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?
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?”