same. He lost faith in biblical inerrancy. He felt that evangelical Christianity was “a costly forgery [he] had been duped into buying.” And from there he made his way back to appreciation for Islam. But the crucial conversion here, for the purposes of the book, isn’t Christian to Muslim. It’s–his words–the conversion from “unquestioning believer” to “inquisitive scholar.” From someone “chained to the assumption that stories I read were literally true” to someone who could discern “a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history.” Having been liberated–unchained–from the dogmatism represented by evangelical Christianity, Aslan has encountered, through scholarship, the truth about who Jesus was. And now Aslan is an evangelist for that truth: “My hope with this book is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of Christ.”

Hence Aslan’s defensiveness about his book being characterized as a Muslim perspective on Jesus. Aslan doesn’t see his book as providing “a perspective” on Jesus. He is, rather, using scholarly methods to tell the truth about Jesus–as distinct from the invested “perspectives” of religious believers. This, of course, is a naive understanding of how scholarship works. I would like, generously, to think that Aslan is “dumbing things down” for a trade audience. But I suspect he isn’t: his autobiographical intro suggests he really has converted to a kind of Enlightenment liberalism in which he sees himself as a person who has escaped dogma and now applies rational methods to discern how things simply, truly are. He was defending that self-perception in the Fox News interview: Don’t come quoting criticisms of my work raised by evangelicals. I’m a scholar.

That’s part of what’s happening in that interview, anyway. It’s what’s happening when Green quotes William Lane Craig and references unnamed Christian scholars she’s had on her show in the past who defend the historicity of the Resurrection.  An entirely different line of criticism is deployed when Green cites John Dickerson’s reading of Aslan’s book as the latest instance of a centuries-old Muslim apologetic against the divinity of Jesus. Aslan is right to poke giant holes in Dickerson’s misreading of his work. Aslan is not writing in a tradition of Islamic skepticism about Christianity. He’s writing in a tradition of Enlightenment skepticism about Christianity.

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