This is the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Reza Aslan

Thin-frame glasses owner Reza Aslan needs to stock up on Kiehl’s silk groom, because there are a lot of serious photo shoots on the schedule and that just-roughed-up-by-Fox News look does not just happen by itself. Readers may recall the internet clip in which a Fox reporter interviewed Aslan about his new volume, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The line of argument was: You hew personally to Muslim beliefs, so who is going to be interested in your book, which is more of a personal interpretation of the life-story of Jesus of Nazareth, drawing here and there upon the literature, but by its very own terms not actually contributing anything academic. That’s actually a good question.

Here is how the interview went:

This is being widely billed as embarrassing for Fox. Cable news tends not to delve deeply into folks’ résumés. Instead, publicists for publishing companies send around emails with bullet points. Things like “Authoritative Religious Scholar! Tell-all book on Jesus!” And probably this anchor did not do enough digging, because she didn’t grill Aslan quite hard enough. (At least she did not confuse a peer-reviewed academic study with a paper by an undergraduate in order to make a innumerate point about minimum wages at McDonald’s.)

If you are like me, you were always curious about the people who majored in Religious Studies in college. It is not that these people were not religious themselves, so how dare they study religion. The motivation to study, forensically, the theologies that move the people of the world I find to be completely comprehensible. But the Religious Studies departments and those who occupy them are more properly defined not by what they are, but by what they are not. They are not philologists, who scientifically study the usage or evolution of words in texts. They are not archeologists, who find actual things in the silicate. They are not geologists, who study outcroppings and might be able to tell you if the falernum wine was drinking particularly nicely in the Rome of Jesus’s day. They aren’t English scholars, who try to understand the beauty and intended meaning of the words in the King James Bible. (I first read the K.J. Bible under the tutelage of the superb, tasteful, and indeed atheist Professor David Wykes at Dartmouth.) And they are not classicists who might be able to tell you what a few senators actually thought of Jesus and his followers. Instead, they are scholars of Religion. Odd, that.

Of course, even if Reza Aslan was a scholar of religion, it is not as though a scholar of religion would employ his degree to big league a poor cable news reporter into believing that a work of personal reflection is authoritative historical fact. Oh, wait:

Let’s have a look at that C.V., Reza!

Aslan, Reza
Associate Professor of Creative Writing
College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Creative Writing
University of California at Riverside

So Aslan is a creative writing professor at a subaltern U.C. school. But surely his actual studies were in the hard facts. Here is the rest of his C.V. from the data that is publicly available. (Most scholars place their entire multi-page C.V.s online, along with a full listing of guest lectures, publications, and guest professorships. This seems not to be the case for Aslan.)

1995 B.A. in religion, Santa Clara University

1999 Master of Theological Studies, Harvard [a two-year degree]

2002 Master of Fine Arts in Fiction, University of Iowa

2009 Ph.D. in sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara

This is a pattern well known to the modern. One dabbles in religion in undergraduate, maybe purchases a pricey Masters at a good school, and then turns to what he always wanted to do in the first place, which is to compose expressive narrative fiction. For the first time, Aslan is enjoying some real domestic sales success as a result of this Fox News contretemps. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Still, the exchange, however uncomfortable for the interviewee, rapidly proved a book publicist’s dream come to life. Almost overnight, a link to the interview on Buzzfeed attracted five million views. Zealot shot to a No. 1 sales ranking on, and was climbing toward the top of The New York Times’s best-seller list. In an odd sense, “historical Jesus” studies had hit the headlines.

Aslan gets his back up and draws out his “four degrees” just thirty seconds into the interview, and the entire enterprise comes off, to me, as a performance art piece. But it’s more worrying if it is not a performance art piece. One does not gather up a B.A. in religion, an M.F.A., a sociology doctorate, and a masters and set about pronouncing historical fact like an antiquarian archeologist fresh from a dig. Aslan’s doctoral thesis was a 140-page work entitled “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: A Theoretical Framework.” The phrase “A Theoretical Framework” translates to “Not History.”

My best read of Reza Aslan is that he wanted to write novels roughly along the lines of the screenplay of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but fell into the degree-collecting trap while on his way, and that final veer from serious scholarship–the M.F.A. at modern novelist factory Iowa followed by sociology in sun-drunk Santa Barbara–left poor Aslan without any sense of direction at all. He looked back upon all that time in academe and concluded rightly that he, as have so many of us, chose poorly; he started to make an orthogonal shift into serious studies. But that is the sort of thing one does very gingerly, very delicately. Which makes his pulling rank on Fox News really very amusing.

As for the book itself, Lord knows what is in it. I have a long sailing trip coming up, so I’ll buy a copy and page through it.

My sense, though, from reading reviews of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is that it is a highly selective curation of existing historical literature motivated by a personal expression. (Which makes the Fox line of inquiry, roughly speaking, valid.) Specifically, it seems that what Aslan tells us on the cover that he is going to tell us–viz., who Jesus really was, what he was doing, why he was doing it–is very different from what he actually shows in the substance of the book.

Crucially, adds Mr. Aslan, the punishment meted out to Jesus, crucifixion, was reserved for perpetrators of insurrection, rebellion, treason, and sedition—all provocations against Roman rule. So, he argues, “if we really want to know who Jesus was and what he meant, we should start not at the beginning of the story—with him in a manger—but at the end of the story, with him on a cross,” meeting the fate of a man whose “zeal” marked him for death.

Yes, except that all we learn from the Roman state’s interpretation of what Jesus and his followers were up to is…