What Reza Aslan Can Tell Us About Civil War Memory

Update: Nice to see the twittersphere having some fun with this story. Check out #FOXNewsLitCrit.

I absolutely love this FOX News interview with Reza Azlan, who is the author of a new book on the historical Jesus. The interviewer clearly did not read the book nor did she have any interest in discussing its content. Instead, she chose to focus on the fact that the author is a Muslim who chose to write a book about Jesus. That, apparently is unfathomable to this reporter. Fortunately, Azlan stood his ground and underscored the absurdity of the assumptions driving the interview.

It’s impossible not to watch this reader without thinking about the kinds of discussions we have here at Civil War Memory and elsewhere about who owns the past and under what conditions a writer can lay claim to that past by writing about it. It’s a wonderful example of the kind of anti-intellectualism that pervades certain circles of society and our Civil War community in particular. I’ve heard the same kind of nonsense regarding my book during Q&A sessions. Are you Northern or Southern? What are your politics? Where do you live? Where is your family from? In the end, all of it is entirely irrelevant.

I am convinced that Azlan would have been happy to discuss the arguments contained in the book for the full nine minutes, but for that we would have needed an interviewer with some sense of historical methodology and curiosity. Unfortunately, the interview was conducted on the assumption that Azlan’s religious beliefs are sufficient to judge the book itself.

The interview reinforces why I think it is so important to use the history classroom to teach critical thinking skills.

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35 comments… add one
  • Patrick Young Aug 14, 2013 @ 10:15

    For most viewers, the controversy was framed not by whether this was a good book or whether only those with certain PhDs could legitimately write about the subject, but rather whether a Muslim could write about Jesus. That is how Green framed the interview and that is why the video went viral. Had Green merely discussed the book, most of us would never have heard of it.

  • James Kabala Aug 13, 2013 @ 18:02

    I don’t think we can say The Nation is run by a right-wing think tank:


    See also http://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/449/reza-aslan-what-jesus-wasnt/

    Historians from Carl Becker to Simon Schama have left behind their original area of specialty to write about a completely different field. Sometimes they do good work; other times not. (Stephen Ambrose would be an obvious example of someone who decided he could make his way through any topic if he cut corners and stole from others’ work.) So it is possible that Aslan could have written a good book on first-century Judaism and Christianity even though his dissertation was on modern Islam. These reviews, however, seem to think that he did not.

  • Brad Jul 30, 2013 @ 8:43
    • Kevin Levin Jul 30, 2013 @ 8:48

      Thanks for passing this along. I look forward to reading Aslan’s book at some point in the near future.

  • christinemsmith67 Jul 30, 2013 @ 5:59

    You’ll be happy to know that the only thing I can say to all the responses is “Amen”!

  • Richard Williams Jul 29, 2013 @ 13:13

    He should have been more careful about “stressing his credentials”. http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/07/29/scholarly-misrepresentation/

    • Kevin Levin Jul 29, 2013 @ 13:26

      I saw this as well, but it seems to me that this is not the issue. In fact, it’s more like a distraction from the nature of the interview itself. We can agree that how he represented his credentials was not entirely accurate, but what do you think about the interview itself?

      • Richard Williams Jul 30, 2013 @ 9:19

        The interview was a debacle, though the original question is a legitimate one. But the fact Azlan inflated his credentials is anything but a distraction. He now has a “trust” issue.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 30, 2013 @ 9:31

          The interview was a debacle precisely because Green was not prepared to discuss anything but the first question. So much for a discussion about a book. Aslan could have been more precise about his credentials, but there is no trust issue. You can easily look up his credentials online if interested.

          • Richard Williams Jul 30, 2013 @ 9:46

            Yes, the interviewer was a huge failure – I agree. Perhaps you have no issue with someone who inflates their credentials, but I think a lot of people would. Sure, I could look them up, but that doesn’t excuse Azlan.

            • Kevin Levin Jul 30, 2013 @ 9:58

              From the TPM article linked to in a previous comment:

              The big ‘lie’ is that Aslan says he’s “a PhD in the history of religions”. But, but … he got his PhD in a sociology department!!!!! Liar!

              I’m sorry. This is silly. Plenty of ‘historians’ – as in working academic historians – have degrees in sociology. How common that is generally depends on methodological framework you work in. This is especially so in the academic study of ‘religion’ since people study the topic sometimes in History Departments, other times in separate Religion Departments and sometimes in Sociology or Anthropology Departments. And this doesn’t even get to programs of religious instruction where you’re possibly studying theology but might also be studying from a history-based disciplinary focus. I have some sense of these things because I have a history PhD. This is not a ‘lie’ unless you’re really clueless or just hunting for gotchas.

              In the end, what Aslan was trying to convey to Green is that he has training in the sources and methodology related to the subject he writes about. That you are harping on this is so predictable and uninteresting.

              • Ken Noe Jul 30, 2013 @ 10:36

                This is exactly right. As a major news network’s religion correspondent should have noticed, scholars of religion come from many different departments by virtue of the fields’s interdisciplinary nature. One of my institution’s excellent historians of religion teaches in History, for example, while another is in Philosophy. My former institution employed a noted historian of religion in Psychology. At worst, Aslan indulged in the common academic shorthand of stressing actual concentration over the technical name of the degree–my degree says “History,” my major field was “United States since 1815,” I generally tell people I have a degree in American History, and I’d probably tell Lauren Green I’m a Civil War historian. This whole line of response, this grasping at any straw, only serves to underline just few straws Green left available.

                • Kevin Levin Jul 30, 2013 @ 10:40

                  I have a colleague who earned a Phd in Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, but his training is that of a historian.

                  This whole line of response, this grasping at any straw, only serves to underline just few straws Green left available.

                  Couldn’t have said it any better, Ken.

              • Richard Williams Jul 30, 2013 @ 12:00

                “That you are harping on this is so predictable and uninteresting.”

                And that you think it’s no big deal is just as predictable. Thanks for enduring my intrusion.

                • Kevin Levin Jul 30, 2013 @ 12:03

                  Given the comment I linked to as well as Ken Noe’s comment and the fact that one of my colleagues is a trained historian though his Phd is not in history suggests that you are the one who is making a mountain out of a mole hill. Whatever works for you, Richard.

    • Rob Baker Jul 29, 2013 @ 14:42

      I agree with Kevin that this type of post is a distraction. For starters, “First Things” is controlled by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, a conservative think tank. They also grossly mislead readers regarding Dr. Aslan’s academic credentials. The point is the interview itself. His credentials are never brought up by the interviewer, simply his religion. Why? Because anti-Islam sells on Fox. It is confrontational reporting geared towards triggering emotional support from their viewer base, rather than honest journalism/reporting. If one were to write a book on the Founders liberal leanings on social issues, the same type of interview can be expected if the author is a Democrat.

      • Richard Williams Jul 30, 2013 @ 9:21

        ““First Things” is controlled by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, a conservative think tank.”

        So what?

        “They also grossly mislead readers regarding Dr. Aslan’s academic credentials.”

        How so?

    • Woodrowfan Jul 30, 2013 @ 8:58

      Actually it’s “First Things” that’s lying. Dr. Aslan earned a sociology degree studying the history of religion. As for the rest, I guess I must be lying when I say I have a doctorate in American History. My school awards PhDs in history but it doesn’t say “American History”! Of course American history was my major concentration.


    • Andy Hall Jul 30, 2013 @ 10:42

      Richard, Lauren Green insisted on making the interview about Aslan’s personal religious beliefs, rather than the actual content of his book. You’re taking a similar-but-parallel track, insisting on focusing on what others claim as misrepresentation of his academic credentials.

      Like Green, you seem far more interested in de-legitimatizing Alsan than on making an informed critique of his actual work. Every time you try deflect the discussion away from the content of Aslan’s book and onto his alleged biases or misrepresentations, you simply underscore Kevin’s original point in making this post. It may make you feel better to rationalize an excuse to ignore Aslan’s work, but it does nothing to refute what he’s put on the page.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 30, 2013 @ 10:59

        It’s just another excuse for Richard to critique academics and academia, but like most of what he has to say about this subject, his assessment is based on no first-hand knowledge.

  • Andy Hall Jul 29, 2013 @ 8:07

    Given the way this segment has gone viral, it looks like Fox News has generated a whole lot more book sales for Zealot than it would ever have had otherwise. Right now it’s ranked No. 1 at Amazon. Do’oh!

    One thing Aslan did, though, that was ineffective, was to keep stressing his credentials as an academic. That probably doesn’t cut a lot of ice with the general public, and especially with hard-core Fox News viewers, who tend to look askance at higher education generally as something subversive and fundamentally un-American. But it’s a difficult thing to get across his ideas and analysis, when the interviewer showed no sign of wanting to talk about about the book, preferring instead to challenge his legitimacy to having written it at all.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 29, 2013 @ 10:03

      One thing Aslan did, though, that was ineffective, was to keep stressing his credentials as an academic.

      I tend to agree with you, though I think he intended to point out that his degrees reflect training in research and conceptual analysis. Anyone who looks askance at such a point probably has no interest in going beyond his personal background anyway.

      • TF Smith Jul 29, 2013 @ 14:56

        His Phd is on the sociology of religion, he has a masters in theological studies, and a bachelor’s in religion, from such well-known hotbeds of critical thinking as Santa Clara, Harvard, and the University of California. Plus he has an MFA, so you know he’s a commie right there.

        Everybody knows the only true scholars of religion come from Oral Roberts University…

  • Marooned Jul 29, 2013 @ 6:31

    It is worth remembering, and most readers of these comments know this very well, that stove-pipe thinking and communication did not start with the TV era.

    Unfortunately, the results of such often end very badly.

    So, as Kevin Levin reminds us, keeping our own critical thinking engaged is important. And, encouraging the development of such skills in every way, and particularly in classrooms, is, literally, vitally important.

  • MikeD Jul 29, 2013 @ 5:47

    What a horribly embarrassing fail. I don’t care whether or not she’s giving bosses and the viewer base what they want. She comes off as embarrassingly ignorant in a manner that far too many Americans are guilty of these days. She starts off with an ignorant assumption; that Jesus was the “founder” of Christianity, which he most certainly was not. Jesus lived and died a Jew. She also, like many, is utterly unaware that Jesus is a major prophet of Islam, that Muslims believe in the virgin birth, and that Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran and to have an entire book of the scripture named for her.

    Personal beliefs aside, I’m simply amazed at the sheer effrontery of this Faux News idiot in attempting to discredit a serious scholar to feed right-wing hysteric xenophobia. “Never disclosed that you’re a Muslim. . .” ?!?!?!?

  • Rob Baker Jul 28, 2013 @ 18:10

    “Ms. J.K. Rowling, how can you, a mudblood, write about Wizards?”

    This interview, is a priceless piece of modern media practices. It is merely a subjective, agenda driven interview meant merely to satisfy the viewer base of Fox News.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 29, 2013 @ 2:46

      It’s not much better on any of the other mainstream media networks. They are all playing to a viewer base. I would have been much happier if they tried to discredit Aslan by bringing on a reputable scholar to debate. At least they would have ended up discussing some aspects of the book.

      • Rob Baker Jul 29, 2013 @ 5:40

        Absolutely. Maintain the base and sell commercial time slots.

  • Patrick Young Jul 28, 2013 @ 17:46

    If only Fox asked the same questions of the idiots they have on spewing about Islam.

  • Peter Stam Jul 28, 2013 @ 8:13

    I cringed at all her questions.

    As if only Christians can study Jesus, and would be unbiased about it.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2013 @ 12:44

      Exactly. Once we enter that rabbit hold there is no way out. Of course, we are all biased for any number of reasons, but that doesn’t preclude having a rational argument about how we arrive at our conclusions.

  • Ken Noe Jul 28, 2013 @ 6:35

    Lauren Green is Fox’s official “religion correspondent.” No, really.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 28, 2013 @ 13:11

      I have to assume for my own sanity that the interviewer, in fact, has half a brain and understands the point that Azlan is making, but understands what the producers at FOX want.

      • TF Smith Jul 29, 2013 @ 14:51

        Now, to be fair, she is a graduate of Medill (according to her corporate bio). In addition , Ms. Green has:

        “a degree in piano performance from The University of Minnesota (and) was named Miss Minnesota in 1984 and was the third runner-up in the 1985 Miss America contest.

        Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/on-air/personalities/lauren-green/bio/#s=e-g#ixzz2aTnLBoWc

        Seems like the perfect education for a Fox News religion reporter…

  • Will Stoutamire Jul 28, 2013 @ 6:32

    On the idea of a historian and registered Democrat writing about the Reagan presidency: “Why would a Democrat want to promote democracy by writing about a Republican?”

    That quote right there, which the anchor immediately tried to back away from, is perhaps the single greatest example I’ve seen in a while of how much some people don’t understand the purposes of scholarly inquiry.

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