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The Missed Opportunity of the Aslan/Green Moment

08/02/2013 04:52 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2013

She is tall, pretty, and gifted. She knows her stuff, has had her struggles. She's an African-American woman who works in a largely white male industry. She reports on faith in a news cycle dominated by the pressing and the hard-edged. She's also smart. She's a skilled musician, holds a graduate degree in journalism and she knows how to handle an interview -- when to laugh and when to close in for the kill.

He is young, handsome, and accomplished. He is also a man of broader learning and experience than most. He was a Christian before he became a Muslim. He earned a degree in divinity at Harvard before he made writing his field and then completed a doctorate in sociology. He teaches writing but sits on the Council on Foreign Relations, writes books about the New Testament but advises U.S. leaders about the nature of jihad. His wife is a Christian; his brother-in-law is an evangelical pastor. He has a boyish smile and an irritatingly piercing intellect. He was born in Iran.

She's eager to transcend the third tier of cable news. He's prickly and addicted to the adoring look in the graduate student's eyes. She's from an African Methodist Episcopal background and is suspicious of smug scholars who make careers out of chiseling away at her faith. He's saying nothing that hasn't circulated in theological seminaries for a hundred years and yet the phrase "avant-garde thinker" dances seductively in his head.

And the interview begins. He has written a book called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. It's a light reworking of the higher criticism that has informed biblical studies at the university level since Abraham Lincoln went to Washington. There are some well-placed controversies. Jesus was a warmonger, he claims. And Jesus was crucified. Muslims don't believe this. Some theologically liberal Christians don't believe this. It might have been worth exploring.

But, no. Her first question had to do with why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus. Perhaps asked this for the sake of her audience. She surely knew that Muslims believe Jesus Christ existed, that he was born to a virgin, that he was a prophet and that he did miracles.

Perhaps she intended the question as a fat pitch to a first-time guest. Or, she may have intended it as the first blow in an online Ultimate Fighting event. Either way, it didn't work.

He could have saved the moment, though: could have leaned into his teaching gift and helped a Fox News audience understand a Muslim's interest in Jesus. He didn't seem to have it in him. Within five minutes viewers had heard him give his resume three times. He just wasn't willing to be bitch-slapped by a Fox-Babe who doubted his brilliance and assumed his duplicity.

It never got better. She asked him why he conceals his Muslim faith. He doesn't. She read aloud the words of his critics having never meaningfully probed the words of his book. He was high pitched and thin-skinned and dared to assure, "I'm actually a fairly prominent Muslim... and well-respected religious scholar."

It was among the worst ten minutes in the history of televised religious dialogue. It failed Fox News. It failed scholarship. It failed every faith in play at the moment.

Much was lost. As a Christian, Ms. Green might have noticed that her theologically liberal, Muslim guest unswervingly affirmed that Jesus Christ existed, caused trouble in the Israel of first century Rome and was crucified just as Christians have long declared. The man even called Christianity "the greatest religion in the world." This in an age when a "New Atheist" movement led by men like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins suggests that Jesus Christ never existed and that the entire Christian story is a malicious myth. There was something worthy of gracious discussion here.

As a learned man, Dr. Reza Aslan might have summoned his nobler self, ignored the barbs and offered more than a list of his accomplishments. How had he -- a member of a faith that denied Jesus was crucified -- become convinced otherwise? Had he suffered opposition for his views from fellow Muslims? From Christians? And on what basis did he make the astonishing claim that Jesus Christ was a "warmonger?" How fascinating a discussion this might have been!

But, no.

And we should know that this embarrassment stems from a greater embarrassment still. We are a nation in which a student can progress from kindergarten to doctoral studies having never passed through even a brief survey of the world's great religions, glimpsing the major faiths only from afar in history classes where teachers are urged to treat religion with embarrassed brevity, if at all.

It is why thugs in New York accosted Sikhs a few days after September 11, 2001, thinking them the followers of Osama bin Laden. It is why synagogues were forced to replace rock-shattered windows and a Hindu temple was vandalized during that same time -- Jews and Hindus being indistinguishable from Muslims to the patriotically enraged and religiously uninformed.

It must change. The world is too dangerous a place and religion is too much a defining force for the stupidity that tainted the otherwise noble days after 9/11 -- or the blundering and pride that made an international scandal of a simple interview about religion -- to continue.