Watch Reza Aslan Make An Ass Out Of Himself

A scholar named Reza Aslan wrote about about the historical Jesus. From what I’ve seen, the book reprises one of the familiar narratives about the historical Jesus, which is that Jesus was not a religious preacher but a political rebel against Roman rule. Apparently Aslan was once a Christian and is now a Muslim.

You probably already know these things already, and the reason you probably knew them is because Twitter has been aflame with links to an interview Aslan has given about his book to Fox News. The Buzzfeed post about the interview has over 3 million pageviews and a “12X social lift” (whatever that means). Meanwhile the Slate post is cited among its “Most Viral”. Both call it “embarrassing”, and usually with superlatives.

Well, it’s certainly embarrassing. But mostly for Aslan.

Let’s back up here for a second. There is a problem for “historical Jesus” research, which is that source material is so scarce. You have a few fragments in Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. You have the non-canonical gospels which are of very late and dubious origins. And you have the canonical gospels, which make supernatural claims about Jesus and therefore automatically (and justly) invite skepticism. This gives a wide latitude for historians and other scholars to paint pictures of the “historical Jesus” as basically whatever they want. That’s not an indictment of Jesus scholarship. That’s just the way it is.

Meanwhile, there is a great popular interest in “historical Jesus” scholarship, if only because there is a great popular interest in “What You Don’t Know About This Familiar Story”. Many “historical Jesus” books have gone on to become publishing sensations. And often, they’ve gone on to become publishing sensations in the wake of generating controversy for proclaiming that the traditional Christian account of Jesus’ life is a-historical. (Even though it’s not possible to prove it, only to hypothesize it.) Controversy generates book sales. Particularly religious controversy. Such is the world.

In this context takes place the Aslan interview.

And it’s impossible to watch the video and not feel that Aslan has come into the studio picking for a fight. Trying to generate a viral moment.

Oh sure, the Fox News interviewer also has an agenda. But watch how the interview proceeds.

Interviewer: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

Aslan: “Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with [enunciating] four degrees including one in New Testament and fluency in Biblical Greek who has been studying the history of Christianity for [enunciating again] two decades.”

And boom, we’re off to the races!

Aslan won’t answer the question, and so the interviewer presses on (as Interviewing 101 demands), and we all go downhill from here. Aslan never stops treating the interviewer with contempt, and never stops taking offense at any relation between his faith and his book.

Those bigots at Fox News with their anti-Muslim views. Oh, how dare they say that a Muslim can’t write a book about Jesus! And their buck-toothed anti-intellectualism. This is a SCHOLAR. Don’t you understand? A scholar!

Except that there is nothing whatsoever offensive or out of the ordinary about the interviewer’s question.

“Why did you write this book?” is literally the most common interview question asked of authors! It is so common, it is such a cliché, that it is a joke in literary and media circles! This is also true of the variation “[Tidbit of author’s personal history], so why did you write this book?”

I’m a Frenchman who has never lived in the US for long, and who often writes about American politics. As a result, I am often asked why I, as a Frenchman, decide to devote so much time and attention to US politics. This is normal. And to be honest, I sometimes tire of answering that question. But I’m never offended by it.

And I’m also a practicing Roman Catholic, and if I wrote a book about Luther or Muhammad or the Buddha, it would be normal and completely innocuous to ask me why I chose to write about this particular subject given my faith tradition.

But I could take offense. I could treat the person like a child and say something like “I have a master’s degree from HEC School of Management which was ranked number one in Europe for many years running by the Financial Times — a small newspaper out of London, maybe you’ve heard of it — where I was ranked among the top twenty matriculants.” You know what that answer would make me? It would make me a complete ass and a buffoon.

Scholarship is scholarship and should be judged on its merits. But there is absolutely nothing weird or out of the ordinary for an interviewer to ask an author how his background affected his decision to write a book. It’s amazing to me that this has to be pointed out. I would even add especially if a believer in one religion writes about another religion.

Aslan, talking to his interviewer “as if she were a child”, Slate notes, says “it would be like asking a Christian why they would write a book about, you know, Islam.” Indeed, old chap! That’s exactly what it would be like!

To take an example, one of the TAS Alums is Alan Jacobs, a professor and scholar of literature. His latest book is a biography of The Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer (I now know, thanks to Alan) is one of the great works of the Anglican Church. And I know Alan is an Anglican. So it seems obvious to me why Alan wrote this book. Alan is a man who cares deeply about books and their history and about his own religious tradition so it makes complete sense to me why he would write this book. If Alan’s next project was a Biography of the Ramayana, I would be indeed curious to note why he decided to write it.

The interview goes on in this vein. The interviewer quotes Aslan a bit of criticism of his book. Instead of responding, Aslan talks about how his book has a hundred pages of endnotes and is therefore a serious book. First of all, that’s silly. I mean, really. But second of all, answer the damn question. Aslan speaks as if the fact that he has a PhD somehow means that he is beyond criticism, at least from non-PhDs, and certainly from journalists.

Then why go on the interview?

I mean, think about it for a second. There’s about as much chance of Fox News’ audience buying Aslan’s book as there is of it buying Yeezus. So why do the interview?

Well, for this, of course. The interview didn’t ever degenerate—it never “generated” to begin with. Oh sure, Fox News had its own agenda. But Aslan could have played it cool, or presumed good faith at least on the first question. That’s if he hadn’t been coming on the interview just for this. To assume bigotry on the part of Fox News, to talk about his academic bona fides, and therefore to generate a viral moment and juice his book sales.

And this is why I’m annoyed and I’m writing this. Yes, Fox News had an agenda, and yes, Aslan is not the first person to manufacture controversy.

What’s so annoying to me is that I haven’t seen a single media outlet—that so breathlessly posted the video, and called it “embarrassing”—point out what is actually going on here. Because there’s the Bad Guys in one camp—the camp of bigoted Christians—and there’s the Good Guys in the other camp—the camp of Scholars who, because they are Scholars, are Good.

Oh yes, the Fox News video is embarrassing. It’s a little embarrassing for Fox News. It’s a lot embarrassing for Aslan. And it’s very, very embarrassing for Buzzfeed and Slate and all the other outlets that amplified it uncritically.