Who is a “historian”?

Chances are you’ve seen at least part of this video of author Reza Aslan being interviewed about his new book on FOX News.

The substance of the “debate” in this viral video has garnered its own “viral” status in a host of articles and blog posts debating Aslan’s actual merits as a scholar and the quality of his book to the larger field of religious history.

None of them stood out to me until this nice overview of the story from The Nation. What struck me most was the author’s critical take on Aslan’s use of the word “historian” to describe himself and his work.

I think Elizabeth Castelli does a great job examining some of the complexities of this story, especially from an academic perspective. I was also really intrigued by her reference to Albert Schweitzer, who makes the point (Castelli tells us) “that efforts to reconstruct the life of Jesus are bound to fail both because the historical archive is so irreparably fragmentary and because every life of Jesus inevitably emerges as a portrait with an uncanny resemblance to its author.”

I also think, however, that we “academics” can invoke our position to assert a kind of inflexible certainty to debates like this. By exposing how Aslan doesn’t work in the recognized ways scholars of history are trained, and by discussing just some of the shortcomings this produces in terms of final product, the matter seems settled.

As somebody who is a trained scholar of history, and as somebody who has spent their professional life working in Chicano/Latino Studies (where oral histories and community histories are valued, and questions of memory are interrogated), I do feel the need to chime in a bit on the defense of the histories preserved in our collective memories–the kinds of history that say as much (or more) about our present than about our past.

Schweitzer’s caveat about scholarship of Jesus doesn’t read to me as much as a criticism of the validity of that scholarship (although clearly that is how he meant it). To me it presents a lot of use for us as a critical framework in trying to understand what historical works often are really about–the debates of the present.

In John Sayle’s great 1996 film “Lone Star”–probably the most historical (or historiographical) film I have ever seen–one of the characters, a man named Otis Payne (played by Ron Canada), introduces his grandson Chet (played by Eddie Robinson) to some of his own personal history. Though visible African American, Otis tells the younger Payne that he is also part Seminole. When he grandson asks in amazement, “So I’m part Indian?” Otis replies, “By blood you are. But blood only means what you let it.”

That phrase packs a lot of meaning for me as a scholar. It says a lot about the issues of race, memory, and power that are at the heart of the above film, but it also says a lot about history more generally. The past is always mitigated through our decisions in the present. The usefulness of the “truth” from back then is always measured through our needs in the here and now.

I haven’t read Aslan’s book but that would be one general way I would defend what he does. Doesn’t that defend almost any story somebody tries to write about Jesus, you might ask? Well, maybe, I would say. But so what?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s