It looks like I really stirred things up yesterday with my post “Reza Aslan Misrepresents His Scholarly Credentials,” especially after Drudge linked to it in the afternoon. Some folks in the comments and on Twitter thought I had destroyed Aslan’s credibility in toto–which wasn’t my intent. Some folks thought that I was attacking him because he is a Muslim–which only recapitulates an overly sensitive reading of the Fox interview that started all this. Others wanted to make this all about me and my own credentials to make my observations–and they’re welcome to go down that rabbit trail, but I won’t follow.
But the overwhelming response of people disagreeing with me was that I was hair-splitting about Aslan’s credentials. Last night his dissertation advisor Mark Juergensmayer weighed in:
Since i was Reza’s thesis adviser at the Univ of California-Santa Barbara, I can testify that he is a religious studies scholar. (I am a sociologist of religion with a position in sociology and an affiliation with religious studies). Though Reza’s PhD is in sociology most of his graduate course work at UCSB was in the history of religion in the dept of religious studies. Though none of his 4 degrees are in history as such, he is a “historian of religion” in the way that that term is used at the Univ of Chicago to cover the field of comparative religion; and his theology degree at Harvard covered Bible and Church history, and required him to master New Testament Greek. So in short, he is who he says he is.
I don’t think this defense will altogether suffice. Professor Juergensmayer does provide information not readily available on the surface of Aslan’s record, about his course work in religious studies from a historical point of view. (This path to a sociology doctorate, with a dissertation employing sociological perspectives, is a bit unusual, but odd things happen in grad school all the time.) But look again at the relevant statements Aslan made on Fox:
I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament . . . I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions . . . I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament–that’s what I do for a living, actually . . . To be clear, I want to emphasize one more time, I am a historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions.
After the words “I am a scholar of religions with four degrees,” there is nothing more here that is altogether true. He is certainly not “a professor of religions” teaching the New Testament “for a living.” When does exaggeration become fabulism? Right here, I think.
Place the whole thing in context–if you can bear it, watch the video again. Aslan reacts to the innocuous question “why would a Muslim write a book about Jesus” by turning defensive, arrogant, petulant, and condescending all at once. Instead of answering the question (as Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry says, a perfectly inoffensive one in itself), he recites, and in escalating fashion inflates, his scholarly credentials. He seems intent on browbeating his interviewer into accepting that he is a younger version of Peter Brown, Robert Louis Wilken, N.T. Wright, or John Dominic Crossan. In short, he insists on being treated as a recognized, academically credentialed expert on the subject about which he has written his latest book. And that’s why I wrote what I did. Because he is not one.
As Alan Jacobs writes (my emphasis):
First, Reza Aslan is not a New Testament scholar. In Zealot, he is writing well outside his own academic training. This does not mean that his book is a bad one, or that he shouldn’t have written it, only that it is primarily a sifting and re-presenting of the work of actual NT scholars. . . .
Reza Aslan’s book is an educated amateur’s summary and synthesis of a particularly skeptical but quite long-established line of New Testament scholarship, presented to us as simple fact.
I suggested yesterday that maybe Aslan took the high-dudgeon approach because he didn’t really want to talk about his book; he certainly turned the ten minutes into an interview about himself far more than about his book (his doing, not the interviewer’s). Gobry has it about right:
Oh sure, Fox News had its own agenda. But Aslan could have played it cool, or presumed good faith at least on the first question. That’s if he hadn’t been coming on the interview just for this. To assume bigotry on the part of Fox News, to talk about his academic bona fides, and therefore to generate a viral moment and juice his book sales.
A better interview (but one drawing less attention) would have been achieved if Aslan had been charming and disarming. Imagine this:
Interviewer: Why did you, a Muslim, write a book about Jesus?
Aslan: Well, many Christians and Jews have written about Islam, of course. The answer is that Jesus is a fascinating historical figure, viewed from any perspective. I have scholarly training in the study of religion–more than one degree in it, including my Ph.D. in sociology–and I have written mostly about Islam up until now. This is new territory for me, doing a book-length study of Jesus and the origins of Christianity, but I have read everything I could get my hands on, weighed all the scholarly debates, and hope my book will be useful to the book-reading public in explaining what we can really know, historically, about Jesus.
Unfortunately, such a becoming–and wholly accurate–modesty was not the path Aslan chose in his Fox interview.