Why It Does Matter That Reza Aslan Is Muslim

07/31/2013 05:55 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2013

When FOX's Lauren Green asked Reza Aslan why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus, she was biased.

When Reza Aslan answered her, he was biased.

When I watched the interview, I was biased.

And when you read this article... well, you get the point.

And on and on and on we go, impugning everyone else's bias, denying our own.

I'm still trying to figure out why it's unfair to ask a scholar if he was aware of his own philosophical bias while doing his research. Obviously, Green didn't ask the question in this way, and admittedly, her clumsy phrasing made for cringe-worthy awkwardness. I'm not defending Green's wording. I'm only pointing out that we don't "do history" in a vacuum, whether or not we've got four degrees.

I'm pointing out that, regardless of how offensively the question was asked, the fact remains that it absolutely does matter to Reza Aslan's writing that he is a Muslim. Just like it absolutely does matter to my writing that I'm a gay Christian. My thought, my activities, my writing -- all are situated, all are trapped within my particular context of Brandon-ness. I can't break out of myself and say, "Now I shall do philosophy from a heterosexual, atheist perspective unpolluted by my own brain."

Here's an example. My nerdy friends and I sometimes discuss the bible story of Sodom & Gomorrah. We read the same exact text, and yet we reach very different conclusions. If you think homosexuality is a sin, then you read the story as judgment upon the gays. If you think homosexuality isn't sinful, then you read the story as judgment upon a particular city's ill treatment of the strangers who have come to visit them. There is no way for me to read the story as a gay man and conclude that God hates fags. My inescapable bias won't let me reach that conclusion.

What I'm saying is, whether my glasses are rose-colored, or rainbow, or even FOX and Friends Republican, the point is -- I've got glasses.

So does Reza Aslan.

Whether or not it was silly of Green to ask him if there's a particular bent to his research, it is nevertheless true that there is a particular bent to his research. There has to be. There is no way Aslan could do the research outside of himself, apart from his own socioeconomic, philosophical, political, and -- gulp! -- religious context. Which is why it won't do to talk about some kind of unmediated, objective vantage point from which a critical scholar like Aslan can do his work. That vantage point doesn't exist. Even for historians. Or, you know, for creative writing professors.

I didn't expect to read Aslan's book and learn that Jesus was actually the second person of the Trinity, just like I never expected to read a book by, say, NT Wright and learn that Jesus was deluded. Both scholars' research is guided by the presuppositions they bring to that research, and usually we, the audience, are aware of their respective presuppositions before we even buy their books.

Take, for instance, Aslan's point about first-century messianism. As he recently said in an NPR interview, Jesus is not the only guy going around the ancient world "claiming to be the Messiah, curing the sick, exorcising demons, challenging Rome, gathering followers." Like many other political zealots, Jesus eventually pisses off Rome so much that they murder him for treason, which should be proof positive to his followers that he isn't actually the Messiah they had hoped for. But for some curious reason, Jesus' followers end up going around proclaiming that, in spite of his bloody defeat by Rome, Jesus actually is Lord.

But what happened to Jesus' first century followers to take them from a belief in Jesus' crucifixion to his exaltation? What makes Jesus different from the other countless murdered Messiahs? Could it be that what separates Jesus from Rome's other victims was that, unlike all the other dead messiahs, Jesus was experienced in such a way that convinced his earliest followers that he had physically come back to life?

Biased Aslan would say no. Biased NT Wright would say yes: the uniqueness of Jesus' posthumous deification is compelling evidence for his resurrection.

And biased all of us would go, um, we know scientifically that people don't come back to life.

Right. Of course we know that. We know that long before we even do the history, long before we even approach the gospels, or any other religious texts for that matter.

Before we even read what the gospels have to say about Jesus' resurrection, our minds are made up that there's no way something that batshit crazy could actually happen. And so regardless of what we find in the text, our historical method does not allow us to say, hey, maybe this dead guy really did come back to life.

If I say, "I've got to study first century history in such a way that explains the Jesus phenomenon without admitting the possibility that the gospel stories are fairly reliable," am I not in fact making up my mind before I do the work? If I say, as Aslan does on page 104, that "the acceptance of [Jesus'] miracles forms the principal divide between the historian and the worshipper," am I not stacking the deck in favor of the very conclusions I wish to draw? If I study first-century Palestine expecting to uncover a politically zealous Jesus who "did not hesitate to employ violence in trying to establish God's rule on earth," should it surprise me, then, when my research leads me to a xenophobic, vengeful Jesus who hates foreigners (p. 122) almost as much as he hates the Galilean ruler he wishes to behead (p. 45).

Setting metaphysical preconditions for research is fine and even necessary, but, contrary to what Aslan seems to think, these preconditions don't mean that we aren't biased - they actually mean that we are.

The best historians (like, the ones with, you know, history degrees) are aware of these kinds of biases. In fact, the more aware a historian is of her own bias, the better prepared she is to overcome it. But if our offense at FOX's question is any indication of Aslan's own feelings on the matter, then it seems like Aslan hasn't even begun to consider his own bias, let alone worked at overcoming it.

When NT Wright studies Jesus, he does so as a Christian. When Aslan studies Jesus, he does so as a Muslim. Both men read the same history. Both men study the same source material. And yet, because both men do their research from their own respective contexts, they are led to very different conclusions.

As a biased saint once said: "What we are looking for is what is looking."

The upshot, which admittedly isn't very sexy, is that it absolutely does matter to his research that Aslan is a Muslim.


Reza Aslan