There is a bit of a hubbub in the interwebs about an interview conducted by Lauren Green, religion correspondent for Fox News Channel, with Reza Aslan, author of a new book on Jesus titled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Our friend Joe Carter, over at GetReligion, has the basic story. Green launched the interview (available here in full) with a question about why a Muslim should want to write a book about Jesus. A reasonable question, and not a hostile one on its face–but by the end of the interview Green has returned to it in a somewhat more accusatory fashion. As Joe says, the interview is a mess. But as he also points out, Green's critics are passing right by something far more interesting: that Aslan has misrepresented his scholarly credentials.
In fact, it is Aslan who immediately turns the interview into a cage match by reacting very defensively to Green's first question. And here is where the misrepresentations begin. For roughly the first half of the interview Aslan dominates the exchange with assertions about himself that seem intended to delay the substance of the discussion:
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.
Later he complains that they are "debating the right of the scholar to write" the book rather than discussing the book. But the conversation took that turn thanks to Aslan, not Green! By the final minute he is saying of himself (and who really talks this way!?) that "I'm actually quite a prominent Muslim thinker in the United States."
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, 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."
It may be that Aslan sensed a tougher interview from Lauren Green than he is accustomed to. Hence he immediately went into high-dudgeon mode, and made the ten minutes all about her alleged disrespect of him and his alleged scholarly credentials. But in order to change the subject he told a string of gratuitous falsehoods about himself. Perhaps that master's in fiction writing came in handy.
Is Aslan's book worth reading? I have no idea. But he has earned enough distrust from me that I haven't any interest in finding out.