Reza Aslan and the Fox News Zealot

JAIPUR, INDIA - JANUARY 28: Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan at the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 28, 2013 in Jaipu
JAIPUR, INDIA - JANUARY 28: Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan at the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 28, 2013 in Jaipur, India. (Photo by M Zhazo/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Author and academic Reza Aslan, whose work I've linked to a handful of times on my site, has a new book out entitled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, chronicling his research into the real life of Jesus, separate from the religious construct that's revered in different ways by the Christian and Muslim faiths. Now, what's interesting about this book is that his conjectures about Jesus are just as likely to be discomfiting to Muslims as they are to Christians, but that hasn't stopped certain vested interests from proclaiming that Aslan's work represents some kind of a shadowy attempt to blaspheme Christ by a Muslim who has no right to even mention his name.

This absurd implication was given literal expression last Friday when Aslan appeared on an online segment for Fox News entitled "Spirited Debate." The host, one Lauren Green, who I'd expect most people had never heard of before this weekend (though that's definitely not a problem anymore), starts right off asking, "You're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?" And from that (in)auspicious start, things swiftly proceeded in a downward fashion, with the nearly 10 minutes that followed quickly taking their place in the "Train Wreck TV" Hall of Fame. Check out the vid below, in all its cringe-inducing glory:

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the video of the segment soon rocketed around the web (usually accompanied by headlines like the one over at Buzzfeed: "Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?"). An outgrowth of this is that folks like Dan Murphy of The Christian Science Monitor have dug into host Green's pre-Aslan history a bit, and found that, shock of shocks, this isn't the first time she's expressed a jaundiced, fact-challenged view of Islam and Muslims. And in what amounts to a sort of funhouse mirror version of bipartisanship, her conduct of the interview even garnered a rebuke from The American Conservative's Robert Long, clearly no fan of the book itself, who says:

If you're actually interested in Zealot, you shouldn't care about Aslan, or Fox, but about the man from Galilee: what was he like? what did he teach? was he the Christ? If you're looking for answers to that question, Aslan's Muslim faith, Fox's hostility, and any number of dreary facts about America's cultural grievances are strictly irrelevant.

I spend a lot of time in my classes talking about the very real phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, which can result in us rearranging reality to suit the worldview we want, rejecting any facts that conflict with said worldview. And while the "cognitive dissonance" strategy has obviously been the Fox News M.O. for awhile now, rarely do we see it acted out so vividly for all to see. No matter how many times Aslan cites his background, and a list of credentials as long as your arm, Green just can't seem move into second gear past, "But... but... you're Muslim!"

What really sticks out to me in all the commentary is the inherent idiocy of Green's central (read: only) assertion: that Aslan's "Muslim-ness" somehow disqualifies him from writing about Jesus (here's a counterpoint to that from Buzzfeed, by the way). When she tries to bolster that argument by saying it would be akin to a Democrat writing about Reagan, it offers a clear window into the binary, yin or yang mindset that governs her thinking. Meanwhile, a whole mess of folks who probably hadn't even heard of the book before seeing the viral vid have helped shoot Zealot (which was already doing pretty well) to the top of Amazon's best seller chart, so well played, Fox. Well played.