Reza Aslan’s “Zealot”

Reza Aslan is probably the only religious scholar ever to become hip, thanks in part to to his encounter with Fox News’ Lauren Green.

I interviewed Aslan both before and after his appearance on Fox News. That interview, In Search of the Real Jesus, ran in the Boston Globe Ideas section today, Sunday. I enjoyed reading his book, it’s one of the best historical narratives I’ve read in years. The second interview was largely because my editor wanted a few follow-up questions, a couple to make the interview a bit more fun (the Monty Python question in the interview was his; I missed “The Life of Brian”), and a couple to fill in gaps that I couldn’t get to the first time. But it was also to ask about the Fox News flare-up.

I know Green has been excoriated, though Buzzfeed’s claim that this is the worst interview ever felt like click bait. Green did lose control of the interview, and asked some unfortunate questions that did not get at the question she seemed to really mean to ask, the legit one of how his Islamic faith might influence his interpretation of Jesus (I agree that journalism schools may teach this interview for years to come). But I’m not going to throw stones at her. Disclosure: I met Green at a dinner once and found her pleasant and modest (someone else had to tell me that she’s an accomplished pianist and a former beauty queen), and I am also a Christian. But those reasons aren’t why I’m not throwing stones. It’s because I thought back to my first interview with Reza.

Our first 12 minutes were spent mostly discussing the arbitrary labels of religious identity that ended with me asking “how would you like to be described? My editor is certainly going to ask what kind of Islam you practice.” That got me a lecture on using adjectives like “practicing,” which climaxed with “it’s none of anyone’s business how I practice my faith,” followed by a denouement on the absurdity of putting value judgments on individual faith.

Had that particular 12 minutes been on air, I can only imagine people mocking me for asking him what type of Islam he practices (the terrorist type?), as well as for failing to do anything interesting in ten minutes. As it happened, I had an entire hour with him and thought our conversation was a good one. But if we’d had just 10 minutes, the whole thing might have felt prickly.

At the same time, his reaction to Green might not have started with the point about his credentials as a scholar. As he said to me, “I firmly believe you can be a follower of Jesus without being a Christian.” Had he given an answer like that to Green, it might — it should — have been a very different interview.
Of course, if all she (and her producer) really wanted to was make a point that Muslim zealots are now associated with terrorism, and Jesus was not a terrorist, it might have gone the same way, though I think Reza would have something really interesting to say about that.

She might also have noted that Islam does not think Jesus was divine. Aslan doesn’t himself say flat out that Jesus is not divine, but the book at one point reminded me of the Atheists for Jesus column Richard Dawkins wrote a few years’ back (minus the screed in the middle). Clearly, you can be an admirer of Jesus and not believe Jesus is God. And Reza does weave in some of the Gospel verses that any reasonable Christian needs to ponder and pray over. There are verses in the Gospel that can be seeds of doubt, like “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:6), or Luke 9:27, “some standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

But the debate over Jesus’ divinity is a very old one, officially resolved for Christians at the Council of Nicaea in 325, 245 years before Mohammed was born. In a way, the debate seems less warranted in the age of quantum mechanics: Jesus as God and Jesus as Holy Spirit have a quantum dynamic.
I ended up asking only one question about the Fox News event in our follow-up, and I lumped it in with what I felt was a more damning comment from someone who called him an amateur. It was, in retrospect, a mistake. I wanted to try to get past the news, and I probably outsmarted myself. Glad that wasn’t on air, either.

Leave a Reply