Reza Aslan Is Not A Zealot, Jesus Was

You might have already seen Reza Aslan interviewed via any number of media outlets in recent weeks to talk about his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus.  It was the interview on Fox News, though, that catapulted the book to the number one spot on  Specifically, when host Lauren Green asked:

You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

“Well, to be clear,” Mr. Aslan said, his eyebrows lifting up in surprise, “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.”

You can watch the full interview at the end of this post.  I especially like the next part:

“So it’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus, I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.”

Green just can’t let it go:

“Why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”

“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.”

The assumptions that Green revealed in these, the very first questions of the interview, are pretty remarkable:  Muslims are not to be trusted.  Jesus belongs to Christians.  Intellectual curiosity is weird.  Those of us who do what Aslan does for a living (well, sans national television interviews and bestselling books) are intimately familiar with those who dismiss any academic study of religious figures and subjects.  So Green’s questions weren’t shocking.  They were sadly typical.  Bias against Muslims and bias against academic scholars of religion seem to go hand in hand.

In this CNN interview, Aslan notes that:

“Truly, I was kind of embarassed.  There’s nothing more distasteful than an academic having to, like, trot out his credentials.  I mean you really come off as a jerk when you do that. But it was very hard not to keep mentioning that I’m actually qualified to write this book so let’s talk about the book instead.”

I will have more to say about Zealot here after I get my copy from the publisher and read it.  As those of us who study and teach the life and times of Jesus in historical context know, he was a lot more interesting than some sermons would have you believe.

In fact, neither Jesus or Reza Aslan fit into the neat little box that this Fox News personality would like them to be in.  Thankfully.


About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • sactorox

    This is a remarkable book. Accessible, interesting, and rich with information I was never taught in any of the ELCA churches I have attended. I am deeply troubled by the reception Aslan has received in the national media. The criticism isn’t focused on the quality of the scholarship, but on the religious identification of the scholar. Study and intellect are God given gifts and perfectly suited to faith practices. Thank you Caryn for speaking out about racist, anti-intellectual responses to Aslan the scholar.

    • carynriswold

      Of course. I think that this was exactly, as you say, a racist moment on Fox … a xenophobic show-me-your-papers moment.

  • Steven Kurtz

    But cannot we at least admire the courageous willingness of the Fox people to keep vulnerably revealing the remarkable lack of pre-frontal cortex activity and the enormous amygdalae in the brains of their people? It’s like revealing your poor transcripts. But it may not help our amygdalae to view much of it.

  • Sandra Orrick

    I watched the Fox interview, as well as a number of others, and have already purchased and read the entire book except for the Notes. In my opinion the Fox anchor was the product of a mentality that expects a person’s work product to consist of propaganda in the form of one sided, parochial, narrow presentations of opinions masquerading as fact. She couldn’t help it.

  • Lothat

    Of course Aslan is a zealot, he’s the divine lion of Narnia ;-)

    By the way, is being a zealot always wrong?

    Lothar’s son – Lothars Sohn