Reza Aslan, Jesus, and the (False) Presumption of Objectivity

When I watched the clip of Fox News anchor Lauren Green interviewing professor Reza Aslan about his recent book, Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, my initial reactions were nearly as confused as the interview was chaotic. The interview illustrates the state of contemporary religious lack of discourse: everybody is scrambling to find a place to stand from which they can struggle to express the inexpressible with more volume and heft than the other guy or gal. The market feels wide open, and everybody wants their share. But what I found most intriguing about the content of the interview was Reza Aslan’s insistent reliance upon his status as “expert,” with the obvious suggestion that to be an expert in the “history of religions” is to have attained pure objectivity with respect to the content.

Now, I get it: Green’s questions were simplistic with a hint of religious ethnocentricity–some would say even bigotry. She did not understand that academic researchers can (and do) distinguish their personal religious orientation from their academic work. And why wouldn’t a Muslim scholar of the history of religion be motivated to write about Jesus of Nazareth? Why would someone need to be a Christian to be interested in Jesus–particularly from a historical point of view?

What nagged at me during and after the interview, however, was any lack of acknowledgement by Prof. Aslan of the role of subjectivity in academic pursuits.  I found his defensive reaction to the questioning illuminating, in retrospect. It was as if he’d never considered that his personal context (his subjectivity) would have any potential bearing on his work as a “historian” of Jesus. I’m not saying a Muslim scholar can’t–or shouldn’t–write on the historical Jesus, or that a Christian can’t or shouldn’t write on the historical Mohammed. But any member of the history of religion or biblical studies (NT origins, etc.) guild will acknowledge that subjectivity plays some role, right? Can we ever really escape our presuppositions, even in an academic discourse (i.e. history) that seems to assume complete objectivity is possible?

Noted feminist biblical scholar, Elizabeth Schlusser-Fiorenza, in her essay “For the Sake of Our Salvation,” claims that, “No scholarship is objective and value-neutral but is ‘on behalf of.’” The contribution of feminists, liberation theologians, and postmodern thinkers of other sorts is to point out  the “standpoints” in our epistemological frameworks which set the table for our academic work. We can certainly attempt to be as objective as possible, but it might be worth noting that ideology (or presuppositions, or faith commitments, or personal/political objectives, etc.) runs all the way down. Any survey of the “history of Jesus” enterprise will show how often this is true: how often does the “historical Jesus” end up looking so much like the historian–or the historian’s ideal portrait of him/herself? That said, historians do carry a special burden to identify their subjectivity and to attempt to be as neutral, or objective, as possible with respect to their subject matter. But even our choices of what material to study–and what questions to ask–bely that even the “purest” of historians is steeped in human subjectivity.

In this sense, perhaps it would have been a more interesting dialogue if Green had started the interview with: “Reza, why, as a twenty-first century American middle-aged male, were you interested in writing a history of Jesus?” Or given Reza’s apparent, actual, full-time job, “Reza, why, as a professor of creative writing trained in sociology of religion were you interested in writing yet another history of Jesus–and what (if anything) is new that you are adding to this long conversation based on your subjective relation to the material?”

  • frank
  • Jerry

    There could indeed be an interesting interview with him along the lines you outlined. I’d love to read or hear such an interview. Hopefully someone interest in journalism rather than smear tactics will conduct such an interview.

    But when dealing with bigoted ignorance, he was reduced to repeating some of the basics of his profession trying against all odds to teach her something about how scholarship works.

    Of course, now Muslims can tell Christians that they have no business criticizing Islam based on her “interview” assumptions. But naturally some won’t believe in such reciprocity saying we can write about you but you can’t write about us.

    Some of those themes were mentioned in http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/07/is-muslim-academic-reza-aslan-more-biased-than-a-christian-scholar/278175/

    Sigh.

  • Camassia

    This is especially true because elsewhere Aslan has implied that studying the historical Jesus was pretty important to his conversion from Christianity to Islam. In an interview with a Muslim website a couple years ago he said, “I went to a Catholic College, a Jesuit Catholic College and began
    studying the Bible and particularly the New Testament from a scholarly
    perspective and the more I kept studying the more I realized almost
    everything I was told about the Bible and about the New Testament and
    frankly about the Gospel story was false. More importantly the truth
    behind the Gospel story, the truth behind who Jesus was and what Jesus
    really said was far more interesting, far more profound and frankly far
    more appealing than the false notions of it that I was fed as a kid. …Reading about the way Islam talks about the divine and the relationship
    between human beings and God and conceptions of the universe and ideas
    of the transcendent, these made a hell of a lot more sense to me
    cosmologically speaking than some old man in the sky impregnated a
    virgin and His son came out and died for us.” That seems like a pretty significant backstory for someone who just wrote a contrarian book about Jesus, and it makes his whole “I’m a scholar, this has nothing to do with my personal beliefs” act all the more unconvincing. True, the Fox News audience might not have sympathized, but I doubt that waving the intellectual credentials made them sympathize either.

  • VorJack

    “Reza, why, as a twenty-first century American middle-aged male, were you interested in writing a history of Jesus?”

    He came closer to answering that question on Fresh Air. Not all the way there, of course, that would be too confrontational.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=198040928

    Sometimes I think the subjectivity of the enterprise is not a bug but a feature. It’s a sort of “build-a-Jesus” workshop for some progressive believers. If your goal is to find a spirituality that works for you, it makes sense to pick through Christian traditions and make a religion that fulfills your needs. Just the same, it makes sense to pick through the traditions about Jesus and construct an image of the man that you find compelling.

  • Guest

    I think the bias question is really whether Reza Aslan has more bias than any Christian, Jewish or even Hindu scholar in assessing the historical times and character of a first century Jewish religious leader of the Galilee.

  • KSV

    I think the bias question is really whether Reza Aslan who happens to be a Sufi Muslim with a detour through Christianity has more bias
    than any Christian, Jewish or even Hindu scholar in assessing the
    historical times and character of a first century Jewish religious
    leader of the Galilee.

    From reading his book I don’t see much obvious bias other than the standard “objective research” bias. His book details where he comes from however so I would say his cards are on the table.

  • kylearoberts

    I would just reiterate that I have no problem with a Muslim (or a Buddhist, or an atheist, or whomever) doing historical research into the life of Jesus. But it seems no one is really distinguishing between history of Jesus work and, say, history of Christianity. When Christian tradition says that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (not “some old man” as Reza said in the quote above), that he performed public miracles, and that he was resurrected from the dead (and when pretty much all the sources we have of Jesus are theological biographies), I’m skeptical as to how far the claim to objectivity can go. So I think it’s good to acknowledge standpoints, biases, etc., and it’s natural that personal faith convictions (or lack thereof) be at the very least a point of interest on the part of the reader.

    • Noah Smith

      I’m under the impression that Reza addresses that issue within the first few pages. The same complaint was made by Muslims of Tom Holland’s book about the early years of Islam “In the Shadow of the Sword”. Funny enough Fox News praised that book

  • Jim Englert

    Bernard Lonergan’s foundational insistence was that “Objectivity is authentic subjectivity.” The real issue isn’t objectivity or subjectivity, it’s authenticity. What are its criteria? How does one evaluate its presence/absence in oneself and/or others? How do we promote the effects of its presence? And reverse the effects of its absence?

    All of which, of course, tells us nothing about Reza Aslan, Lauren Green, Kate Roberts, or ourselves. And yet, it tells us everything.


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