Anyone looking for a case study in how not to interview an author can look no further than this painful encounter between Reza Aslan, the writer of a new book on Jesus, and Fox News host Lauren Green. Aslan, a scholar of religion, has written a new book called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and it has inspired some backlash, particularly on the right. Among many other condemnations and mockeries, BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski suggested it might be the "most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done."
The video speaks for itself, but a few thoughts follow below.
1. Anyone who brags about their degrees is almost immediately laughed out of a room -- and for good reason. In this case, however, that's misguided. Greene's line of questioning is such that it's practically impossible for Aslan to do anything but list his credentials. I've seen the interview characterized as "anti-intellectual," but that's a misreading of the issue at stake here, which is that Green and others subscribe to a mistaken view of how academic research works. The nature of research is that scholars make arguments about the material they study. When that's about, say, William Makepeace Thackeray's views on marriage, it's not controversial enough to make cable news, but more politically contested fields like 20th century history or Jesus are no more immune to legitimate disagreements of interpretation and scholarship than comparative literature. But the root of this controversy seems to be an objection to Aslan making arguments about Jesus in the first place.
2. Setting that question aside, here's what Aslan's assailants get right -- his portrayal of his qualifications was misleading. From First Things:
Aslan does have four degrees, as Joe Carter has noted: a 1995 B.A. in religion from Santa Clara University, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and wrote his senior thesis on "The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark"; a 1999 Master of Theological Studies from Harvard; a 2002 Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa; and a 2009 Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
None of these degrees is in history, so Aslan's repeated claims that he has "a Ph.D. in the history of religions" and that he is "a historian" are false. Nor is "professor of religions" what he does "for a living." He is an associate professor in the Creative Writing program at the University of California, Riverside ...
What First Things fails to note is that the sociology degree is in the sociology of religion. Aslan may not have a graduate degree in history, but he does have a Ph.D. and an M.T.S. that bear on the topic at hand. He has also published extensively on religion. Arguing he's somehow not a scholar, as John S. Dickerson did, isn't really credible. *
3. Green's main thrust is that it's somehow wrong for Aslan, a non-Christian, to discuss Jesus. (Throughout the interview, she demurely insists that she's just passing along questions that others have asked, but that's a canard: Just because a silly question exists doesn't mean she's obligated to amplify it.) Quoting from a viewer's note, she likens Aslan to a liberal political scientist writing a book about how Reagan "wasn't a good Republican." That's misleading in two ways -- first, Aslan isn't discussing how Jesus could have been a better messiah; and second, plenty of lefty political scientists have written about the Gipper!