Author Reza Aslan has not brought out the best in either the mainstream or conservative media in the wake of the publication of his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
The following could be considered a distillation of an Aslan appearance on a conservative news outlet:
Anchor: ….and now we're joined by Reza Aslan, who's kindly taken time out from bombing school-buses to come tell us why he hates the Lord Jesus Christ. Mr. Aslan, thank you for joining us.
Aslan: If I may correct you: It's Dr. Aslan.
Anchor: Wait, you're a physician?
Aslan: No. I am a scholar, one who holds a Ph.D.
Anchor: Okay, that'll go over great with our audience. So why would a Muslim zealot write a book about Jesus?
Aslan: The relevant issue isn't that I am a Muslim or a zealot. The issue is that I am a s-c-h-o-l-a-r who holds four degrees—a master's degree from Harvard and three degrees from schools that aren't as much worth talking about. But again, one of those degrees is a Ph.D.
Anchor: So if we find someone with five degrees who writes a book about Jesus, then we can pretty much ignore you?
Aslan: Not if I can help it. Besides, my authority is singular: I am historian, a sociologist, a political scientist and a New Testament expert. And a nutritionist and probably an engineer too. Oh, and I teach spin on weekends.
Anchor: Great. Well, thank you for…
Aslan: Now let's recap my academic degrees, for any viewers who may just be tuning in….
Of course, a distillation or composite of Aslan's appearances in less conservative media outlets would look more like this:
Anchor: We're now joined by the telegenic, brilliant Dr. Reza Aslan, who is, as I understand it, a scholar!
Aslan: Actually, if you read my bio on my website, the one with the close-up shot of a close-up shot of me, it clearly states that I'm an internationally acclaimed scholar.
Charmed Anchor: I humbly stand corrected. Now tell us: What's the real Jesus like?
Aslan: Well, it's impossible to know the facts with certainty, but, owing to my unique vantage point, let me tell you the facts with certainty. Jesus was not some sissy peacenik who talked about loving enemies and blessing peacemakers. He was pretty much a contentious jerk. I say that this is the real good news, especially owing to the fact that I'm a contentious jerk. Oh, and by the way, can we please remind the person running the chyron captions that I'm "Dr. Reza Aslan"?
Dazzled Anchor: Will do. And I just want to give you a chance to emphasize that your book is not actually criticizing Christianity.
Dr. Aslan: Absolutely not. My wife is Christian, my mother is Christian, my brother-in-law is Christian. I don't mean to imply that their faith is false. I just mean to say they're naively worshipping a peaceful wimp, when they should be worshipping an angry warrior. I'd judge them more harshly for their faith, but I know they don't have my academic credentials. So instead I judge them for lacking my academic credentials.
Fawning, Breathless Anchor: Okay, one final question, and it's no softball: How can I thank you enough for writing a bestselling book that I can use to torment my fundamentalist aunt at the Thanksgiving table?
Internationally Acclaimed Dr. Aslan: Just buy more copies, please.
Yet, beyond the bad interviews and faux controversy, we are faced with several issues.
At the same time that Aslan offers viewers a splendid drinking game every time he brings up his scholarly credentials, his slippery and sloppy articulation of his credentials brings his very credibility into question.
His primary academic appointment is as an associate professor of creative writing ("His class is super easy," writes one student reviewing his course. "He's deliciously delectable in every way," writes another). Yet Aslan publicly asserts that he makes his living as a professor of religion.
Aslan's 2009 dissertation was titled, "Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: A Theoretical Framework," to support his Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology at UC Santa Barbra. The vita in his dissertation declared his major expertise as "Islam, Sociology of Religions"; yet today he is redefining himself as a New Testament expert and a historian of the highest rank, uniquely qualified to write the definitive scholarly critique of Jesus.
Others are just beginning to offer withering critiques of his leaps of reason and just starting to document errors and other problems. Distinguished Israeli journalist Oren Kessler has sifted through Aslan's twitter feed to find real evidence of a cyber-bully who uses the most un-Christlike language to belittle any who question him. And I, as someone shares Aslan's cultural and religious origins, have been calling into question the notion of Jesus as pro-war revolutionary.
A salient issue arises: Does Aslan represent his own particular religious and political agenda clearly? In his Zealot book, he opens by noting that he was born and raised culturally and nominally Muslim, later found Jesus, then left evangelicalism and began, vaguely, "to rethink the faith and culture of my fathers," while still obsessing on Jesus.
Such fudging suggests he is trying to minimize his Islamic credentials (the only time he's sought to minimize any of his credentials, mind you), while hyping his role as a "follower of Jesus" who intends to proclaim the message of his real (and really angry) Jesus with newfound passion.
But when confronted (clumsily) by Fox News, he cleverly shape-shifted from label-less spiritual omnivore to persecuted Muslim. For millions of people who love to hate Fox, he instantly became an icon. But that shouldn't distract us from the problems with his content.
"When we renounce a faith we do not cast it off but swallow it," Eric Hoffer wrote. "We substitute the self for the abandoned holy cause, and the result is not lethargy but an intensification of the individual's drive." Aslan's evolution from excited evangelical teen to the charismatic, One True Prophet of the Real Jesus demonstrates Hoffer's maxim nicely.