Reza Aslan. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The “most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done,” in which anchor Lauren Green challenged the legitimacy of author Reza Aslan for writing Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, seemed to be popping up everywhere on social media last week. The absurdity of the spectacle was multifold: Why—why?!—would a Muslim want to write about Jesus, Green kept asking, as though a nefarious plot to undermine Christianity were somehow afoot. Meanwhile, Aslan made a show of insisting that he possesses not only the academic credentials and but also the professional duty to do so (“My job as a scholar of religions with a PhD in the subject is to write about religions”). The story was quickly framed as a battle between the right-wing Islamophobes of Fox News and Aslan, the defender of intellectual life and scholarship.
Then an article in the right-wing Catholic publication, First Things, challenged Aslan’s claims about his academic credentials (his 2009 PhD is in sociology and was awarded on the basis of a 140-page dissertation on contemporary Muslim political activism) and his academic position (he is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside and does not hold either a doctorate nor a teaching position in the academic study of religion).
Those of us in the academic field of religious studies, especially biblical scholars and historians of early Christianity, found the whole business deeply cringe-worthy. The Fox News interview was not just embarrassing but downright offensive. The anti-Muslim bias of Fox is well-documented and is bad enough, whatever the specific context. But for scholars of religion, the Green’s conflation of the academic study of religion with personal religious identification is a familiar misunderstanding. After all, as one friend of mine puts it pithily, “You don’t have to be a zebra to study zoology.”
And then there has been a lot of debate, online and off, about whether Aslan possesses the proper credentials to write the book he has written. On this point, I wish to be quite clear: it is in principle quite possible for a scholar trained in one area of specialization to produce respectable work outside the framework of that field. Some of the most interesting work in the academic study of religion has been produced by scholars who, trained in one subspecialty, extend their studies into other domains.
Aslan’s claims concerning his academic degrees have led to some confusion: he uses the term “historian of religions” at times, “historian” at others. To people unfamiliar with the intellectual histories involved, the first term may not resonate. “History of religions” derives from the nineteenth-century German university context where the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule [history-of-religions school] sought to place the phenomenon of religion—especially in its archaic and ancient iterations—in social and cultural context. It has since become the name for a particular disciplinary approach to the study of religion, most often associated in the United States with the University of Chicago and the University of California at Santa Barbara, where Aslan earned his PhD in sociology. To the extent that he did coursework in the UCSB Religious Studies department, he can certainly lay claim to preparation in the history-of-religions approach. Although this approach was influential on the study of the New Testament and early Christianity in the first two decades of the twentieth century, it has had little impact in the decades since.
Aslan’s broader claim to working as a historian, however, is another matter. Frankly, he would probably have been cut a good deal more slack by specialists had he simply said that he was working as an outsider to the field, interested in translating work by scholars of early Christianity for a broader audience. But his claims are more grandiose than that and are based on his repeated public statements that he speaks with authority as a historian. He has therefore reasonably opened himself to criticism on the basis of that claim.