Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ancient history, scholarly objectivity, and Reza Aslan

If some people have their way any Muslim scholars at this year’s Society of Biblical Literature meeting will need to wear an “I am a Muslim” name tag before they can contribute.

I never thought I’d be interacting with Fox News on my ancient studies blog.  I am sure that many of you have already seen the Fox News interview with Reza Aslan about his new book, Zealot.  And I am sure many of you also found it difficult and frustrating to watch.  Lauren Green, taking a cue from John Dickerson’s equally troubling Op-Ed, focuses on Aslan’s identity as a Muslim, questioning why a Muslim would want to write about Jesus and accusing him of concealing his Muslim identity while he peddles anti-Christian views of Jesus in the guise of scholarship. 

I have not yet read Zealot, so I cannot comment on its contents.  But the Fox News interview and Op-Ed raise some important questions about popular perceptions of ancient historical scholarship and the nature of objectivity.  Here are some things that Lauren Green, John Dickerson, and the general public should know:

(1) No one is completely objective.  The Fox News pieces seem to assume the possibility of scholarly objectivity while accusing particular people of not being capable of that objectivity.  It is possible to have scholarly objectivity about Jesus – but not if you are a Muslim. In his article Dickerson uses a classic dismissal when he labels Aslan’s work “an educated Muslim’s opinions about Jesus and the Ancient Near East.”  Aslan has opinions -- scholars have history and facts.  The real fact is that no one is completely objective and that every work of historical scholarship is only an educated persons’s opinions about their subject matter (which is better than an uneducated person's opinions, yes?). 

(2) A scholar’s faith commitments are ultimately irrelevant.  Lauren Greek and John Dickerson might do well to read up on ad hominem arguments.  It is of course true that a scholar’s faith may influence his or her historical reconstruction, especially of a religious figure like Jesus or Muhammed.  This would not just apply to Muslims writing about Jesus, but to Christians writing about Jesus.  It is actually quite odd that Green and Dickerson seem to assume that a Christian would somehow be less biased in writing about Jesus – shouldn’t we expect the opposite to be the case?  But the presence of such bias is ultimately irrelevant.  When we examine and critique a historian’s work we are not interested in their personal bias or agenda, but in the work itself. If we find ourselves disagreeing with someone’s argument, it should be based on the perceived strength or weakness of the argument itself – not the faith commitments or supposed biases of the scholar.  We should be asking how well the work interprets the historical evidence, not where someone worships.  

(3) Scholarship and history do not = unquestionable truth.  Both Green and Dickerson seem intent on showing that Aslan’s work is not true scholarship, but the work of a biased Muslim with an axe to grind.  I suspect that the underlying issue here is the mistaken notion that scholarship and history = truth.  Green makes this clear when she talks about all of the other scholars she’s interviewed who disagree with Aslan (though she gives no specifics), making it sound as if his variance from them calls into question his status as a scholar.  It is important for the general public (and journalists, who really have zero excuse here) to recognize that scholars disagree with each other.  Different people can and do interpret the evidence in different ways.  It is the reader’s job to carefully weigh the work of a scholar, to investigate the primary sources themselves, and to seek out second opinions in order to come to their own educated opinion about an issue.  When it comes to historical scholarship we need to recognize that history does not = fact.  “History” is really the many contentious and ever-evolving narratives we create about the past based on our interpretation of the available evidence.  Some people don’t want to recognize these points, instead choosing to label works that they agree with and that support their own biases as “history” or “objective scholarship” while those they disagree with are labelled “biased” and “opinions.” 

(4) Scholarship changes not just because of new evidence, but because of reinterpretations of existing evidence.  Lauren Green asks Aslan what new evidence he has to lead him to different conclusions than other scholars.  First, from the interviews I’ve seen with him, many of his arguments do not seem to be all that different from what many Jesus scholars have already said.  Second, Green and others need to recognize that a new historical reconstruction does not require new evidence, but often involves a new interpretation of existing evidence.  Again, there may not be enough popular recognition of the interpretive nature of historical scholarship.

(5) If you’re going to talk about Muslims, or any group, you should actually learn something about them first.  What is particularly troubling about these Fox News pieces is the anti-Islamic flavour.  Sadly, both pieces perpetuate the secret Muslim agenda narrative. They also reflect a lack of knowledge about Islam.  Green’s initial questions to Aslan about why a Muslim would be interested in Jesus are odd, not only because she is focusing on his Muslim identity rather than his identity as a scholar, but also because anyone who knows anything about Islam realizes that Jesus is an important figure to Muslims.  Why would a Muslim write about Jesus?  Because he is one of their prophets.  Dickerson’s claims that Aslan’s historical reconstruction just perpetuates the Muslim view of Jesus is also odd, as Aslan points out in the interview, since some of his claims actually contradict traditional Muslim belief.  If you’ve watched interviews with Aslan you know that he stresses the crucifixion as his primary starting point for reconstructing Jesus.  As he points out in the Fox News interview, the majority of Muslim tradition does not believe Jesus was crucified.

What can academics do to help the general population (and journalists apparently) better understand the nature of scholarship and academic discourse?

1 comment:

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