Evangelical Pastor: Religious Beliefs Make Objective Study of Jesus Impossible, But Only for Muslims
Over the past few days, I’ve been accused of being (a) anti-Christian, (b) anti-Indian (sub-continental), (c) anti-truth, and (d) racist. “I enjoy your blog a lot,” one correspondent wrote. “In fact it is quite entertaining, but it seems to portray all Christians in a bad light. … Not all religious people are zealots as not all science believers are intolerant douche bags towards religion.” I imagine this is the problem with having a blog devoted to the topic of alternative history; by definition, the people whose views I discuss are necessarily the extremists, who—whatever their stripe—are necessarily outside the mainstream.
Therefore I read with interest a Fox News opinion column by the evangelical pastor and syndicated columnist John S. Dickerson blasting Daily Beast writer Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth as pseudo-scholarly fraud perpetuated by “a devout Muslim.” Dickerson faults the media for failing to report Aslan’s Muslim beliefs, but Dickerson similarly fails to note that Aslan holds a master’s in theological studies from the Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in the sociology of religion from UC Santa Barbara. Dickerson’s qualifications are that his father and grandfather were both pastors, at least as far as his biography states.
I wonder if Dickerson similarly jettisons all of “Biblical archaeology” since it is carried out by Christians and Jews, who of course he must admit cannot be fair.
I have a copy of Aslan’s book, and I’ll be looking at it sometime in the near future. What follows is not an endorsement of Dickerson’s claims, only an examination of his choice of arguments. Let’s look at Dickerson’s arguments for why Aslan can’t be trusted. I remind you again: I am not endorsing any of these claims.
His book is not a historian’s report on Jesus. It is an educated Muslim’s opinion about Jesus -- yet the book is being peddled as objective history on national TV and radio. Aslan is not a trained historian. Like tens of thousands of us he has been formally educated in theology and New Testament Greek.
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Whom else do we know who makes weird claims about Jesus on TV and radio while pretending they are objective history?
As a sincere man, Aslan’s Muslim beliefs affect his entire life, including his conclusions about Jesus. But this is not being disclosed. “Zealot” is being presented as objective and scholarly history, not as it actually is—an educated Muslim’s opinions about Jesus and the ancient Near East.
Whom else do we know who passes off uneducated, radical opinions as sober scholarship? How many times, though, have we been told that our unnamed friend’s background and beliefs are irrelevant to understanding his claims? Dickerson calls Aslan’s failure to openly praise Muhammad on television as a failure to disclose a deep-seated “conflict of interest,” as though Jesus belonged only to evangelical Christians, and not also to Muslims, Arians, Gnostics, and sundry other groups with differing views.
Many more interviews will come from reporters who simply don’t understand that Reza Aslan has a horse in this race. He is not an objective observer, but, to use his own word, a zealot, with religious motivation to destroy what Western culture has believed about its central figure for hundreds of years.
Yeah, that about describes, from a different ideological framework, the New Age extremists who want to rewrite history to serve their radical agenda, too often focused on 1 Timothy 6:10. I will agree with Dickerson on this, though: The media fail to understand the radical ideologies underlying alternative history, and they treat “controversies” over ancient white explorers, a lost race of Jesus’ American children, or a hidden goddess cult infiltrating our government as amusing distractions, grist for the media mill, falsely balanced against mainstream scholarship as two equal sides of the coin of knowledge.
Let me be blunter: Why should geologist Scott Wolter’s imaginary honorary master’s degree and utter lack of mastery of historiography or archaeology be irrelevant to judging his work while Aslan’s claims are rendered moot by his training in theology rather than historiography? Why should Giorgio Tsoukalos’s or William Henry’s New Age spirituality be a lodestone guiding us to a better understanding of ancient religion while Aslan’s Islam disqualifies him from researching the historical Jesus?
Here is where I think that we need to step back and understand that there is a difference between the claimant and the claim. Whether Jesus was a radical or the father of a race of goddess-worshippers is a question of fact. But when the facts fail to support a claim, it then becomes useful to examine why particular individuals continue to support ideas in opposition to fact because the question is no longer historical but sociological. In other words, the ancient astronaut hypothesis is a question of fact; why more than a million people a week watch Ancient Aliens is a question of sociology. Dickerson fails to establish that the facts are wrong, so his attack is nothing but an ad hominem, contributing nothing except to foment xenophobia against the outsider.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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