Essays & exchanges:

Apologia pro Reza: Why I like Believer

posted by David Frankfurter

Reza Aslan’s recent Twitter-related debacle has not only halted another season of CNN’s Believer but inspired another outpouring of Reza-hating in the field of academic religious studies (along with the occasional more temperate criticism). Aslan is, so the haters assert: a fraud (since his doctorate is in sociology and he teaches creative writing, not world religions); a pompous ass (according to various personal anecdotes and a few scenes in Believer); a pretentious non-contributor to historical Jesus research (since his 2013 book Zealot did not forge any new ground but only summarized what others have already said); and a sensationalizer (since Believer seems to stress bizarre examples of Hinduism, Judaism, and so on, rather than a putative mainstream).

Since I have watched most of the series and found it to be both interesting and empathic, I have actively defended it in informal settings and want to lay out a more extended apologia in this forum. (Nothing I write here bears on Aslan’s wisdom in the use of Twitter or CNN’s response.)

I am a comparative historian of early Christianity who reads widely in and engages in academic forums around new religious movements and popular and local religious forms, both contemporary and ancient. I also came into the study of religion out of great distaste for comprehensive generalizations (à la Huston Smith) about religions of the world—that is, generalizations that elevate the so-called “mainstream” of any religion. Religion, I believe, should be interesting, even exciting—for the likes of me but even more for the outsider or undergraduate whom I want to attract to my classes and hope finds value in my field. If the alternative to “sensational” is “mainstream,” then I will take—and encourage—the sensational.

So what has Believer been doing since it began? On the one hand, Aslan wants optimistically to find some inclinations toward tolerance and human rights in diverse religious movements around the world. In a world that is coming apart from nationalist intolerance and the demonization of indigenous religions (usually at the hands of Pentecostal missions in Africa and Latin America), that is a worthy, hopeful endeavor. On the other hand, Aslan wants to introduce some novel forms of religion within the “greater” religious entities of Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, and so on, that demonstrate believers’ sincerity, passion, and integrity and that offer the historian or ethnographer useful examples of the way old religious traditions can be reconstructed and vitalized in new ways. Having read extensively about (and to some extent also experienced) Israel’s youthful neo-Bratslavers, Haiti’s voudouistes and Pentecostal movement, Mexico City’s San la Muerte cult, and the like, I regard them as intrinsically fascinating and also revealing about how religions change and consolidate due to indigenous agency and the new discourses of modernity.

And the episodes are well-researched. The episode on Haiti is largely based on the work of Wesleyan University’s Elizabeth McAlister, who has been exploring the rising antagonism of Pentecostalism to Haitian voudoun tradition. The scholars brought on to discuss San la Muerte are likewise informed and articulate interpreters.

But what has most impressed me about the episodes is how empathic they are. Aslan may begin with the (immensely popular, so hardly marginal) cult of Saint Death in Mexico and in Hispanic communities in the northeastern United States, but he brings us to a deeply moving engagement with the devotees and the celebrations they bring together. So also with his interaction with the spirit Ogoun in Haiti: He is not holding up Voudoun and its animal sacrifices as strange or primitive but offering firsthand, videographic testimony about how this tradition works and makes sense emotionally.

I might say the same with the episode about the Aghora in Varanasi, India; but here the message is somewhat reversed. Aslan begins by romanticizing an esoteric Hindu sect for their post-caste ideology; he goes to visit its adepts and he discovers quite quickly that their ways are much more extreme than his idealism can take (extending notoriously to their eating feces on screen). I have no trouble with this episode, since this group does exist. And all of us have the naive impulse to latch onto one or another historical group as somehow embodying values we admire (Beguines? Shakers? Early Franciscans?)—before, that is, we learn more about what kinds of folks they really were or are. Aslan’s embarrassing escape from the Aghora on the beach somehow exemplifies the western interpreter sitting down (actually or metaphorically) with some sectarian group in the hope of learning their pure, über-tolerant ways, and encountering some rude shock from their actual practices. That is not Aslan making a fool of himself; that is all of us.

It is for these reasons—inherent interest and empathy—that I have enjoyed all the Believer episodes I have seen and would look forward to more. The value of “inherent interest” lies in attracting a general public with the ostensibly anomalous phenomenon that, through the course of a television show (or, for that matter, a lecture or a reading) becomes recognizable, human, and even admirable in its own way. This is how we bring people into religious studies and how we justify our field in the broader humanities. And empathy is precisely the process by which an audience moves from regarding the anomaly as strange, off-putting, and “non-mainstream” to understanding it as coherent and human, even in its way “sacred.” If there is anything I find tedious in Believer it is Aslan’s search for the politically or spiritually hopeful, but that is the personal bias of a religious studies pessimist.

In the end, is Aslan a fraud? Does Aslan misrepresent himself? The haters make much about his specific degree and appointment at UC-Riverside and his book Zealot. But to me, he exemplifies the student of religion who informs himself with the best scholarship about his subjects while always keeping his eye on what is interesting—on the living anomaly that grasps our imagination and teaches something deeper about religion than official texts and mainstream traditions. That should be a model for us all. (And incidentally, criticisms that Zealot does not forge new ground in the study of the historical Jesus have tended to downplay the fact that so-called historical Jesus research has not gained any new data in many centuries and any new interpretations in many decades. Aslan simply reflected the latest paradigm for a popular audience).

The larger issue, however, comes down to how we, as scholars focusing on specific texts, historical situations, and critical meta-discussions, relate to popularizers and their different sorts of work and success: Competition? Envy? Resentment? Admiration? Or simply cooperation, towards the greater good of keeping the public engaged with religious studies as a field.

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