It’s About Reza Aslan Being a Muslim, But You Already Knew That

By now, if you follow any part of the politically-conscious liberal internet, you’ve seen the excruciating clip of pop religion scholar Reza Aslan on Fox News. In the clip, Fox News’ token POC anchor and classical musician Lauren Green directly confronted, among other things, Aslan’s academic credentials, and his right to compose a book about Christianity as a Muslim. It was an argument that was equally ignorant of the long history of Christians writing books about Islam, the nature of scholarship, and Aslan’s own complicated religious past (he converted to Evangelical Christianity as a teenager).
Aslan’s direct, straightforward response to Green’s venom was pitch-perfect, which is probably why his book on the life of Jesus, Zealot, has shot up from moderate sales to #4 on the NYT’s best-seller list.
In spite of (or perhaps, because of) the public humiliation of one of their own by Aslan, conservatives have been both intensifying their critique of his credentials and painting Aslan as a radical. Several internet posts challenged Aslan’s scholarly credentials and how relevant they were to Zealot. One of these posts alleged that Aslan’s credentials have nothing to with religion and referred to him as a “creative writing professor.” This is despite the fact that Aslan’s M.A was at Harvard Divinity School. And for Aslan’s Ph.D in Sociology of Religion, he was advised by iconic sociologist of religion Mark Juergensmeyer, which is sort of the religious studies equivalent of being given guitar lessons by Keith Richards.
This is all a long way of saying that every critique the radical right has brought up of Aslan is either dishonest, hypocritical, or nitpicky. All these critiques are designed to mask the real reason conservatives are upset – because Aslan is a Muslim saying things about Christianity.
In this respect, there is a deep irony in the over-reaction of the right to Aslan’s work. After white American and European Christians spent basically two hundred years doing unbelievably wrong-headed and orientalist critiques of Muslim civilization (see Said’s Orientalism for a fun list), the writing of just one Muslim – and a highly westernized, highly sympathetic Muslim at that – have caused conservatives to collectively lose their shit. If this hypocrisy is too abstract for you, consider that when Green was very content to let a Southern Baptist shit all over Islam in a 2011 interview.

Some of the critiques of Aslan are more complicated, and have some merits. A Huffington Post article about “Pastors and Professors” critiquing Zealot offers a whole smattering of arguments that do not openly critique Aslan’s Islamic faith. These can essentially be pared down to two arguments: that Aslan is wrong and the Bible is a historical document, and  For the sake of the reader, I have summarized the arguments and commented on them:

1. “There’s very little evidence that Jesus has a radically different teaching than what the early church believed” – John Ortberg, Pastor

Okay, so it all depends on what we mean by “radically different”. The Jesus we see in book of Mark is very different than the Jesus we see in the book of John. Besides, there is a very strong probability that there is a mysterious lost source, dubbed the “Q source“, that we have now lost. Oh, and do we count the Gospel of Thomas as evidence of Jesus’ teachings?

The reality is, there were a variety of Christianities in the first and second century world. They all believed that Jesus said different things. The idea that the version of Jesus’ life that became authoritative is not necessarily the true one is pretty valid.

So John Ortberg, your argument is invalid. Next!

2. “We just don’t know enough about Jesus [to write a book about him]” – Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religious Studies. (Prothero also added that Aslan’s Islam did influence his writing, and that Aslan’s Jesus is a “failed Prophet Muhammad”)

For the last time, Aslan wrote a whole chapter about how his Islam influenced his writing! But you know which religion has an even greater vested interest in shaping the narrative of Jesus’ life?

I’ll give you three guesses.

I’m honestly surprised to see Prothero, who is at least moderately well-regarded in the field of religious studies, argue that trying to uncover the historical Jesus is a doomed process. We have a lot of information about Jesus’ life actually available to us, certainly more than enough to construct a few facts about Jesus, from which we can construct historical narratives of at least part of his life. It’s ultimately an anti-scholarly argument that seems to come from a dishonest place.

Also, I’m really sick of people saying that Aslan’s depiction of Jesus matches the Muslim depiction of Jesus. Muslims generally do not believe in the crucifixion, Aslan does. Muslims instead believe that Jesus appeared to be crucified but actually ascended to heaven before he died.

The idea that Jesus was a man and not necessarily a God (which is different from not a God, by the way) is a contention of secular scholarship. It is not a Muslim belief. Muslims believe definitively that Jesus is not a God but a prophet. Religious Studies scholarship (and Aslan) take the middle opinion, which is “no opinion.”

So, Mr. Prothero, you are wrong.

Again, I’m not trying to say Aslan’s book is perfect, or even necessarily accurate, but all the arguments I have found against it are a-historical and unscientific.

 

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