Author Reza Aslan Tackles Intersection of Politics, Religion, and Scholarship

Scholar reflects on the Reactions and Controversy surrounding his Book

When Iranian-American religious scholar Reza Aslan wrote the No. 1 New York Times Bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, he knew there would be some strong reactions. Such is the case whenever a scholar writes for a mainstream audience, particularly about an issue accompanied by as strong feelings as religion. What he might not have expected was the magnitude of the reaction and what it said about the relationship between politics and scholarship.

Aslan, associate professor of creative writing and cooperating faculty in the University of California, Riverside department of religion, was on Trinity’s campus late last week for the Religion Department’s Michael P. Getlin annual lecture. Aslan’s talk was entitled, “Who Speaks for Jesus? The Politics of Scholarship.” It was the first time Aslan has given a talk, not about his book, but the reaction to his book.

Aslan opened with a few of the lessons he’s learned throughout his career. He pointed out the difference between faith, a unique and individual phenomenon, and religion, the language, symbols, and metaphors that individuals use to express it. He explained the differences between history and faith: too often they are at odds, he said, but they are in fact two different modes of knowing, and asking different questions. Finally, he explained the distinction between prophets and their religions. Prophets do not found religions; they are reformers of existing religions. It is their followers who start a religion. These distinctions set up his talk and some of the controversies that would arise.

His infamous 2013 interview with Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green, who questioned why Aslan – a Muslim – would or could write about Jesus Christ, featured Aslan repeatedly trying to get across that as a scholar of religions, his job is to research and write about these topics. But Aslan’s talk at Trinity was about more than the Fox News interview. He identified and explained some of the criticism he’s received.

There are groups, Aslan said, who set themselves up as spokespeople for Jesus and “gatekeepers of salvation.” First, the most obvious criticism came from the religious right. For many biblical literalists, putting Jesus into a historical context is in itself offensive. Another major source of criticism came not from the religious right, but the political right. Presenting the historical Jesus as a politically threatening revolutionary who cares deeply about the poor is seen by some as an attack on the so-called “politics of Jesus” that many conservatives have cultivated.

Finally, Aslan talked about the importance of bringing scholarship to a general audience. One of the most important lessons Aslan took from the Fox News experience was “Green’s inability to recognize religion as an academic discipline.”

“You can write about religion,” Aslan said, “without either proselytizing or attacking it.”

The failure to understand this, Aslan said, is not the fault of Green, but of academics who have talked exclusively among themselves. To combat this, Aslan encouraged the audience to expand the conversation and invite others to join it. He has noticed a shift, he said, toward academia recognizing that is has something to contribute to the public discourse.

“We need to take responsibility,” he said, urging scholars of religion to encourage their colleagues and students to participate in the dialogue about their field.​