Religion Today

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Religious Studies Scholar Goes Viral

Even if you have never visited YouTube, you have probably at least heard about YouTube videos going viral. It usually happens to short films of pop culture that pique the interest of young people, usually for a laugh, and then lots and lots (and lots) of people watch them.
I never expected the academic study of religion to go viral, but it did. Fox TV’s Lauren Green’s interview with Religious Studies scholar Reza Aslan about his new book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” received hundreds of thousands of views. It is cringe-worthy stuff. From the interview’s start, it was clear that Ms. Green had not read the book, but she had to continue on for nearly 10 minutes.
But that is not the oddest thing about the interview. Dr. Aslan is an American Muslim, and Ms. Green’s primary contribution to the interview (desperately rephrased over and over) is the accusation that any Muslim who writes about Jesus must be pushing an Islamic agenda to denigrate Jesus.
Well, it turns out that Dr. Aslan holds four degrees, two in the study of religion. He earned a Master’s of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School (the nation’s oldest Christian divinity school), and he received a Ph.D. from the University of California-Santa Barbara in the sociology of religion.
So, far from writing a book about the Muslim view of Jesus (or even one Muslim’s view of Jesus), Aslan has produced a work of academic research and rigor. He knows the scholarship on Jesus and cites it, in good academic form, whether it agrees or disagrees with his argument. By his own admission, he has spent two decades researching this topic.
Indeed, in the field of religious studies, it is common for scholars to become experts in religions in which they do not believe. Among the seven full-time professors in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Religious Studies, four teach religions to which they do not belong. My own background is Christian, but I am an expert on Judaism; we have a Jew who teaches Islam; a secular scholar who handles our Hinduism and Buddhism courses; and another Christian who teaches African and African-based Caribbean religions.
So, it is not the scholars’ religious background, but their training, mastery and continuing research that make them an expert in a particular religion. A professor of political science need not be a Republican or a Democrat to be an effective instructor, and the same kind of difference holds true for those engaged in the academic study of the world’s religion.
Reza Aslan’s religious background would go without mention among academic experts on religion. Among those who work in the field, no one would have given it a second thought before the Fox interview.
And the book itself? Well, Dr. Aslan used his creative writing talents to produce a work that aims to bring scholarly debates and analyses of the historical person Jesus to a more popular audience. If you are interested in the subject, it is a good read, with many footnotes directing the reader to further material. 
Is it cutting-edge scholarship? No, not really. The case he makes for Jesus being a rebel against Rome (a “zealot”) is immersed in the history of scholarly analysis, starting more than 300 years ago with Reimarus. He takes his own positions on the many points of debate and presents a plausible case for his characterization of Jesus. He may put together the puzzle that was Jesus in a new way, but nearly all the pieces have been seen before. [Most major English-language newspapers around the world have reviewed the work.]
Will you (or I) agree with his conclusions? Some of them probably, but not all of them. If you are an evangelical Christian, you will find much to dislike in the volume. But you will dislike it because it is a work of secular, academic scholarship, not because it has a Muslim viewpoint.
The book comprises a good example of how religious studies scholars have been trained to set aside their personal views and beliefs about religion to write works of analysis accessible to, and important for, everyone interested in the subject.
Note: The interview appears at:

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, August 01, 2013

What would a Biblical America be Like?

In many of the recent moral debates in the United States of America, we have heard people call for a return to a more biblical America. With regard to many difficult issues, such as gays, abortion and marriage, some individuals argue that our society should simply “do what the Bible says.”
One problem with a call for a return to biblical principles on these matters is that the Bible does not speak directly about these questions. Scripture never even imagines the possibility of abortion, for example, although its passages about killing can form the basis of different theological positions about it.
But there are many topics on which the Bible is quite explicit, however, and if we wanted to create a biblical America, there are ample guidelines available. What would a biblical America be like?  Let us imagine.
Political system: The only political system in Scripture is that of a king or an emperor. For Scripture, the only question is whether the king is native to the country or an outsider who conquered the country. In the case of the latter, Jesus did not counsel rebellion, but to “turn the other cheek,” and to “pay unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (i.e., taxes) without complaint. The idea that a government could be democratic or that people should elect their rulers is antithetical to biblical ideas of goverance.
Economic system: The Bible clearly forbids the taking of interest when loaning money. Since interest-based financing is one of the driving forces of a capitalist economy, we would need to scrap the very economic system that has generated this country’s wealth. No loaning on interest would also prevent borrowing money for a mortgage. To buy a home, you would have to save up the entire purchase price.
Slavery: Neither the New Testament nor the Old see anything wrong with slavery. Indeed, the apostle Paul counsels his enslaved readers that they should accept their slavery as God’s will. This is not a race-based slavery, but one in which anyone can become a slave, either through poverty or military defeat. There is even a temporary form of slavery for the poor. In debt? Can’t pay your bills? Sell yourself (or your children) into slavery for seven years.
Women: A woman’s place is in the home, not in the workplace. Women should not play any role in public society. They should not have a job outside the home, nor should they speak in church, let alone teach Sunday School or become ministers. Men would have to fill all the jobs that women now occupy. Children would stay home under their mothers’ care; no more daycare. Since women would never function outside the home, there would be no need for education.
Sons: A son’s duty is to obey and respect his father and mother. If he doesn’t, he should be punished by death.
Clothing styles: Cross-dressing is “right out.” Neither men nor women can wear clothing designed for the opposite sex. Only men can wear the pants in the family.
Worship: Religion, including its theology and beliefs, would be closely linked to the national government. Under the kings of Israel, there was one official religion. It was supported not only by a central priesthood, but also by the power of the king and his army. When Israel was controlled by foreign powers, that centralized religion became the expression of national identity, and rampant nationalism replaced government as the driving force of conformity. In this biblical America, then, there would be one religion (Episcopal? Catholic? Baptist? Mormon?). Freedom of religion would be non-existent.
So, what do you think? Should we make American society more in line with biblical principles? 

Labels: , , , , , , , ,