A little simple, perhaps, but useful! On the Reza Aslan affair

by Ian Brown

First, an admission. While I have watched Fox News anchor Lauren Green’s interview with Reza Aslan, I have not read his book and likely will not. Based on the book’s chapter headings, bibliography, indebtedness to N.T. Wright, James Dunn, and E. P. Sanders (all rather conservative and/or theological historical Jesus scholars), the fact that it is part of the HarperCollins religion catalogue (not exactly known as a go-to publisher for books on ancient Christianity), and the fact that the hardcover is selling for $17.01 on Amazon.com leads me to believe that the book is probably not all that cutting edge and probably not all that scholarly. I can make this observation, however, because I have been a part of the academic study of religion for over ten years, and have read hundreds and hundreds of books and articles that examine the early years of the Jesus movement, as well as the historical Jesus. I am an extremely privileged observer here, noticing things that most outside of the academy would not.

And it seems to me that, when Aslan conducts media interviews and sells a book for $17.01, I am not the intended reader. The intended readers are the people who saw Aslan on Fox News (or more likely on buzzfeed), and who participated in his Q&A on reddit this past Monday. As such, I think criticisms regarding Aslan’s qualifications—his PhD is in sociology (because sociologists have never written books on early Christianity?), not the “history of religions” as he claims—as well as the ways in which he asserts his academic qualifications are somewhat less interesting than what Aslan is actually trying to do for the academic study of religion. This is not to say that we as scholars of religion should not critically engage with the many, MANY issues raised in and by the interview (see three provocative pieces by Craig MartinRussell McCutcheon and Steven Ramey), only that, in our efforts to be critical, we not overlook a crucial aspect of this interview: that millions of people saw it.

In his Fox News interview, Aslan went to bat for the academic study of religion, asserting time and time again his academic qualifications to discuss a subject that the interviewer thought his religious identity disqualified him from raising in the first place. He refused to let the interviewer’s ignorance be equal to his training. Is this not an issue all academics, especially those of us studying religion, face all the time: friends, family, students, and strangers not recognizing the difference between a simple opinion on religion and an opinion formulated by and grounded in the type of historical critical research to which we have devoted most of our adult lives?

Perhaps Aslan pressed his point in terms that were too simple, too black and white, but sometimes generalizations need to be made for the sake of making a point. Aslan is, I think, doing the rest of us a favor by getting his hands dirty and engaging in they types of generalizations about our field from which most of us shy away. Take, for example, something Aslan said in reply to a question he received on reddit from a 16 year old interested in studying religion:

Studying religions is the best thing you could do. If you are interested in history, sociology, art, architecture, philosophy, anthropology, but just can’t decide which to focus on, choose religion and you can study them all at once!

A little simple? Perhaps. But useful given the audience? I think so.

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5 Responses to A little simple, perhaps, but useful! On the Reza Aslan affair

  1. Brian Carwana says:

    Well said.

  2. Randi Warne says:

    An insightful assessment.

  3. H.M. Kaiser says:

    Does the adage, “don’t judge a book by its cover” (and table of contents, bibliography, indebtedness to N.T. Wright, James Dunn, and E. P. Sanders, [it being] part of the HarperCollins religion catalogue, and the hardcover [only] selling for $17.01 on Amazon.com) still apply here even if you have “been a part of the academic study of religion for over ten years, and have read hundreds and hundreds of books and articles that examine the early years of the Jesus movement, as well as the historical Jesus?” If this conversation, sparked from the Fox news’ interview, is as important as you suggest in your laconic opinion (“only that, in our efforts to be critical, we not overlook a crucial aspect of this interview: that millions of people saw it) why not read Aslan’s book, engage with it critically and help the field of religious studies by, as you rightly point out Aslan’s promotion of religious studies: “A little simple? Perhaps. But useful given the audience? I think so.”

  4. Phil Harland says:

    I understand your point here, but I’m not sure that “oh, us poor academic students of religion'” should be the conclusion. Perhaps a martyr complex? I overstate the point.

  5. Thanks for this Ian. You make an excellent point!

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