Last night, The Washington Post published a strongly worded argument about Reza Aslan, the scholar who Fox News pilloried for having the audacity to write a book about Jesus when he is (in the interest of “full disclosure”) a Muslim. The Post story, “Reza Aslan: A Jesus scholar who’s often a moving target,” seems determined to point out some shiftiness in Aslan’s character. To start, it relates an anecdote about the Iranian-born Aslan, who spent his first years in the U.S. “pretending to be Mexican” in an effort to assimilate. It follows, “The boy who posed as something that he was not has become the man who boasts of academic laurels he does not have.”
That is a provocative statement. The Post’s proof is that Aslan did his PhD in sociology, yet when Fox’s Lauren Green suggested he was defaming the father of Christianity with his demon-worshipping biases, he defended himself by saying, “I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions,” and “[I am] a scholar of religions with a PhD in the subject.” Aha! He didn't mention sociology, and the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he studied, doesn't have a doctorate in "the history of religions"! Of course, sociology is an enormously broad field, encompassing every action of man as a social animal—of which religion is arguably the strangest and most fascinating one. And Aslan’s graduate advisor told the Post that “he doesn’t have a problem with Aslan’s characterization of his doctorate, noting that his former student did most of his course work in religion.” Aslan also has “an undergraduate degree in religious studies and a master’s in theological studies,” along with an MFA in creative writing. Hence his assertions that he is “a scholar of religions with four degrees.” The Post also nails him for being, currently, a professor of creative writing and not religion, though it notes he has gone back and forth between the two.
Of course, the Post’s allegation that Aslan has played up his credentials for professional plaudits is not the same as Fox’s belief that his credentials are automatically negated by his faith. The Post calls Fox’s questions “astonishingly absurd,” and its prejudiced view of Aslan “loopy.” And it was by no means a bad idea for a major paper with serious reporting chops, such as the Post, to look into Aslan’s CV, which has been hotly disputed—and widely repudiated—in the right-wing blogosphere. Here’s one of the saner examples, from the faith-based site Patheos, excerpted on The Blaze:
Aslan also claims that he has a degree in the New Testament. But is this true? Santa Clara doesn’t offer a degree in the New Testament so he can’t be talking about his Bachelors. Perhaps he is referring to the Master’s of Theological Studies degree he earned from Harvard Divinity School in 1999. That school does offer an “area of focus” in “New Testament and Early Christianity.” Is Aslan claiming this was his degree’s area of focus at Harvard? (If so, this would make his claim about having a “degree in New Testament” misleading, at best.) While this is a possibility, it raises the question of how—armed with only a Master’s degree with a focus on the New Testament—he became the first full-time professor of Islam in the history of the state of Iowa.
It seems patently absurd that a man who has studied Judeo-Christian faith at three degree levels should not be allowed to say he has a “degree in New Testament”—such strict scrutiny of language robs it of any sense. Unfortunately, the Post argument is every bit as frivolous.
The Post story does make some good points about Aslan and his famous new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, interviewing a number of his peers and concluding, “many of Aslan’s assertions have become received wisdom for a large number of scholars. But few could deny that Aslan stitches the narrative artfully." I have not yet read the book, but this seems fair. Aslan himself is quoted as saying that the book presents Jesus “in an accessible way for a popular audience to read and enjoy. If you’re a Bible scholar, there’s nothing new.” (As an added bonus, the realization that much of the book is cribbed from a 1967 text undermines the Fox-fueled fracas about its unthinkable blasphemy all the more.)
A few days after the disastrous interview, the Post’s Erik Wemple wrote a piece entitled, “Fox News must apologize to Reza Aslan.” Now, his venerable employer should do the same.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.