The Common Good

Reza Aslan on Fox News: Punch, Counter-Punch

Are you feeling a bit smug about the way historian and author Reza Aslan out-debated Lauren Green on Fox News on Friday, July 26? The clip of the interview about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, has become a YouTube sensation with almost 3 million views in four days and much of its popularity is due to liberals gloating over Lauren Green’s obvious embarrassment at being out maneuvered on her own show. From her opening question it was clear she was itching for a fight.

Punch

Here’s her opening salvo: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” This was less a question than an accusation. A Muslim, she seemed to be saying, who is writing about Christianity must have an agenda and we all know what that is – to destroy Christianity! She followed up for the first 5 minutes of the interview with questions that simply cited others making the same accusation, cynically pandering to her audience with what she hoped would be a knock-down, drag out boxing match in which she would put this arrogant Muslim masquerading as a “scholar” in his place. To her chagrin and the delight of liberals everywhere, Aslan came prepared for battle.

Counter-Punch

Aslan defended himself against her accusation of bias with a clever feint. He redirected her attack by agreeing that of course, he is a Muslim, but that is not the critical component of his biography. Here’s his answer to her opening question as I transcribed it: “To be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament, fluency in biblical Greek who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades who also just happens to be a Muslim. It’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus. I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.” He mentions his credentials four more times during the interview. His point? How could you accuse me of having a hidden agenda when I am an academic scholar only interested in the facts? Historians, he wants Ms. Green and all of us to believe, are bias-free pursuers of the truth. The unspoken accusation is that Ms. Green is not interested in the truth and is in fact the one with the agenda, which is to destroy Islam and defend Christianity against any and all attacks.

Counter-Pander

I’m sorry to have to be the bearer of bad news, but Aslan was doing some pretty fancy cynical pandering of his own right there. He came loaded for bear, as they say out West, cocked and ready to play to the stereotypes that his supporters hold:  that Fox News is not “fair and balanced,” but biased and hypocritical. What they would really enjoy more than a substantive discussion of the book, would be to see a Fox News personality take it on the chin. How right he was and what a clever way to sell books! According to a report in the New York Times business section:

“in two days, sales increased 35 percent. On Friday, Zealot was in the No. 8 spot on Amazon.com, the nation’s biggest seller of books; by Sunday, it had hit No. 1. Random House is rushing to meet the surge in demand for the book. On Monday, the publisher ordered 50,000 copies, bringing the total to 150,000 copies in print by the end of the week.”

Congratulations Mr. – I mean Dr. Aslan.

Who’s Biased Now?

I’m guessing that all those proud owners of their very own copy of the book of the guy who showed Fox News what for might argue that Aslan won the debate on more than style points. His claim to being a scholar writing without any bias is indisputable. Historians are trained to be seekers after the truth, aren’t they, dealing only with facts they can verify? Let’s take a quick look at Dr. Aslan’s argument to see if he is indeed without bias. When finally he and Ms. Green get to a discussion of his book, he points out that there is one fact that everyone who studies the historical Jesus agrees upon: he was crucified by the Romans, a punishment reserved almost exclusively for the crimes of treason, sedition, and rebellion against the authority of Rome. Then he explains that if all you knew of Jesus was his crucifixion by the Romans, “you know enough to know what a trouble maker he must have been. The movement he started was such a threat to the political stability of the empire that they actually had him tortured and killed for it.”

To borrow from an interview that purportedly was more substantive, here’s what Dr. Aslan told John Oliver on the Daily Show about why he is writing about the historical person of Jesus and not the Christ of faith:

“This man who lived 2,000 years ago who defied this most powerful empire the world had ever known – and lost! – but nevertheless stood up for the weak and powerless, the outcast and the dispossessed. And ultimately sacrificed his life for those people. Christians believe he sacrificed his life to free us from sin; that’s a perfectly fine interpretation for the Christ. But what we know about the man, Jesus, is that he went to the cross on behalf of these outcasts that he was fighting for.”

No matter how you slice it, this is not an unbiased statement of facts. Dr. Aslan is engaged in an act of interpretation, which is what the work of historians is all about. They are not just stating a fact such as, “Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Romans,” but offering a context in which to understand those facts. For Dr. Aslan that context is a failed attempt to overthrow the Roman Empire on behalf of the marginalized and dispossessed. Of course, this context is lifted quite unconsciously from the point of view of the empire itself: “This puny guy from the backwaters of the empire thought he could threaten us! Ha ha! We hung him from a cross – we win!” That Jesus came to overthrow the Roman Empire by armed insurrection and that his quest was a failure is an interpretative narrative from the empire itself.

Embrace Your Bias

Dr. Aslan is perfectly free to adopt that interpretative stance, but he is being hypocritical if he pretends he doesn’t have one — just as hypocritical as his adversary, Ms. Green. Dr. Aslan has chosen the Roman point of view over that of the early Christians who proclaimed Jesus triumphant over the powers and principalities. Ms. Green would have been better served if she had conducted the interview by representing the point of view of Jesus himself who says, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33)

She could have asked the much more interesting question of Dr. Aslan, which is why he accepts the Roman’s view of Jesus. Doesn’t he think the Romans had a bias, as much of a bias as that of the early Christians? Despite what Ms. Green and Dr. Aslan want us to believe, our choice is never between a biased point of view and the unvarnished truth. Our choice always involves which interpretative lens we are going to use to understand ourselves, our world, and in this case, the impact of the life of a peasant from Nazareth on the course of human history. If we are going to have any chance of telling the truth, we need to begin with being honest about our point of view. Only then can we examine whether our bias has the potential to convey the truth or functions only to conceal it. That’s the interview I’d like to see.

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

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