Reza Aslan and the Myth of Information

I am the type who could burn boiling water. To give you an idea, my patient and loving mother-in-law taught me how to make one of the simplest foods on the planet: chapati. This is a perfected recipe that has been made by countless generations of human beings, probably going back to the stone age. But, as soon as she left the house, I decided to “experiment” and added honey to the batter. The result was a sticky concoction that melted on the hotplate into Rorschach-esque puddles.

This is why Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown is perfect for me. I am the ideal low-information consumer. I do not watch Parts Unknown to learn anything about cooking. I watch to see him stand on the rubble of Gaddafi’s palace, to look away in horror as he stabs a pig, to admire the scenery of the French countryside, to watch him banter and bully Éric Ripert, to hear him describe his struggle with past addictions. To abuse a metaphor, his show is one part personality, one part travelogue, with a dash of information. I have never walked away from the television set and into the kitchen with any more knowledge than I had before. And as for his bona fides, he tells me he was a chef. He holds a knife was some authority. He makes appropriately orgasmic faces when he eats. That’s good enough for me.

In my opinion, a similar approach should be taken with Reza Aslan’s Believer. Over the last month or so, my various social media feeds have been rife with commentary from colleagues in Religious Studies on the merits—and more often demerits—of the series. The majority opinion seems to be that Aslan is doing damage to the field—or perhaps, more rightly, “brand”— of Religious Studies with his sloppy descriptions of religious practice, his penchant for sensationalist topics, his overall self-aggrandizement. On the other side, defenders of Aslan cite the benefits of bringing new popular awareness to the study of religion and past examples where he has demonstrated the importance of religious literacy to combat bigotry.

I was out of the country for the last month or so and, thus, watched this building fervor from afar. Having returned to the States, I’ve had an opportunity to see Believer and I think there are a few considerations that have been missing from this conversation.

First, a few words on how we, or should I say Aslan, got here. Aslan has often touted his credentials as a Religious Studies scholar on television. He is a Professor of Creative Writing and his most advanced degree is not in Religious Studies (or, for that matter, Creative Writing) but, rather, Sociology. He does have a two-year master’s degree from my alma mater, Harvard Divinity School, but he has otherwise earned his credentials outside of the discipline. His Wikipedia page claims he is an active member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion (our flagship organizations), but I’m hard-pressed to tell you the last time I saw him at a conference or the last time he gave a paper. He published his third book recently with Random House called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013); however, at the risk of sounding somewhat cruel, his book utilized outmoded scholarship and was not taken seriously by most active scholars of New Testament or Early Christianity (by “seriously” I mean that it did not advance any conversation in the field, it revealed no new thesis/information about Jesus, and the approach was not innovative). Likewise, in his television appearances (including Believer), he regularly employs imprecise language about religion that cause many of his Religious Studies colleagues to cringe (“lived religion,” “experience,” “spirituality”). And he routinely makes (what are evidently) false claims about his status as part of the Creative Writing faculty at University of California at Riverside. Yet, at some stage, Aslan was able to gain a foothold in popular media (and, perhaps, imagination) as a scholar of religion and has been regularly appearing on CNN, Fox News, The Daily Show and related outlets ever since. He has carved out for himself an enviable career that, otherwise, can leave many who hold actual Religious Studies doctorates out in the cold.

I give you this background not to forefront any direct disapproval of Aslan, but to highlight why he has become such a lightning rod. In short: he is hard to place. He claims he is a scholar of religion but, at least speaking as someone who is an assistant professor of early Christianity, scholars of religion have little to no association with him or his work. He is a Muslim writing popular books about the historical Jesus which can rankle those who aren’t fully aware of what academics do for a living. He is a great communicator, yet his words and writings reveal that he isn’t engaged with his professed field of study. And he has become (or is becoming) for religion what Bourdain is to food: a figurehead.

This brings me to the first issue with Aslan and Believer: professional envy. Aslan is a public intellectual carrying the banner for Religious Studies without doing the traditional work of a scholar. Yes, he has published books, but they are with popular (not academic) presses, which suggests his work was accepted by virtue of its marketability and not its intellectual merit. He writes pieces for various media sources, but not academic journals. He boasts of his knowledge of ancient Greek on television, but when was the last time he published a translation or a commentary? When you see him on cable jaunting through India in purple pants and Ray-Bans, it’s hard to picture him in the library stacks agonizing over the references in his footnotes. He embodies the answer to the question “what else can you do with a Religious Studies major?” the way that Jim Morrison embodies what else you can do with a Theater Arts B.A..

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that many of us would choose an all-expenses-paid trip around the globe over filling out accreditation spreadsheets. So we watch Believer and think to ourselves “why is he so lucky?” Of course, it takes an exceptional amount of skill to translate something as complicated and seemingly “personal” as religion to a mass audience. I’m sure it takes a great deal of media training and self-confidence to put yourself out there for millions of people to process and critique (I’m including myself among the critics). And he handles it all deftly, with confidence and an earnestness that I’m sure audiences find appealing. In this respect, like Bourdain, Aslan is an ambassador for the field. But how to reconcile his public stature with the reality that he remains outside of the professional discipline?

Academic specialization is a conversation between about a dozen people (if not fewer). And that specialization takes years, if not a lifetime, to master (what sources are reliable? what terminology is the most descriptive? where are the biases in my sources? what are my own biases? how do I construct a convincing argument?). This kind of careful, critical work is clearly not Aslan’s specialty. Case in point: where is the religion in his series on religion exactly? In his first episode about Hinduism he talks to a professor of journalism, he speaks to a religious expert about whether he was sad when he cremated his wife, and he attempts to scandalize his audience by visiting a “real live cannibal.” Others have explained how poorly arranged and irresponsible this episode is as a primer on Hinduism. But it’s clear that that episode isn’t designed to inform, it is designed to titillate.

This leads me to an important question: why would we assume that Believer is designed to inform us about anything in the first place? Because it’s on CNN? In the age of Benghazi and Trump tweet America, this seems an awfully naïve expectation. Television is about creating narratives— particularly, of course, narratives that generate ratings. This is what makes the storyteller so important. Aslan may not be a Religious Studies scholar, but he certainly plays one on television. If you were expecting an informative and systematic peer-review-worthy exposition on religious practice, no wonder you’re disappointed (or even angered) by the series. If you were expecting Aslan to observe the basic rules of academic integrity, it seems you are disappointed as well.

Aslan’s job is not to be a responsible academic. His job is to keep your attention and boost ratings. His obligation isn’t to the education of his audience, it is to his corporate sponsors. And it is now the job of those of us in the classroom to take this series and use it a teaching tool for how to recognize contrived or biased narratives and, by contrast, engage in responsible scholarship.

And while it is certainly important for us to analyze Believer and point out when melodrama shades into the irresponsible, we also need to consider what Aslan teaches us about what a mass audience expects to see from a program about religion and what they think a Religious Studies scholar does for a living. In a recent interview, Aslan made fun of his colleagues, complaining that all academics do all day is “sit around in dusty rooms arguing about the vowel markers of ancient texts for the next 30 years.” Quite a sentiment from someone who otherwise to this point has done an admirable job explaining to the public at large “why religion matters.” Reflecting on his television audience, he told The Atlantic: “As every high school teacher will tell you, 90 percent of that is dancing around like a monkey in order to get the students’ attention—and then, when they least expect it, teaching them something so they’re able to absorb it.” High praise indeed. With quotes like these, Aslan seems determined to perpetuate stereotypes. So much for making friends.

Truth be told, a reality show about Religious Studies scholars would not make for great television. Six hours of watching me bite my cuticles while I try to decide how to translate an inscription is not exactly riveting. And a television show that critically informs people about the history of what we call Hinduism and Hindu practices probably couldn’t compete with Game of Thrones. But that doesn’t mean the public isn’t hungry for real information about religions (or maybe even religious studies experts?). When you are eating brains in your first episode, it is pretty clear you are propagating myth. And maybe, just maybe, the public is tired of it.

Whether it’s the content of the show itself or the perception that CNN is “fake news” (this alone is a hornets’ nest for another post), given Believer’s present ratings, Aslan’s “dance” doesn’t seem to be working. Unlike Bourdain, the stakes for Aslan are too high. Bourdain has a lousy episode about Chicago bars and no one outside of Chicago really cares. Aslan hosts an irresponsible episode about cannibals and his self-diagnosed “germaphobia” about the Ganga and a public hungry for a reliable storyteller is immediately let down. So watch Aslan the way you watch Bourdain. It’s a trifle. It was never designed to be more than that. But if the outrage over Believer continues, it might be time to consider taking seriously the need for a program about religion that treats audiences, and religions, with more respect.

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