Fox News, after a pause, has come back fighting against criticism of their interview with Reza Aslan, a Muslim scholar who wrote a book about Jesus. And as the discussion about a book that's more or less a William Manchester-style literary biography (that is, one steeped in scholarship, but written for the mainstream) of the historical Jesus spirals further and further away from, you know, the actual content of the book itself, what's emerging is a deep, conservative fear, and anger, concerning the audacity and bias of non-Christians who discuss the content of the Bible.
Here, via TPM, is Fox News's attempt at hitting back against the significant criticism of Lauren Green's handling of Aslan, and his work:
To recap: Shannon Bream, conservative Christian graduate of Liberty University, was speaking with L. Brent Bozell III, a Catholic who runs the conservative Media Research Center, about the ability and validity of someone who is not Christian to fairly discuss the historicity of religion. That discussion includes an assessment, apparently without irony, of Aslan's devotion to his own faith:
Right wing founder of Media Research Center @BrentBozell says I'm “not a very good Muslim” Which is it guys? Devout Secret or Bad Muslim?— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) July 31, 2013
Much of Aslan's (and lots of others') frustration with Fox News began when Lauren Green wondered why a Muslim would "be interested in the founder of Christianity?" and her claim that Aslan's book was "like having a Democrat writing a book about why Reagan wasn’t a good Republican." While similar questions can and do provide a great opportunity for discussion among people who believe differently but have the same interests, Green's repeated questions represent a suspicion to his intentions that could be warranted, say, against a Hitchens-style screed against the idea that religion has value. But Aslan's book seems far from a religous attempt to question the facts of a Christian narrative in order to undermine it.
Bozell thinks that Aslan's Muslim faith gives him an inherent 'bias' in his ability to write about Jesus. Why? In a nod to Aslan's choice to write about Jesus as a man, Bozell says that "the Muslim faith believes that Jesus Christ did not have a divine nature." But Bozell seems to miss that despite the fact that Muslims believe in the Virgin Birth, Aslan's book doesn't find much evidence of this religious claim, either — so where's the Muslim bias there? Additionally, Aslan, along with most experts on the history of Jesus, argues that Jesus was almost certainly crucified, while Islam is much more ambiguous on the subject — they believe he was brought up to heaven beforehand. Still, Aslan's Muslim bias is the central claim Fox News is making against Aslan's ability to write about Jesus. Evangelical author John S. Dickerson's rant against Zealot for FoxNews.com finds a thousand ways to repeat this claim, arguing that Islam sees Jesus as a "zealous prophet type," continuing:
Even non-violent Muslims and Christians, like Aslan and myself, understand that we hold aggressively oppositional views—particularly about Jesus. National news coverage of “Zealot” has ignored this conflict of interest.
But Jesus is more than just a "prophet type" in Islam. He's a straight-up prophet, and one of the most important ones. Aside from the (religiously important) issue of his divine nature, Islam and Christianity tell basically the same story on Jesus. Despite Fox News's repeated concern about Aslan's Muslim faith, an actual religious bias on his part would have probably produced a more palatable book for some Christian readers than the one he actually did write. But while Aslan's faith is a useful tool for critics to frame their beef with the book, it's not really their main argument. The problem, it seems, is that the book contradicts their interpretation of Christianity at all.
To many conservative Christians, the story of Jesus, laid out in the Gospels, was written exactly and only to affirm Jesus's divinity. Reading the Gospels are an act of devotion, and maybe of conversion. Adherents have a long tradition of acting out the story of Jesus's life as a religious exercise. To tell the story of Jesus without reaffirming that he is the Christ is, for many, to miss the point of Jesus's entire life and death (and resurrection if you're a believer). That doesn't mean that conservative Christians are against histories of Jesus as a category of writing. They just have to be done correctly, including with the correct intent. There are plenty of examples of books, popular among conservative Christians, that take an "evidence-based" approach to telling Jesus's story with the endgame of affirming his theological meaning, like Lee Strobel's The Case For Christ.
Aslan critics are also attacking his "arrogance," specifically his "misrepresentation" of his academic credentials. This was, for instance, the main line of attack at Get Religion, a conservative-leaning and widely-read religion and media blog. But given that Religious Studies as a humanities field is inherently interdisciplinary — combining sociology, history, anthropology, and philosophy into one rhetorical melting pot — it's doubtful that very many religious studies scholars would really take issue with Aslan's representation of his own credentials (though some have pointed out where Aslan's scholarship falls short). His PhD, in the sociology of religion, is not a history degree as he'd said, which is somewhat misleading as David A. Graham at The Atlantic explained earlier this week. But it does not provide a very fruitful line of attack against Azlan's ability to write a book about Jesus. For one thing, that attack unfairly opens up Green to criticism as well: Her degrees are in music and journalism, and not religion.
So far, the defense of Fox News has been mainly from Fox News itself, but that could change as critics continue to frame Aslan's book as an attack on Christianity. Bream, in her segment today, said that Fox was going to keep on the Aslan offensive when she teased the content of an upcoming segment: "We know that there are a lot of folks out there who are happy to criticize Christian viewpoints and faith, and we have a story coming up on that as well." And while the discussion about Aslan's book is more and more taking on the Fight Club rules approach to talking about Aslan's book, it's plausible that Aslan, whose book skyrocketed in sales following Fox News's attack, will welcome all the return volleys he gets.