Reza Aslan's 'Believer' and the hazy line between education and entertainment

(Image courtesy of CNN)

Reza Aslan made his mark on the U.S. media landscape in 2013 as an interviewee on Fox News. The now viral clip of Aslan explaining, lucidly and frustratedly, that his Muslim faith did not disqualify him from studying Christianity—or necessarily make him a better scholar of Islam—launched his book out of an academic bubble. Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth even found its way into the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list, a rare feat for a scholar.

As a student of theology and religion, I was shown that clip of Aslan by two different professors, once as an undergraduate in the United Kingdom and then again while I was a graduate student in religion in the United States. For admiring scholars of religion worldwide, Aslan achieved the nigh-impossible: he gained popularity (and readership) without compromising his academic credentials. (This isn’t to say that the academic community is ever fully comfortable with scholars who succeed in the mainstream. In a conversation with Nathan Schneider, Aslan described being ostracized by his university department following the success of his first book.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who gained notoriety for his composure and eloquence on live television, Aslan’s latest venture is as host of “Believer,” a six-part television series on CNN about religion. “I’ve been studying religions for 20 years,” Aslan proclaims in the show’s opening sequence. “Now I’m going to live them.”

What is surprising, however, is Aslan’s choice to educate people about religion in “Believer” by participating in or “living” them, when his own fame was won by distinguishing faith, practice and study. “Believer” thus sees Aslan leave his perch as scholar of Abrahamic religions and wade (sometimes literally) into religious communities beyond his area of expertise—such as Vodou and Scientology—as a kind of religious tourist. This approach is disappointingly unscholarly considering Aslan’s pedigree and, as one academic critic pointed out in a scathing review, even leads to some factual errors.

“Believer”’s quasi-anthropological format is far better suited to Anthony Bourdain’s playful exploration of international cuisine than it is to an illuminating program about religion. There are some bright spots: the series finds success in showcasing the internal diversities of religions, as well as what the ways in which they compete—the episode featuring the interaction between evangelical Christianity and Vodou is a case in point. However, Aslan’s attempt to elucidate large faith traditions by spending his time with niche communities can be misleading. Aslan’s inclusion of the cannibalistic Aghori sect of Hinduism in an episode on the faith tradition, for example, is not in and of itself problematic. His undue focus on this very small (and polarizing) community of Hindus in an episode claiming to speak to the faith tradition as a whole is.

If Aslan’s narrowed approach to Hinduism results in negative misconceptions of the religion, the opposite is true of Aslan’s portrayal of Scientology. In the episode titled “The Scientology Reformation,” Aslan spends time with a tiny group of defectors from the Church of Scientology, who practice a benign version of the faith. This focus on what scientology journalist Tony Ortega calls “indie scientology” lacks engagement with the far larger, and more problematic, church—thereby flattening out the aspects of Scientology as a whole that are distinctive and compelling.

If “Believer” had been hosted by a spiritually curious CNN pundit, or even an academic specializing in underground religious movements, its “spiritual adventure” schtick would have been far less bothersome, because it would at least have the pretense of answering a question. But because Aslan is so capable of nuanced engagement with religion, that the show provides so little education about religion is disappointing.

This balancing act between sensationalism and universality in “Believer” is perhaps best articulated by Aslan himself. “My goal—as a scholar, as a person of faith, and now as the host of ‘Believer’,” said Aslan, “is to...demonstrate that, while we may speak in different religions, we are, more often than not, often expressing the same faith.”

This thesis is not necessarily contradicted in “Believer,” but the viewer would have been better served if the show had been willing to address less extreme forms of religion, without CNN’s lens of exoticism in the way. The resulting series would likely have been a tougher sell to CNN. But if anyone could have done it, it would have been the Reza Aslan who, as a scholar of religion, refused to simplify his work for a Fox News host.

Charlotte Bloebaum
3 weeks ago

I watch this show regularly. Although the article makes good points, I don't agree it's not worthwhile. Mr. Aslan has shown these often misunderstood religions in a positive manner apart from Hollywood's version. I have see & read much about scientology, but did not know the spin-off group even existed. The program has much value & pulls us out of our comfort zone. It challengers assumptions about all the various faiths. Your criticism is undeserved in my opinion. Fascinating material in my

Dan Biezad
3 weeks ago

Reza Aslan is a popular scholar at best, but not a deeply serious one. His education at Harvard and UC Santa Barbara is excellent (he currently teaches at UC Riverside), but his contention (made in an online interview with Amazon) that "one must sift through the gospel stories to analyze their claims about Jesus in light of the historical facts" must be viewed with skepticism if not with outright denial. Consider the message of Aslan's major book, "Zealot." It is one thing to state that Roman and religious authorities executed Jesus because they labelled him a revolutionary zealot; it is quite another to claim that Jesus, indeed, was a zealot. This is truly "sifting the gospels" and cherry-picking other sources (such as Josephus and Pliny) for data that supports one's own preconceptions, especially those preconceptions that align with disparaging modern and secular views of Christianity. To me, Aslan's technique is like stating that the Christians burned Rome in the year 64 because that's what historian Tacitus attributed to Nero.

The Gospels are not historical documents, but they have been purged for false facts and questionable doctrine over the centuries from the time of their selection near the year 200. Once can completely skip over the doctrine they contain and get a very good idea about Palestine, the Pharisees, and the local culture under Roman rule at the time of Christ and immediately afterwards. Sifting the Gospels is not scholarship; why not sift through the work of Josephus or Pliny or any other available source?

One can see the defects in Reza Aslan's approach to the historical Jesus when it is compared with other scholars, even those who are not of religious persuasion, such as the approach of Bart Ehrman at the University of North Carolina. Of course, there are approaches that combine historical scholarship with religious belief, including Islam, such as the approach of Gabriel Said Reynolds, Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology, University of Notre Dame; and of John Cavadini, also of Notre Dame. The many independent sources of the Gospel narrative were selected by scholars of the early church, not primarily for consistency, but for their closeness to the time of Jesus. Thus some contradictions are to be expected in the narratives, but not in their focused message that an innocent man was sacrificed--abandoned at the end by all except his mother and one disciple--for the sins of humanity. This is good news, not zealotry.

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