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August 10, 2013

The last thing you should read about Reza Aslan and Fox News

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/the_last_thing_you_should_read_about_reza_aslan_and_fox_news/

 

The Reza Aslan-Fox News controversy. Is that still a thing?

Two weeks ago, this interview attracted global attention when BuzzFeed asked "Is This The Most Embarassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?" Considering other potential candidates for the title, Fox News' interview of Aslan would have to be a real whopper. To be sure, it's a bad interview, but it can't be the worst. (Watch above for yourself if you haven't already done so (again and again)).

Despite the offense Aslan, a religion scholar, clearly took to the line of questions, I'm sure he didn't mind BuzzFeed's typical hyperbole, or the controversy itself. His new book, "Zealot," which was the reason Fox News invited him on, spent last week at No. 5 on USA Today's best seller list--six weeks before it will be released. The buzz and backlash did more for "Zealot" than a major marketing campaign typically could.

I've been following the Fox News fallout and Aslan ascendency since the interview occurred. (And was following Aslan's work long before.) But another move, this time from Miami to Manhattan, prevented me from chiming in until now. Please excuse the indulgence.

What seemed to irritate most people about the interview was host Lauren Green's first question, and specifically how that question was framed. After explaining that Aslan's new book, which posits a new historical Jesus, has generated controversy because it "calls into question some of the core tenets of Christianity," Green says:

"You're a Muslim, so why did you right a book about the founder of Christianity?"

There are a lot of immediate responses Aslan could have had to this question. The one that would have squelched the Fox News fire before it began would have been: "Well, you see, Jesus is an important figure in Islam too. He was a messenger of God. A prophet. Just not The Prophet." But Aslan's response belied a clear preparation for this question. It suggested that he knew what he was getting into when he agreed to go on Fox News:

"Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament ... who also just happens to be a Muslim."

From there, it gets worse for Fox News, and better for Aslan (discussed a bit with The Hollywood Reporter, which typically doesn't do Q&As with academics). To me, the key isn't the host's interest in Aslan's religion, but that she insists it divests him of the ability to fairly write a history of Jesus.

Aslan's opening response is spot on. He is a scholar, and scholars write about topics on which they are experts. Personal beliefs obviously shape a scholar's perspective -- just as they shape a reporter's understanding and framing of a story. But there is no personal belief requirement, and there shouldn't be. That wouldn't be scholarship; it would be advocacy.

This does, however, beg a question tha Fox News would have been better off asking: Does "Zealot" meet the standards of religious scholarship?

Elizabeth Castelli, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Religion at Barnard College, answered that yesterday in The Nation (which may have a slightly different ideological baseline than Fox News:

Simply put, Zealot does not break new ground in the history of early Christianity. It isn’t clear that any book framed as a “the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth” could, in fact, do so. Indeed, if it had not been thrust into the limelight by an aggressive marketing plan, the painfully offensive Fox News interview, and Aslan’s own considerable gifts for self-promotion, Zealot would likely have simply been shelved next to myriad other examples of its genre, and everyone could get back to their lives. As it is, the whole spectacle has been painful to watch. And as it is with so many spectacles, perhaps the best advice one might take is this: Nothing to see here, people. Move along.

Well, now that I've had my chance to chime in, I'm going to take Castelli's advice and recommend you do, too.

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