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About that Fox News interview…

If you know a lot of leftists, as I do, chances are you’ve encountered a link to this interview of Reza Aslan by Lauren Green at some point in the past two days or so.  They see the interview as an example of the evil of Fox News.  They claim it illustrates the bias of the network, and that it illustrates how “smart” the author is and how he “totally pwns the interviewer’s assumptions.”

I watched the interview, and I encourage you to do the same, but my main reaction to their claims about it is to think:  Excuse me?  Did we even watch the same interview?  I believe neither the interviewer nor the guest came off particularly well in this exchange.

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Lauren Green comes across as someone who likely hasn’t read the book, but who has read many reviews of the book, and is trying to provoke a response from the author. Reza Aslan, though, comes across as the ultimate disingenuous academic who says, “I am just a historian, I have no agenda whatsoever.”  He keeps reiterating that he is an academic with a PhD, as though that is an adequate defense against bias.  Green could have done a more skillful job challenging his assumptions or his arguments; her questions only serve to make him defensive, and so the interview doesn’t appear to accomplish much for either party.

Nevertheless, I didn’t view the interview as a complete failure for Fox News.  Quite to the contrary, I thought it illustrated that there is more journalistic spirit alive at Fox News than at most of the mainstream press outlets who have interviewed the author or reported on the book.  Why do I say that?  Because, the other morning I had to endure this NPR interview with the same author of the same book, and I heard a lot of claims by Aslan about his book, and his beliefs, but no one challenged those claims or tried to interrogate Aslan’s motivations for writing the book that he wrote.  The NPR interview was so concerned with helping him make his points, that it could have just as easily come from the public relations office of his publisher.

Not surprisingly, the other day NPR’s website featured this story entitled “Reza Aslan Hearts NPR”: “Author and religious scholar Reza Aslan is one of those people who’s at NPR West so often that he blurs the line between guest and employee. We always joke with our regulars that they should have a punch card, and when it’s full, they get their own cubicle.”  Even less surprisingly, today NPR has this sympathetic story about the reaction on the left to the Fox News  interview.

When you compare NPR’s very sympathetic pieces helping Aslan promote both his book and his talking points, with Lauren Green’s somewhat awkward attempt to interrogate him, though, it’s pretty clear to me which “news” outlet is more interested in informing its viewers and letting them decide for themselves.   Green’s interview told us much more about Aslan than NPR’s pieces: it showed us something of his character, it introduced us to some of the controversies surrounding the book, and it raised the question of his worldview and its influence on his writing.

And as it turns out, there is a lot of reason for controversy, as Pamela Geller Robert Spencer points out in her his own detailed post about the controversy (hat tip: Pamela Geller).   Geller Spencer writes:

I don’t care about his scholarly credentials. Even if everything he had said about his degrees had been true, it would confer on his book no presumption of accuracy or truth. I am constantly assailed for lacking scholarly credentials, but as it happens, when it comes to writing about religion I have exactly the same credentials as Aslan, a B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, and an M.A. in Religious Studies. His other two degrees are in other fields.

But anyway, it doesn’t matter: there are plenty of fools with degrees, and plenty of geniuses without them. My work, and Aslan’s, stands or falls on its merits, not on the number of degrees we have. Aslan’s pulling rank on Lauren Green and starting to reel off (inaccurately) his degrees was a sign of insecurity: it implied that he didn’t think his book could stand on its merits, and had to be accepted because he had a lot of degrees. And indeed, his book doesn’t stand on its merits.

I encourage you to be sure to read Geller’s Spencer’s whole post.

To my mind, the reaction on the left tells us more about their fondness for credentials and their disdain for Fox News than anything else;  that the same people who view this interview as an instance of intolerable bias think nothing of the swill served up regularly by NPR and MSNBC should tell us all we need to know.

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13 Comments

  1. i was prepared to jump to fox’s defense but i have to admit that the interview was a pathetic attempt to browbeat aslan. the reason he keeps bringing up his credentials is because she keeps asking him ‘WHY would he write about jesus?’ and he has to explain over and over again that, as a scholar in the field of religion, that’s what he DOES. he has written about other religions as well because that’s what he DOES. it’s not, as the interviewer would have it, just a case of some wild-eyed muslim out to dis christianity. she never even mentions anything from the book with which she, nor the critics she cites, disagrees. for her, it’s enough that he’s muslim and the subject is jesus and, therefore, the book has to be an insulting hatchet job…and why won’t he just admit it ?!
    we often blame the MSM of having a narrative and doing everything and anything to squeeze any story to fit that mold. that is exactly what happened here.

    Comment by el polacko — July 30, 2013 @ 1:38 am - July 30, 2013

  2. el polacko: You have a point, but I would say that her question, while poorly-worded, comes from a legitimate place. She’s trying to ask about his motivation for writing about that topic, and she’s asking how his religious background fits into his choice of the topic and his perspective on his subject. His answer, “I’m a scholar and that’s what I do,” is evasive and unsatisfactory. Just because he’s a “scholar of religion” doesn’t obligate him to write about any subject that he’s not motivated to write about.

    I can think of at least half a dozen ways he could have approached that question more effectively than he does. As Pamela Geller points out, he gets defensive right away and “pulls rank.” A more skillful scholar would have said something like, “Well, while it is true that I am a Muslim, my perspective on the topic derives partly from the fact that I was raised in a mixed-faith household. I first studied religion seriously in college, where I learned about the history of the Bible…” He won’t even attempt to engage with the questions. I’d say he’s got as much of a narrative going about Fox News as this interviewer may have about him.

    Comment by Kurt — July 30, 2013 @ 3:00 am - July 30, 2013

  3. Part of my response to this, I suppose, is that Aslan could show us what he knows, but instead, he responds to Green’s questions by telling us that he’s “a scholar with a PhD” and that his book has 100 pages of endnotes, as though those facts are enough to convince us that he is not pushing any sort of agenda. The interview reminded me a little bit of the old “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” skit on Saturday Night Live where the caveman lawyer argues every case by telling us, “I’m just a simple caveman lawyer” and then turns to “but there is one thing I do know…” It’s a kind of argument by deflection more than anything else.

    Comment by Kurt — July 30, 2013 @ 9:15 am - July 30, 2013

  4. if you want to know more about Jesus, read HIS book, not some pundit’s – just sayin…….

    Comment by Leslie — July 30, 2013 @ 9:51 pm - July 30, 2013

  5. There needs to be a correction. On the Pamela Geller link, I think the blockquotes on her post were misplaced. Everything after this:

    The problem with Reza Aslan’s book about Jesus is not that he is a Muslim. The problem with it is that he is dishonest. By Robert Spencer, Jihadwatch, July 29, 2013

    is actually from Robert Spence. He should get the credit, not Geller.

    Geller, in her own web site biography, lists no such degrees.

    Messed up hyperlink formatting? Hey. Anyone that’s been blogging for any amount of time has had that happen. I’ve done it a few times.

    Comment by Sonicfrog — July 31, 2013 @ 1:38 am - July 31, 2013

  6. I thought the interview was a bit of a train wreck-but then I think having guests come on to discuss controversial books with reporters who haven’t read the book tends to create a train wreck anyway.

    I do think he stalled the interview first because he never really answered any of her questions (instead of getting his hackles up and repeating his credentials multiple times he should have just said why researching Jesus appealed to him-I don’t think asking why a Muslim is motivated to write about Jesus is a bad discussion point).

    I also know religious scholarship is varied-the school of thought a person was trained in says as much about what their opinions will be than the fact that they have a degree.

    I mostly found him condescending-he talked to her like she were a two year old.

    Comment by Just Me — July 31, 2013 @ 8:43 am - July 31, 2013

  7. Sonicfrog–The section I quoted from Geller’s blog comes well down the page, after the second major block quote. The first block quote starts after the fifth paragraph; that block quote is from Robert Spencer. Then there’s an intervening paragraph which introduces another lengthy block quote from Matthew J. Franck at First Things. The section I quoted was from the two paragraphs with standard margins (and no indenting) after the Matthew J. Franck passage, so I interpreted them as being by Geller and about herself, particularly because she goes on to introduce another block quote at the end of one of those paragraphs after the section I quoted. I tried to indicate the paragraph break in my block quote from Geller’s blog, but I couldn’t get it to come out right.

    Just Me–I’ve seen a number of folks describe the interview as a train-wreck, as well, and that may be a fair enough characterization of it.

    I’d modify that slightly to say that it puts me in mind of the famous line from Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby when she defends her careless driving by saying, “It takes two to make an accident.” Being insufficiently prepared was Lauren Green’s contribution to this mess of an interview, but Aslan only makes matters worse by getting defensive, talking more about his credentials than the argument of his book, and, as you point out, by being condescending (and, I would add, evasive, as well). She was trying to challenge him, but he clearly resented being challenged. She didn’t know enough about the book or the history or the material to do much more than quote from negative reviews, but my point is that, unlike the interviews on NPR, at least we got some sense of what the controversy was, so it was an uncomfortable interview, but not a total disaster.

    Comment by Kurt — July 31, 2013 @ 1:51 pm - July 31, 2013

  8. Sonicfrog–Ah, I hadn’t followed your Spencer link when I wrote my last comment; I was just explaining how I interpreted the spacing of the passages at Geller’s blog. I’ll have to correct the attribution when I have a chance to log in to the blog and edit the post. Thanks for the tip!

    [Thanks again, I've corrected it now!]

    Comment by Kurt — July 31, 2013 @ 2:49 pm - July 31, 2013

  9. Let me first start off by saying the this guy started the credentialism volley. What I am about to do is just return it (though as I do this, I must say that Kurt has a VERY good point.)

    Yes, this guy as a Ph.D. but it is sociology of religions (not history of religion as he claimed) and the focus of his dissertation was 20th century Islam. He is currently an associate professor of CREATIVE WRITING. He is not a member of Studiorum Novi Testament Societas,
    Chicago Society for Biblical Research, North American Patristics Society, and he has never presented at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, all things that would be on the CV of a scholar of the New Testament. He does not have a full CV posted at his site where he is on faculty, but the publications he lists there, and on his own site, ALL focus on Islam. Nothing on the New Testament.

    Looking at the biblography of his book… Assuming he used a Greek version of the New Testament (he claimed he was fluent in “biblical Greek”), it still matters WHICH publication of it one uses. For scholarly work on the Hebrew Bible, for example, it would make a difference if someone consulted an Artscroll edition (a fine one indeed, but not for scholarly work) or a Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensis edition, (because it notes various versions and translations. The New Testament is AWASH in early translations, before it was fully canonized, so the New Testament equivalent of BHS would be a necessity.) Also, usually, one references which ENGLISH translations are consulted as well, since there is a difference among them. (Anchor being a particular fav.)

    There is no reference to anything by Josephus, Suetonius, or any of the Tannaitic sources of the Talmud. Which would be the biggest sources of contempory information to the time of Jesus, and the closest to primary source material. There are no mention of anything from the Nag Hammadi library or the Gnostic Gospels. Which, while written later, are good sources for interesting information nonetheless, about the history of the period of Jesus, and his influence. (But I wouldn’t put TOO much weight on this being ignored.)

    There are no German sources in his bibiography–and OODLES and OODLES and OODLES of biblical research (both on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) were and are done by Germans. So any “scholarly” work about Jesus SHOULD have some German references.

    Mostly, from what I see in the bibliography, it reminds me of the sort of research and undergraduate would do–checking out what OTHER people wrote about a subject, and drawing a conclusion from THAT, instead of doing in depth analysis of the SUBJECt itself.

    Comment by Lee — July 31, 2013 @ 3:08 pm - July 31, 2013

  10. Oops!

    “He is not a member of Studiorum Novi Testament Societas, Chicago Society for Biblical Research, North American Patristics Society, and he has never presented at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, all things that would be on the CV of a scholar of the New Testament.”

    A BETTER way of saying that would be: He is not a member of Studiorum Novi Testament Societas, Chicago Society for Biblical Research, North American Patristics Society, and he has never presented at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, AT LEAST ONE OF WHICH (if not all) that would be on the CV of a scholar of the New Testament.

    My apologies!

    Comment by Lee — July 31, 2013 @ 3:10 pm - July 31, 2013

  11. Along with Leslie’s comment above,
    “Lauren Green comes across as someone who likely hasn’t read the book, but who has read many reviews of the book, and is trying to provoke a response from the author. ”

    It is also clear from the blog critique that he offers that you can also say that:

    “[Robert Spencer] comes across as someone who likely hasn’t read the book, but who has read many reviews of the book,…”

    Comment by Passing By — August 1, 2013 @ 3:32 am - August 1, 2013

  12. I stumbled onto his NPR interview. The usual fawning when dealing with anyone who claims to be dismantling traditional Christianity. “Wow! Really? Wow!” If what he said there actually mirrors his book, it’s nothing new at all and you can read the same stuff in Time magazine every Christmas and Easter week.

    (I have a PhD in special religious studies and two MAs therein.)

    Comment by EssEm — August 3, 2013 @ 11:26 am - August 3, 2013

  13. EssEm–You’re right about the NPR interview! You also make a good point about it being nothing new. When I heard it on NPR, I didn’t think of Time magazine, but rather of what I’d learned about the history of German Biblical scholarship and its influence on philosophers and writers in the 19th century. That’s one reason why Lee’s points about the sources Aslan lists in his bibliography–or doesn’t list–is also very worthwhile.

    Comment by Kurt — August 4, 2013 @ 2:18 pm - August 4, 2013

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