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