If Fox News set out to help a Muslim promote a book about Jesus, they’ve definitely succeeded. But I doubt that was the intent behind their interview with Reza Aslan based on the way the interview was conducted.
I’d never heard of Reza Aslan until I spotted a video of a television interview titled, “Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?”
Thanks to Fox News, I definitely know who Aslan is now. And If I were Fox News, I’d certainly be embarrassed. But not so much because of the questions they asked, but rather, the way they went about asking them.
The Opening Attack
From the start, the anchor jumped on a topic Fox News columnist John Dickerson had already raised in an op/ed piece on Fox News’s website: Aslan’s personal faith. The acclaimed religious scholar is a Muslim, and Dickerson’s post accused the “liberal media” of failing to mention this fact in covering his book:
His book is not a historian’s report on Jesus. It is an educated Muslim’s opinion about Jesus — yet the book is being peddled as objective history on national TV and radio.
Zealot is a fast-paced demolition of the core beliefs that Christianity has taught about Jesus for 2,000 years.
Aslan is not a trained historian. Like tens of thousands of us he has been formally educated in theology and New Testament Greek.
He is a bright man with every right to hold his own opinion about Jesus—and to proselytize his opinion.
As a sincere man, Aslan’s Muslim beliefs affect his entire life, including his conclusions about Jesus. But this is not being disclosed. “Zealot” is being presented as objective and scholarly history, not as it actually is—an educated Muslim’s opinions about Jesus and the ancient Near East.
Ironically, Dickerson goes on to call himself is “a journalist and author who is Christian” yet certainly expects no one to question his representation of the “Muslim agenda”. Nowhere in Dickerson’s op/ed, however, does he make mention of his primary job, which is mentioned in the author tag: Dickerson is a senior pastor at an Arizona church. I’m sure he didn’t forget that fact as he wrote of himself as a journalist and author.
The Interview Itself
When anchor Lauren Green began her interview with Aslan, this was the point on which she focused from the very beginning:
GREEN: This is an interesting book. Now I want to clarify, you’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?
ASLAN: Well to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees — including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades — who also just happens to be a Muslim. So it’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus, I am an expert with a Ph.D in the history of religions…
GREEN: But it still begs the question why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?
ASLAN: Because it’s my job as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually.
I’ve not read Aslan’s book. I don’t really have any intention to at this point; that’s not because he’s a Muslim or because I’m somehow afraid to read a religious analysis of Jesus Christ that may or may not challenge any views I personally hold about Christ Himself. I’m a Christian, but I don’t perceive controversial discussions about Jesus Christ — even from well-read, well-trained scholars — as some general “threat” to my religion.
My point here is to address the manner in which this interview was conducted and why it seems obvious to me that the agenda here seems to be on the part of the interviewer, not the interviewee.
How It Should Have Happened
To address the Muslim “concern” about Aslan’s credibility, let me be clear: asking a Muslim author why he’d write about Jesus is not an unreasonable question. I think the general public might be quite surprised to learn that Muslims do acknowledge Christ as a prophet. They do not, obviously, view Him the same way Christians do, but Christ does appear in their religious beliefs.
The responsible way to have begun the interview, however, was to talk about the point of the interview itself: It’s the book, stupid.
The first question should have been, “Tell us a bit about why you decided to write this book.”
It’s a good way to get into the story of the book itself, Aslan’s background, and it gives the author himself an opportunity to decide, right off the start, whether to disclose that he is of the Muslim faith. (It’s likely he would focus on his scholarly background and theological training over his own personal faith, but if you go in with the agenda that he’s “hiding” that faith, you’ve at least allowed him to do that talking rather than supporting claims of oppression before giving him the chance to oppress something to begin with.
The second question should have been, “There have been a lot of books written about Jesus: how is your view of Jesus different?”
As mind boggling as it seems, she never actually asks this question:
This is the indirect heart of the matter that those who believe Aslan has been trying to hide an agenda are implying: that his view of Jesus must be substantially different from that of “mainstream” Christians.
Assuming that he does present a drastically different view of Jesus, and a good interviewer always listens to the answers and allows them to lead into the next question whenever possible, a third question could then have been this:
You are a Muslim. Some suggest that you are intentionally hiding your own beliefs and that your religious background skews your view of Jesus to one that happens to be a view more supported by the Muslim faith. What do you say to those critics and how do you back up those findings?
This accomplishes several things in one question: First, it brings his religion into the conversation, assuming he hasn’t already done so. Second, it addresses the notion that he’s “hiding” it, as others suggest. Third, it presents an alternate view that he has an “agenda” about which we should be aware. Fourth, it challenges him to offer specific evidence — at least as specific as he can in the allotted time.
More importantly, it presents an appearance of neutrality, thus allowing the viewer to make up his mind about the subject of the interview based upon the questions and answers, not based upon the questions alone.
I was quite amused to see several loyal Fox News fans see nothing wrong with the questioning. Further, they see Aslan as “arrogant,” “pompous,” or even “a jerk,” based on comments I’ve seen on Facebook defending the network’s tactics.
Your position on how the interviewer and the author conducted themselves likely reflects your relative loyalty to Fox News as well.
It's too bad Fox didn't give you the interview to do. It would have made for more informative television - but oops what am I thinking! they are not about informative TV over there. I'm an NPR snob (I work for a PBS affiliate so I should be) - I learned about Aslan's book way before the other networks had him on through a Morning Edition interview: http://www.npr.org/2013/07/14/200844275/zealot-tells-the-story-of-jesus-the-man-not-the-messiah In the interview, Aslan talks about his evolution in faith - he was an evangelical Christian before converting to Islam.
At any rate, I really don't see what the commotion is. There have been many books before that have come out and argued the same thing: that the historical Jesus is different from Jesus the Christ of the Christian faith. Just watch the History Channel during the Christmas and Easter season and there are a slew of documentaries that say this. The PBS documentary "From Jesus to Christ" said something similar - but the emphasis was not so much on Jesus the person but how Christianity evolved from being a fringe religion practiced by backwater Jews to how St. Paul fleshed out doctrines and took it took it to the masses.
As a Catholic Christian who enjoys reading about history - I find it all very interesting. And some of the documents and books shed light on what culture was like back then. Ultimately I don't think they refute Christianity. Most people become Christians because they were inspired by a Christian they met and they had an encounter with Christ themselves in whatever form that took. People of other faiths - Muslim, Jews, Hindus, Sinkhs also often say they were led to their faiths because they had a spiritual encounter too.
I can understand it might be a "roll your eyes" moment to learn that a Muslim has written a book about the historical Jesus. But it's also too easy to write it off as a Muslim "blog" about Christianity rather than at least reading the book jacket and seeing his credentials and the research he put into it. If you are strong in your faith you either say "that's nice, but I'm not interested in reading it" or read it and then simply say "that's nice."
Have you heard the interview with this author conducted by John Oliver on the Daily Show? They actually discuss the contents of the book. I found it interesting. It's available here: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-july-17-2013/exclusive---reza-aslan-extended-interview-pt--1 and is in 3 parts. (Wow. I had no idea it would embed the video. Hope you don't mind!)