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Media Lesson from Dr. Aslan Interview: A PhD Cures Bias

There’s a lot of buzz today about this interview of Reza Aslan, a card carrying member of academia with a Ph.D. in the sociology of religions from the University of California about his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

So what was the big deal?

Host Lauren Green starts the interview with this question: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

This lead to a lot of harumphs from Dr. Aslan who felt his credentials were being called into question. He responds politely but firmly: “Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim.”

The bulk of the interview from this point forward is Green asking the question in different ways as well as pointing out Christian Scholars bringing up the same question, with Aslan responding with more indignance that his objectivity was being called into question.

Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski asked whether it could be “the most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done.”

Connor Simpson at the Atlantic wrote that “The whole ten minute appearance is embarrassing for the news network, even if it was an online show.”

Uproxx’s Josh Kurp says “At no point does Fox News realize the irony of persecuting someone over their religion in a discussion about Jesus.”

Putting aside the fact that questioning someone’s objectivity has to be the lightest form of persecution in the history of religion, the truth is Green’s question was actually a softball and simply addressed the premise of the interview which she laid out quite clearly before the segment began:

“Reza Aslan was a Christian but converted back to the faith of his forefathers: Islam. He has now written a book about Jesus which has become controversial as it calls into question some of the core tenets of Christianity.”

Aslan was brought in specifically to address concerns that had arisen over his objectivity. “Objectivity,” or more specifically “objective,” is defined as “existing independently of perception or an individual’s conceptions.”

Aslan claims his standing as a Muslim played no role in his academic study of the life of Jesus. Fair enough. But he, and various publications today, wrongly portray the mere questioning of this as out of bounds and provide his various academic achievements as some sort of irrefutable evidence that Aslan is above reproach.

Any scholar worth his salt would acknowledge the inherent difficulty of being objective. Without that introspection, you’re not smart or learned, you’re arrogant. My dad is an expert in roughly the same field that Dr. Aslan is claiming (inaccurately as it turns out) to be an expert in, holding a PhD in Philosophy of Religion, and wrote an entire book dedicated only to the difficulty of achieving objectivity when interpreting religious texts.

Tossing PhDs at someone is no more proof of objectivity than working at ABC is for George Stephanopoulos.

And let’s be clear: Aslan wasn’t discussing some mundane historical question such as which Roman Governor oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion. As is mentioned in the interview, he specifically questions the historical accuracy of the Virgin Birth of Jesus. This is part of the foundation of Christianity and though he has every right to question it or write about it, it’s dumbfounding to me that anyone believes you can cast doubt on a Christian miracle as a practicing Muslim, and be embarrassed for others that pointing to a wall of framed achievements wasn’t enough proof that there was no bias.

Then again, given the groups that are upset about the interview, I suppose having to witness someone questioned about bias probably hits a little too close to home.

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