CNN Gives Show to ‘Zealot’ Author Reza Aslan

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Reza Aslan owes his new job on CNN to Lauren Green of Fox News.

Her interview with him two years ago about his unoriginal book about Jesus Christ likely made the book and his career, both of which might have sunk out of sight without her. Indeed, after that online interview went viral, his book Zealot shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

In what many on left and right called a terrible TV interview, Green tried to find out any anti-Christian bias in his book. She wanted to know what a Muslim was doing writing about the founder of Christianity. The inference Aslan drew from her questioning was that his credentials were lacking.

His equally clumsy response was to condescendingly repeat his credentials over and over and over. He mentions his PhD repeatedly — no fewer than five times — and says it slowly with an emphasis on every single letter, “P… H… D.” At one point he says, “I am quite a prominent Muslim thinker in the United States.”

Perhaps his insistence on his credentials was the result of his actual lack of credentials. Joe Carter, writing at GetReligion, was the first to point out Aslan’s credential problem.

Carter points out a number of false claims made by Aslan, who told Green, “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. So it’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus; I am an expert with a Ph.D in the history of religions.”

He also claimed to be a “professor of religion including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually.” He also claimed: “I am a historian. I am a PhD in the history of religions.”

Carter says, “For starters, he does not have a PhD in the history of religions. Aslan has four degrees: a Bachelors of Religious Studies from Santa Clara University; a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School; a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa; and a PhD in sociology of religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara (his dissertation was on ‘Global Jihadism: a transnational social movement’).”

Carter also challenged Aslan’s claim to have a degree in the New Testament, “Santa Clara doesn’t offer a degree in the New Testament so he can’t be talking about his Bachelors. Perhaps he is referring to the Master’s of Theological Studies degree he earned from Harvard Divinity School in 1999. That school does offer an ‘area of focus’ in ‘New Testament and Early Christianity.’ Is Aslan claiming this was his degree’s area of focus at Harvard? (If so, this would make his claim about having a “degree in New Testament” misleading, at best.)”

“When exactly has Aslan taught classes on the New Testament? And as a scholar, has he published peer-reviewd academic articles on Jesus?” asks Carter.

Matthew Franck wrote at First Things:

“None of [his] degrees are in history, so Aslan’s repeated claims that he has ‘a Ph.D. in the history of religions’ and that he is ‘a historian’ are false.  Nor is ‘professor of religions’ what he does ‘for a living.’ He is an associate professor in the Creative Writing program at the University of California, Riverside, where his terminal MFA in fiction from Iowa is his relevant academic credential. It appears he has taught some courses on Islam in the past, and he may do so now, moonlighting from his creative writing duties at Riverside. Aslan has been a busy popular writer, and he is certainly a tireless self-promoter, but he is nowhere known in the academic world as a scholar of the history of religion. And a scholarly historian of early Christianity? Nope.”

Franck describes Aslan’s Ph.D. dissertation, Global Jihadism as a Transnational Social Movement: A Theoretical Framework, “If Aslan’s Ph.D. is the basis of a claim to scholarly credentials he could plausibly claim to be an expert on social movements in twentieth-century Islam. He cannot plausibly claim, as he did to Lauren Green, that he is a ‘historian,’ or is a ‘professor of religions ‘for a living.’”

It looks as if Aslan’s new CNN show will be good for critical fodder. Will he draw an audience? We shall see. Hurting CNN certainly hopes so.