Critics Ignore Content of Book about Jesus, Attack Author for Being a Muslim

One does not expect much from Fox News at the best of times; but a recent interview with Reza Aslan has – deservedly – come under particular mockery for the interviewer’s ignorance and bad faith.

The interview was conducted by Lauren Green, who is described as being “a religion correspondent” for Fox, and it concerned Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Green appeared to no know little of the book or of scholarship in general, and the segment consists exclusively of her demanding an explanation from Aslan about why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus.

Choosing the most egregiously stupid moment is tricky – Green accuses Aslan of failing to “disclose” that he is a Muslim, despite the facts he does so on the second page of his book and that he’s one of the better-known Muslim commentators in the USA; there’s also a bizarre analogy in which she compares Aslan to a Democrat writing a book about Ronald Reagan; but the lowest point I think was this:

You’re quoting yourself as a scholar, and I’ve interviewed scholars who have written books on the Resurrection, on the real Jesus, and who are looking at the same information that you’re saying… to say that your information is somehow different from theirs is really not being honest…

We all understand (at, least, over here in the UK) that a news interviewer’s job is often to take a hostile and sceptical line, even if that line is not particularly strong, but that’s not the same thing as appearing to be clueless. Throughout the interview, Aslan attempted patiently to convey to Green the nature of academic study. He made it very clear to her that his book is located within a scholarly debate, and that the book is not based on any kind of Islamic agenda. In particular, he stated that the book calls into question the historicity of the Virgin Birth, which is an Islamic as well as a Christian belief, and that the book rejects the Islamic teaching that Jesus was not really crucified.

Green’s complaints were taken from vague polemical objections by conservative Christian apologists, primarily an ad hominem attack by a pastor named John S. Dickerson (this guy) that was published by Fox a few days ago:

Liberal media love new Jesus book ‘Zealot’, fail to mention author is Muslim

…As a sincere man, Aslan’s Muslim beliefs affect his entire life, including his conclusions about Jesus. But this is not being disclosed. “Zealot” is being presented as objective and scholarly history, not as it actually is—an educated Muslim’s opinions about Jesus and the ancient Near East.

“Zealot” is a fast-paced demolition of the core beliefs that Christianity has taught about Jesus for 2,000 years. Its conclusions are long-held Islamic claims—namely, that Jesus was a zealous prophet type who didn’t claim to be God, that Christians have misunderstood him, and that the Christian Gospels are not the actual words or life of Jesus but “myth.”

Remarkably, Dickerson manages to drone on for more than 750 words without refering to a single specific argument made by Aslan, beyond the general point that he approaches the Bible in a standard critical way:

Aslan informs us that we cannot trust the Gospel of Mark–because it was written 40 years after Jesus’ death. He then chides us to trust his new book, written almost 2,000 years later.

Judging from a quick browse of Aslan’s text on Amazon, it appears to me that Aslan’s perspective on the historicity of Mark is temperate and completely in line with mainstream scholarship and the understanding of educated Christians – which is that the text is assembles earlier traditions, and is written in a certain way in order to make a particular point. “Trust” is a complete red herring.

Aslan has scholarly credentials, but he’s not a specialist in this area (his PhD dissertation, under Mark Juergensmeyer, was on global Jihadism and transnationalism), and I’m generally sceptical when a book gets promoted ahead of others in the same field due to an author’s public profile as a commentator. However, to risk stating the obvious, Aslan’s arguments and use of evidence need to be judged against the work of other scholars. Academics who have written on the historical Jesus come from all kinds of faith backgrounds; there are no grounds for dismissing Aslan, much less for insulting him as “not being honest”, just because he happens to be a Muslim academic. His bibliography runs to ten pages, and shows a broad familiarity with standard scholarly books and articles on the subject (albeit all in English only, from what I could see); he also has around fifty pages of notes, which begin with an appreciation of John P. Meier‘s multi-volume study on Jesus, A Marginal Jew.

However, Dickerson and Green’s whining pales besides a predicably abusive screed by Pamela Geller that was published a few days ago on WorldNetDaily:

Robert Spencer is a writer without peer and a nonpareil scholar, the author of 12 books on Islam, jihad and related topics, including two New York Times bestsellers. Yet “Did Muhammad Exist?” was ignored and dismissed by the intelligentsia, the media elite and subversive academia.

…In what can only have been inspired by the Goebbels template, Reza Aslan will not only be on the Bill Maher show and “The Daily Show,” but this subversive lowlife will be speaking at universities like NYU, Ohio State and the University of Southern California, as well as at numerous public libraries and (gasp) synagogues like Temple Judea in Palm Beach, at upwards of $30,000 a pop. Despite denying basic Christian doctrines, he is speaking at several churches and even preaching the Sunday sermon at one.

[Although] “Did Muhammad Exist?” is a straightforward, dispassionate historical investigation, the media treated it as if it were the one that was designed solely to denigrate and disparage the founder of a religion. That is not true of Spencer’s book, but it is true of Aslan’s screed “Zealot.” Yet the media never comment on the derogatory title of Aslan’s book. It is just fine with the media to speak negatively about Jesus, deny his historicity, deny his importance, denigrate his teachings and more. But any true word that is spoken about Muhammad, whether it be about how he is depicted in Islamic texts or about the historical value of those texts, is viciously attacked.

The argument appears to be that because Aslan is a Muslim, we must assume that his book was written as an attack on Christianity; yet it is wrong to assume that Spencer – who makes a living polemicising against Islam – probably has a polemical intent.

I don’t know if Spencer’s well-deserved reputation means that his book was unfairly dismissed despite putting forward a serious case – although given what I know about Spencer’s shortcomings (e.g. herehere and here) I’d be surprised if it’s any good. But if Spencer was overlooked by “media elite and subversive academia”, conservative allies more than made up for it; the book’s designated website on the publisher’s page (the conservative ISI Books) carries quotes from various positive reviews from sources such as The Blaze and PJ Media.

UPDATE: Despite the widespread drubbing Fox has received over the interview, others have stepped in to continue the attacks on Aslan. At First Things, a certain Matthew J. Franck accuses him of “misrepresenting his scholarly credentials”, and seeks to prove his by point by pedantically deconstructing the wording of his formal qualifications; while Glenn Beck mocks Aslan for mentioning his qualifications at all, and for using the word “historicity”. Positively revelling in his own ignorance, Beck – who has an honorary doctorate from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University – declared:

if you don’t believe that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world, that’s fine. That’s fine. No biggie. Go your way. I’m going my way. I happen to believe it. And there is no doctorate that could ever be given to me  that would actually prove otherwise. Because you learn that through faith. You learn that through an individual testimony. I got one. You don’t have one, you should find one. You don’t want one, that’s fine. I don’t really care. Stop telling me who Jesus was.

12 Responses

  1. Oh for heaven sake, do none of these ignoramuses know that books examining Jesus and the origins of Christianity have been written by Jews, atheists, agnostics, Pagans, Hindus, Sikhs et al? And that some of them (unlike Aslan’s book) have been quite scurrilous and disrespectful?
    But of course, they don’t know – Fox hasn’t told them that!

  2. While I have no doubt that Aslan is a respected authority on Islam, though I haven’t read any of his books, I wonder how much research he has carried out on early Christianity. His wikipedia page gives no indication of research on the subject, though that would only be a start. Does anyone know if he has authored any scholarly publications on the subject?

    I also wonder who booked him for Fox News. Surely his literary agent/promoter must have known what would happen. I’m not saying this to excuse Fox News’ behavior, just that it is some very convenient buzz around his book.

    • If Green really wanted to ask him a tricky question, it would have been along the lines of: “how good is your German?”

      • In the interview, Aslan states that he has spent the last 20 years in New Testament research and has command of New Testament greek. I will have to look for some of his publications.

        Don’t get the German question, but maybe I am a little thick. I know a lot of New Testament work is done in German, is that what you mean?

        In my opinion, the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet a la Schweitzer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Quest_of_the_Historical_Jesus I doubt that Aslan would bring anything new to this debate, so I will take a pass on it.

    • I imagine he wanted to get booked on Fox precisely for the reason that he wanted this kind of an interview. This will increase his sales markedly. He should give his agent a bonus for arranging it.

  3. Yes – attempting to be a Biblical scholar without being able to a least read secondary sources in German is, I think, winging it somewhat. Plenty of books like Schweitzer’s have been translated into English, but most German academic articles won’t have been.

    Aslan’s perspective seems a bit similar to Hugh Schonfield’s Passover Plot.

  4. I’ve read the book. It’s definitely pitched towards a lay audience and there’s nothing in it that would be a surprise to any educated layperson who has read the Jesus scholarship in English over the last few decades. (However, given how woefully uneducated my fellow Americans are on the current Jesus scholarship, a popular book with those ideas has the potential for upset.) Aslan takes the position that Jesus was a small-z zealot who wanted to take the Temple (and by extension, Palestine itself) back from the Romans and their Jewish sycophants. This is not a popular viewpoint among Jesus scholars, but I don’t think it gets quite to the position of “The Passover Plot.” Anyway, just some comments.

  5. […] on Fox News to be interview by religion correspondent Lauren Green, the drubbing continued. Richard Bartholomew has the […]

  6. I found his interview with Jon Stewart to be more controversial. There he seems to mostly promote it as just a look at the human part of Jesus, but then later admits that he denies his divinity. And then he acts all offended that Christians might have a problem with that.

    The thing about Fox’s interview is that something like that is a legitimate criticism, yet they made it seem like their only problem is the fact that the guy is a Muslim, which would be a non-issue if he were more respectful to the Christian tradition. You can have a book about the humanity of Jesus while remaining open to (but not necessarily advocating) for his divinity.

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