How Reza Aslan made a book about religion a best-seller and what we can learn from it

As an educator in religious studies I was intrigued by Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth when I first heard about it 2 or 3 weeks ago. I listened to a couple interviews (NPR and HuffPo) and thought, “this is interesting enough, but I don’t know if a) this is really groundbreaking work, or b) this is sound scholarship.”

So I asked some scholars closer to the field and received at best lukewarm responses. I’m not an expert, I haven’t read the book, and this is all second-hand (so take it as such), but the views were that his scholarship is mostly a rehash of perhaps good but dated work, there are factual errors in the book, and I think Dan Brown’s name was brought up as a perhaps better alternative – because at least you know his work is fiction. That said, academics revel in being harsh, especially in private enclaves, and nobody would have even mentioned it if it were completely horrible.

“Oh well,” I thought. On to other things. But then – Aslan blew up! He’s now #1 on Amazon’s best-seller list – bumping J.K. Rowling. Find one religion news source that hasn’t mentioned him and I’ll give you… a big virtual high-five (plus a couple shout-outs from my twitter account about how great you are and/or your favorite charity).

So, watching all of this from my little corner of academia/blogosophere, I thought I’d try to tease out a ‘how to’ based on Aslan’s recent success.

1) Court controversy. Going  on Fox News was the best thing Aslan could have done. NPR‘s interview was very, how should I put it? NPR (parodied brilliantly by SNL here). Polite, thoughtful, but bland. The Huffington Post’s version was a bit cooler, aimed at the savvy 20 something who wants to know about religion in a cool way, but it still didn’t do the trick. This… This did the trick:

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2) Fudge a bit.  I’ve already mentioned the factual errors in the book (which I can neither confirm nor deny), but in the above interview Aslan definitely DID fudge a bit when he said that all of the previous interviews had covered his being a Muslim (today). In fact, correct me if I’m wrong, but none of the interviews above, nor his appearance on the The Daily Show, actually contain any discussion of his current faith (it does get mentioned -just briefly- in the online extended interview on TDS). Not that it matters, but saying it was discussed when it wasn’t is a bit of a fudge. His other ‘fudge’ was his claim to have a PhD in the History of Religions (it’s actually in Sociology of Religion and he wrote about Jihadism).

3) Write on something big. Jesus. Need I say more?

4) Start your own media companywww.aslanmedia.com, Wow! I figure I’m a tech savvy academic: I blog, I’m on twitter… but wow, oh wow, Aslan is light-years ahead of me on this. He even has people working for his  personal media company. Most professors I know are happy to get a TA to help with a class here or there, let alone something like this:

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Screenshot from http://rezaaslan.com/

5) Convert to Islam. While this really shouldn’t make any difference – and in my academic circles this was never brought up – apparently in the right-wing popular press, this is a bright red warning flag (see above interview). In the US at least, there is a phenomenon known as “Christian Privilege.” Atheists certainly get attacked by Fox News pundits, Buddhism gets dismissed, and other religions probably get a treatment somewhere between these two. Only a Muslim is going to be attacked so directly and unceasingly. This might have pleased the conservatives behind Fox News, but it also raised a defensive cry around the world against such bias (at least) and bigotry (at worst). Aslan took it in stride though, and here he talks about how he feels sorry for the Fox News reporter and “feels great” about the interview on MSNBC:

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So there it is, a simple, five-step guide to getting a book on religion to the top of the best-seller list. 

I’m happy that religious scholarship is having a moment in the spotlight, but I’m also saddened by how it happened. Fudging, even just a bit, risks compromising academic integrity, which is something no academic should knowingly do. Courting controversy is also frowned upon in academia. It’s as if we work on a spectrum ranging from the impossible ideal of perfect objectivity to purely personal opinion. The more we move toward the latter, the more interesting we can get, the more we might be able to connect with readers who share – or perhaps vehemently oppose – our opinions. But it’s the objective work, the boring labor of facts and figures, restating and clarifying old ideas, and presenting them anew that gives us common grounding for our disagreements. Aslan is, I’m told, doing a poor job of putting together the groundwork (evidence) for his new take on Jesus while, it would seem, doing a great job of promoting himself and his work. It’s also sad that his faith was targeted as it was and that this seems to have become the central object of so much discussion around the book. Muslims can and will write great books on Jesus, the Buddha, Confucius and Ronald Reagan if they so choose. This just doesn’t seem to be one of them.

I thought about using some of the Aslan interviews in my class on World Religions to highlight recent scholarship on Christianity – but I’ll pass, sticking with interviews of Bart Ehrman (here and here), who also challenges many Christian presuppositions about Jesus and the Bible. As for the book, I’ll pass on it too. Based on all of the discussions (and here is a great review from The Jesus Blog), the book’s merit is minimal; perhaps its best contribution is in bringing what is often very dry and distant scholarship to a popular audience. As The Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday reported:

Mr. Aslan says that was precisely his goal: “It is a synthesis of a 200-year debate among biblical scholars over who Jesus was and how to understand him in his time and place.” He wrote the book for general readers, he says, because “some of these basic aspects about Jesus are not known.”

  • Ambaa

    Oh man, if only I could get as popular writing about religion! I don’t think I have it in me to follow your steps ;)

    • justinwhitaker

      :) Well… feel free to think outside the box on a few of them…. Maybe as a white Hindu woman you could develop a following in India and then write something to challenge certain conservative presuppositions there. Then the trick would be staying cool on an interview by their version of Fox News (I’m not exactly sure if such a thing exists) and thus igniting a nation-wide frenzy of speculation, discussion, and defense. No need to follow #5 in that case, and #2… well, I’d avoid that one in all cases.


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