Monday, March 28, 2016

Resurrection: Is Reza an Expert in Judaeo-Christian History?

Elijah & the Widow's Son
Reza Aslan, famous for being questioned on Fox News, answered why a Muslim such as himself would choose Jesus as a topic for a book: “I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament . . . I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions . . . I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament – that’s what I do for a living, actually . . . To be clear, I want to emphasize one more time, I am a historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions.” [emphases mine]

Matthew Facciani posting to thinks that critics are being too rash in dismissing Aslan's expertise.  He writes, "What really matters is what area your research is in (i.e. your [PhD]dissertation)." 

What is the actual case about Reza Aslan's expertise?  In First Things, Matthew J. Franck writes after taking a very close look at Aslan's qualifications: 
. . . He is an associate professor in the Creative Writing program at the University of California, Riverside, where his terminal MFA in fiction from Iowa is his relevant academic credential. It appears he has taught some courses on Islam in the past, and he may do so now, moonlighting from his creative writing duties at Riverside. Aslan has been a busy popular writer, and he is certainly a tireless self-promoter, but he is nowhere known in the academic world as a scholar of the history of religion. And a scholarly historian of early Christianity? Nope.  
What about that Ph.D.? As already noted, it was in sociology. I have his dissertation in front of me. It is a 140-page work titled “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: A Theoretical Framework.” If Aslan’s Ph.D. is the basis of a claim to scholarly credentials, he could plausibly claim to be an expert on social movements in twentieth-century Islam. He cannot plausibly claim, as he did to Lauren Green, that he is a “historian,” or is a “professor of religions” “for a living.”
I have a BA, MA, and PhD in the history of Western Religions so yes, again, I am an ACTUAL expert in Judaism.Reza Aslan doesn't seem to have taught any classes on the New Testament.  His PhD dissertation was specific to Islam.  Yet his tweet to @matanlurey pictured here seems to suggest that his sociology degree in jihadism that is somehow based on the History-of-Religions school of thought entitles him to claim (along with his two lesser religion-related degrees) expertise as a historian of all three Western Religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 

That is indeed very impressive.  A case in point:  Aslan said some interesting things about in response to an interviewer's question:
You argue that it’s the story of resurrection that really set Jesus apart. What made resurrection such a novel idea?
Well, it simply doesn’t exist in Judaism. The idea of an individual dying and rising from the dead absolutely has no basis in five thousand years of Jewish history, scripture or thought.
So, that’s the thing: No matter what you think about the resurrection, the thing that’s kind of fascinating from an historical perspective is that there is simply no Jewish context for it. 
Christians know that there is a scene documented in the Book of Acts that speaks of some Pharisees siding with Paul the Apostle against the sect of Sadducees because they couldn't dismiss out of hand the idea of an individual being resurrected.  Similar statements appear in the gospels concerning the Pharisees.   Let's dig a little deeper.


Fundamental belief of Judaism?  Let's look at
A basic tenet of the Jewish faith is the belief that those who have died will again be brought to life. In fact, Techiat HaMeitim, "Vivification of the Dead" is one of the thirteen cardinal principles, or "foundations," of Judaism.  . . . In this dark and imperfect world, we cannot yet behold and enjoy the fruits of our labor. But in the Era of Moshiach, the accumulated attainments of all generations of history will reach their ultimate perfection. And since "G‑d does not deprive any creature of its due," all elements that have been involved in realizing His purpose in creation will be reunited to perceive and experience the perfect world that their combined effort has achieved.   . . . 

The article goes on to describe the "centrality of the Resurrection to the whole of Judaism".  The Online Jewish Encyclopedia says this about the Pharisees:

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Secularizing or Secularism?

One of the many topics in which it is hard to understand what Reza Aslan really means is that of secularization and its meaning. 
When politicians speak of bringing democracy to the Middle East, they mean specifically an American secular democracy, not an indigenous Islamic one.
There exists a philosophical dispute in the Western world with regard to the concept of Islamic democracy: that is, that there can be no a priori moral framework in a modern democracy; that the foundation of a genuinely democratic society must be secularism.  . . .  As the Protestant theologian Harvey Cox notes, secularization is the process by which "certain responsibilities pass from ecclesiastical to political authorities," whereas secularism is an ideology based on the eradication of religion from public life.  . . . neither human rights nor pluralism is the result of secularization; they are its root cause. Consequently, any democratic society -- Islamic or otherwise -- dedicated to the principles of pluralism and human rights must dedicate itself to following the unavoidable path toward political secularization.
This sounds like a philosophical backflip: first acknowledging that a people can't secularize themselves into a more free society, and then suggesting in ambiguous language that to remain "dedicated to the principles of pluralism and human rights" one must not stray from the inexorable pull of secularization, a path that is "unavoidable" provided a society "dedicates itself to following" it.  In America's case, all we need is a Supreme Court to force our ignorant society of religious yokels to remain dedicated to it.  Aslan at turns seems to be saying that Middle Eastern countries must find their way to democracy in their own way and their own time (in other words, we need to stop sanctions and ignore human rights violations), and then begs the question why unavoidable paths require dedication.  If we interpret that last sentence as meaning that this dedication to secularization itself follows irrevocably, it still begs the question why any Islamic democracy would dedicate itself to "pluralism and human rights" in a way that would subordinate religious sensibilities to higher principles.  This sounds like doubletalk.  

The main problem here is that it is hard to trust how some "prominent thinkers" distinguish an acceptable encroachment of "political authorities" into "ecclesiastical" life from "the eradication of religion from public life."  Presumably, "ecclesiastical" voices (including any religious coalition) don't surrender these "responsibilities" easily; the real question is just what we mean by a voluntary surrender of these responsibilities.  The vision of Marx and of every collectivism derived from Marxism (fascism, communism, socialism) has demanded a centralized authority that puts every ecclesiastical agency (and every familial and didactic agency) at its mercy fiscally, legally, politically.  This is necessary for a centralized state to impose the right morality and vision of society (e.g. a specific interpretation of pluralism and human rights with which a free people might disagree 1,2) that the religious sensibilities of the common folk are too backward to embrace willingly.  It requires a power unaccountable to the people, like a dictator or (in America's case) a Supreme Court.  Turkey is not a good example for Aslan because theirs was not a voluntary surrender. Which is why they don't wear hijabs. 

The work that Reza Aslan does with Mike Weinstein in undermining the prominent place that Christianity holds in America's military says a lot about what he really means by secularization.  This sort of forced pluralism or involuntary pluralism is apparently seen as the passing of certain responsibilities in which it becomes .  I wonder what Aslan would make of attempts to de-Islamicize the Iranian military, squelching Islam's prominent role in that society.  This sort of thing is not necessary for pluralism, and is not traditional American pluralism.  Traditional American pluralism is neither forcing a society to celebrate all views equally nor forcing a society to deny having a specific religious heritage.  The former comes from a quasi-religious progressive vision of diversity as a sacrament; the latter comes from a tacit agreement between secularism and quasi-religious progressivism.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Lauren Green's Real Mistake

Many pieces critical of Reza Aslan's Zealot, and of his performance in the interview with Fox correspondent Lauren Green, seem to make a perfunctory jab at Fox (lest their colleagues mistake them for conservative sympathizers) and/or make an obligatory nod toward Green's terrible blunder, whether it's Islamophobia, bulverism, anti-intellectualism, "racism" (against the "Muslim race"?) or some such combination of unsavory prejudices and bigotry.

The combination of Aslan's immediate display of offense and his line "a Muslim scholar's right to write about Jesus" set the stage for all sorts of pointless bloviation about Green's questioning his right to write a book about Jesus.  Not only do I think this misses the mark, I think it would be going way past the facts to claim that Green questioned the propriety (which is another thing entirely) of his writing this book.  Despite his many repetitions of his credentials, he was not questioned on his qualifications for writing the book (but many have naturally questioned it since the interview).

But Aslan displayed from the beginning of the interview his awareness of what he was actually being asked.  He was being asked about his motivation in writing the book, and immediately hid behind his credentials and his "job," as though his qualifications entailed objectivity, and avoided the very explanation that frames his entire book

He has elsewhere admitted that he wrote the book with a very strong personal, ideological bias.  It had nothing to do with his "job" as either a professor of creative writing or as visiting professor of contemporary religious issues. (The "job" he had in mind was apparently not his paid job as professor, but his calling, as he sees it, as a public intellectual.)  As he states in his book, it had everything to do with his conversion into being a follower of a 2000-year-old political radical.  He had an ideological bias, and it inspires, informs, and permeates his book. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Reza Aslan: Religious Text Has No Intrinsic Meaning

According to Reza Aslan, your religious text does not in any way inform your value system or your world view.  Rather, your value system and world view are dependent entirely on other things and instead dictate your interpretation of your religious text. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

How Did Fox News Surprise Reza Aslan?

In many interviews Reza Aslan has repeated the refrain that Fox News has "spun" Islamophobia "into ratings gold." In the interview below, Aslan explained in more detail what he experienced during the famous interview that catapulted him into media stardom.    
When you first went through that now-viral Fox News interview, did you think the internet would notice?

Reza looking shocked.
Not at all. I understood what was happening about halfway through the interview, I’ll be honest. I went through the interview thinking that of course they’re going to come out swinging. That’s what Fox News does; that’s why they’re so successful. I expected one, maybe two, questions about my perceived Muslim bias in writing this book. I knew it was going to be an attempt to discredit the book and the academic work behind the book by trying to smear the author. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was ten solid minutes of it. *
This is very interesting. 
  1. First of all, why would Aslan give a Fox News online program the time of day if he never thought "the internet" would notice? 
  2. He says here that he expected Fox News to "come out swinging" with "questions about my perceived Muslim bias," and yet as several sympathetic articles have noted (in the NY Times,  the American Conservative, Big Think, etc.), Aslan lifts his eyebrows high in apparent bewilderment when Green does exactly what he was expecting.  It seems to be this gesture that many people took as barely contained umbrage, and indirectly as evidence of a mistreated scholar unfairly insulted (after all, he looked offended).  And this perceived sleight frames Aslan's explanation about how he is a "prominent Muslim thinker" and how his academic credentials both entitle and require him to write this book about Jesus. (It is his job to do so, he explained.) 
  3. Presumably, the only surprise occurred halfway through the interview (about 5 minutes in).  And presumably, this surprise was that this interview would be "ten solid minutes" of  discrediting his book and its underlying scholarship.  Yet Green let him explain how his academic views  contradict orthodox Islam.  Green asked him to talk about the claims of his book, and then let him present an overview of the argument in his book.  Green then brought up another criticism of his book.  While the interview was a flawed (even botched) attempt to corner a particularly slippery interviewee (and most of the attempts to discredit Green have been extremely flawed as well), to describe it as "ten solid minutes" of ad hominem is not just flawed, it's patently false.   
French journalist Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry observed:
. . . The interviewer quotes Aslan a bit of criticism of his book. Instead of responding, Aslan talks about how his book has a hundred pages of endnotes and is therefore a serious book. First of all, that’s silly. I mean, really. But second of all, answer the damn question. Aslan speaks as if the fact that he has a PhD somehow means that he is beyond criticism, at least from non-PhDs, and certainly from journalists.
Then why go on the interview?
I mean, think about it for a second. There’s about as much chance of Fox News’ audience buying Aslan’s book as there is of it buying Yeezus. So why do the interview?
Well, for this, of course. The interview didn’t ever degenerate—it never “generated” to begin with. Oh sure, Fox News had its own agenda. But Aslan could have played it cool, or presumed good faith at least on the first question. That’s if he hadn’t been coming on the interview just for this. To assume bigotry on the part of Fox News, to talk about his academic bona fides, and therefore to generate a viral moment and juice his book sales.
Well said.