(© TFSS, 2013.)
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?
I attended college from 1990-1994. Beginning with my first Christmas break and lasting until my last, for a month every winter and three months every summer I worked with a fantastic group of people processing loan and credit card payments for an assortment of small banks.
We worked from 2:00 in the morning until the work was done, generally between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. It was one of the best jobs of my life, for a few reasons. First, as I mentioned, the people were great. We had great camaraderie, conversations, and pot lucks. Second, the graveyard shift is a great way for a night owl like me to earn money. You sleep all morning & early afternoon, go out at night, then go to work. And third, the job was about numbers and sorting numbers, and that always gave my mind a bit of peace.
One of my favorite aspects of the job was that we could listen to a walkman when processing mail at our workstation. For me, that was about 80% of the job. The other 20% also had music, but the kind that was playing in the entire building, usually an adult-contemporary station called K-BIG. And so I associate music with that particular time of my life.
Back in the early 90s, nighttime radio in LA was still filled with a lot of music, very little talk, and an eclectic mix of music on some stations that didn’t play a lot of variety during the day. My soundtrack for those years was rather rock-based–I listened to a lot of metal and older 80s rock on cassette tape–but when I got tired of that, I turned on KISS-FM, KLOS, and a now defunct station called “Pirate Radio.”
I made a playlist that samples the songs I most associate with this time and place. I created it on Spotify and you can listen to it here. It has a large selection of the songs I remember working to from the radio, both the one in my earphones and the one being broadcast over the speaker system.
I can’t say they’re all great songs, or even good songs. I’m not sure I’d put too many in my top 100 either. But I find each listenable and, for me, powerfully able to transport me to another (younger) time in life.
I love Elvis. I love the Beatles. Of course, I must love the Beatles talking about Elvis.
In this video, George Harrison recalls his second and final meeting with the King.