Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Reza Aslan, Fox News, and Griphook the Goblin: Things Are Complicated

One of Crusty Old Dean's favorite verbal exchanges in film comes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2:  Electric Boogaloo.  Harry is interviewing Griphook the Goblin, whom he and his Scooby gang have rescued from Malfoy Manor.  Griphook, however, also some questions for Harry, namely, why he has the rare and ancient Sword of Godric Gryffindor.

Griphook:  How did you come upon that sword?
Harry:  It's complicated.  Why did Bellatrix Lestrange think it should be in her vault?
Griphook (slowly, leaning in): It's complicated.

Guess what, kids?  Things in life are often more complicated than they may seem to be!  This exchange stuck in Crusty's head as he has digested the twittblogfaceinterbooksphere's reaction to Reza Aslan's online interview on Fox News.  For those who may not have seen this, here's a link the 10-minute interview.  Dr Aslan is on a media tour promoting his new book, "Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," and has appeared in a variety of media outlets.

The responses to this interview, and to Dr Aslan's book, have been revealing to Crusty -- but because, as with most reactions, they tend to tell us a lot more about ourselves and our broader culture than what is contained in single, specific, discrete incident.

There has been widespread criticism and denunciation of the interview in a variety of outlets.  It has been called the "most cringe-worthy, embarrassing interview" in Fox News' recent history.  Another commentator called it "embarrassing, even by Fox News standards", a cross between the cringe-humor of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and the British version of the TV show "The Office."

Crusty agrees that the central point of the interview is fundamentally wrong: namely, why a Muslim would write about the founder of Christianity, which the interviewer likens to a Democrat writing a book about Reagan.  Sweet Jesus, this is so ludicrously inept and stupid a question Crusty doesn't know where to begin.

--The central premise that someone outside of a tradition cannot comment on that tradition -- that Dr Aslan, as a Muslim, should somehow not be writing a book about Jesus -- is simply idiotic.  Jesus was a Jew, after all, so what right do Christians have to write any books about him?  And, of course, nothing prevents non-Muslims from making whatever comments they want about Islam and its founder, Muhammad, out of their own sheer ignorance and prejudice.  The Rev Jay Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, once called the founder of Islam a "demon-possessed pedophile."

Apart from the hypocrisy here, it also strikes at something deeper:  What the f**k is education and study for if somehow we are not permitted or allowed to become involved in matters outside of our origins?  The whole point of life is finding stuff you're interested in, are good at, and exploring
The linotype machines are thirsty, my friends.
opportunities to gain skills and experience in those areas.  Should we develop a caste system where people's interests and options are solely confined to one's religion, ethnicity, and class?  COD's grandfather quit school in the eighth grade; why should I be interested in education?  Crusty's Dad was a hot lead industrial printer, am I to grow up into that family business?  No thanks, smelting lead for linotype machines at age 10 convinced COD that was not for him.

--It demonstrates such an appalling ignorance of Islam.  Islam reveres Jesus -- though not as the Son of God.  He is the second greatest prophet after Muhammad, the Quran has extensive sections on Jesus, and according to Muslim eschatology it is Jesus, not Muhammad, who will come in judgment in the last days.  Any Muslim should be intensely interested in the life of Jesus.

--It shows an ass-backwards understanding of Christianity.  One could make a great argument that Jesus didn't "found" Christianity:  that he was a prophet of renewal within the Judaism of his own day, and that Christianity as a religious system developed after his death.  Now, pious Christians would argue this was always God's intention and the work of the Holy Spirit.  But in assuming Jesus "founded" Christianity, the interviewer is revealing her own bias as a Christian in calling out some sort of inchoate bias in Dr Aslan.

It needs to be called for what it is:  just another form of anti-Islamic prejudice.  Of course nobody at Fox News would question Christian pastor John Dickerson's Christian bias in his review of Dr Aslan's book, nor explore why a Jew like Pamela Geller has the right to write books about Islam.

That said...it's complicated.  There are other additional issues that are troubling Crusty.

1)  While questioning that because someone is a Muslim they are somehow not able to write about Jesus is moronic for the reasons noted above (and probably others), nonetheless an author's background and point of view are important, and should be fair game in examining all persons' work.  We can't throw the baby out with the bathwater of Fox News bigotry.

To his credit, Dr Aslan has never hidden the fact he is a Muslim.  He notes it in the introduction of his book.

And, in the interests of Crusty's own self-disclosure, and to name drop, he can add he's met Reza Aslan on a couple of occasions, heard him speak at All Saints' Church in Pasadena, California, and Neighborhood Church down the street from All Saints', and had a long conversation with him at both coffee hours talking Christian-Muslim relations and early Christianity.  We exchanged emails and set up a time to have lunch, which he had to cancel because the media tour for his current book began adding appearances.  Further, Crusty has an intense heterosexual man-crush on Reza, who is on his Switch List.
Still looking good.  Call me maybe?
(In the 1990s, Crusty and his Scooby gang were bored one day and came up with the concept of the Switch List.  If you identify as gay, you list 5 people from the opposite gender you'd like to get with.  if you identify as straight, you list 5 people from the same gender you'd like to get with.  We had no people identifying as bisexual in the room, we took a mulligan on that.  BTW, Crusty's current list:  1.  Christopher Plummer from The Sound of Music;  2.  Reza Aslan; 3.  Heath Ledger from "10 Things I Hate About You; 4.  George Clooney from anything; 5.  Jeff Tweedy from Wilco.  But COD digresses.)

The Fox News interview was the absolutely wrong way to ask what is a very important question.  Or, to show how awesome Crusty is, the interviewer could have asked Dr Aslan the same way Crusty asked Dr Aslan back in 2004:  "What's it like to comment on Islam in the current polarized environment, from your own background as a Muslim whose family fled to America, converted to Christianity, then converted back to Islam, and who has also studied religion academically?"

THAT'S HOW SHE SHOULD HAVE ASKED THE F*****G QUESTION!

Get Crusty the phone to Fox News:  "Is this Moron 1?  Put Moron 2 on the phone!" (Yes, a tip of the hat to the great Dennis Farina from "Midnight Run."  See all of his awesome lines from one of the greatest comedies of all time, which Crusty saw on a date in 1988, here on YouTube.)

2)  The second matter is how Dr Aslan handled himself in the interview.  Crusty found Dr Aslan to be a bit pedantic and condescending.  Crusty's been in difficult conversations over the past 20 years but hasn't resorted to speaking to people as if they were children, like Dr Aslan does.  Frankly, Crusty has found it pisses people off even more.  Anyone who reads his blog knows COD is many things:  self-righteous, indignant, snarky, pedantic, and a whole host of other things.  But Crusty self consciously never tries to be condescending.  A measure of character is how we treat others, even when they do not treat us well.  People have asked me lots of stupid questions and COD doesn't respond by speaking very...slowly...like the person's an idiot and listing all the degrees he has.  Rather COD reframes the question, which is what Dr Aslan should have done.

3)  Crusty also winced at Dr Aslan's repeated reference to his academic and scholarly credentials.  You know what?  Crusty has as many degrees as Dr Aslan and has reading and speaking knowledge of Russian, French, German, Greek, and Hebrew, but he doesn't reference them continually to make his points.  You show people your competence, you don't start degree dropping.

4)  COD also find some sympathy with those in the twitterblogointerfacesphere who have questioned Dr Aslan's recitation of his academic credentials.  One of his four degrees which he catalogs several times is an undergraduate one; COD's undergraduate degree is in Russian literature but he would be loath to think it qualifies him to comment on the subject.  One of Dr Aslan's graduate degrees is in creative writing.  Another is a Master of Theological Studies, an introductory master's level degree, fromHarvard Divinity School (though COD has no idea what Dr Aslan's emphasis in his MTS was).  His PhD is in the Sociology of Religion, where his dissertation was on the concept of Global Jihadism; here's a link to the book.  Crusty has spoken on more than one occasion with Dr Aslan, so he is not doubting that he knows a lot about early Christianity; COD personally knows that he does.  Dr Aslan is a great writer
If only everyone felt this way after meeting COD.
and COD has enjoyed his books.   I've got a signed one on my bookshelf! There's a photo of his inscription to the right! Yet while unwilling to go so far, as some have, in saying he has misrepresented his scholarly and academic background, COD sure thinks he might have downplayed this a little bit and not left himself open to a wide avenue of accusation and potential misrepresentation.

On the other hand, maybe Dr Aslan is crazy like a fox, as some have argued, and all of this is a brilliant PR move, with his book skyrocketing up the Amazon.com sales chart. In which case, if we ever do meet up for that lunch, Reza, you're paying this time.


4 comments:

  1. Great post. Agree on all of it...except maybe the switch list. ;-)

    Speaking of complicated, I just finished Zealot myself and have very mixed feelings about it. Have you read it? What did you think?

    Thanks and blessings-Joe

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  2. Must confess I haven't read it. But I have read several of Richard Horsley's books, so I have am familiar with the whole Jesus as zealot political revolutionary angle. But I look forward to reading Reza's when our library gets it, unless he can inscribe it I ain't buyin' it.

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  3. I agree. Even and especially with the Switch List.

    I got annoyed with his defensiveness and would have liked to see him take a breath and try to reframe the conversation. But then, I'm not a Muslim living in a country where many folks treat me as suspect and most of the ignorantly bigoted language used against my ethnicity and religion comes from the same "news" source that just opened my national interview with an insanely prejudicial question clearly aimed at driving a wedge. I might be a little defensive too, forgetting my calm little happy place and rattling on a bit about my qualifications. I know he's no neophyte to this media-attention-thing, but I'm willing to cut him some slack.

    I'm on chapter 4 and it's a well-written book. He's a great storyteller. But I haven't read any new-to-me ideas yet and I'm certainly no scholar. I think it would make a great book for some parish reading groups.

    Anyway, thank you COD! Michelle Meech

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  4. laughing very, very much that your switch list rather resembles my list. i knew we got along, but wow.

    i am currently reading 'zealot' and not finding anything terribly outrageous, but sometimes the methodology makes me feel like the book is more like historical fiction. not done yet..so this jury is till out.

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