off the cuff:

Believer, religious studies, and the public

posted by The Editors

Reza Aslan describes himself as a “scholar of religions.” Situated as such, Aslan hosted one season of CNN’s Original Series Believer. The series, which was not renewed for another season, is a “spiritual adventure series” which follows Aslan as he “immerses himself in the world’s most fascinating faith-based groups to experience life as a true believer.”

Academic scholars have publicly critiqued the show and Aslan himself, questioning the scholarship that has gone into the show and declaring it too sensationalist, especially about lesser-known religious groups. Recently, David Frankfurter wrote an apologia, defending it as an example of how to engage the general public in scholarly religious exploration.

Both of these TIF essays, along with others discussing the series elsewhere, ask the question, what makes someone a scholar of world religions? How can popular media be used to teach the general public about religion and is Believer a positive example of such teaching? Is “sensationalist” media helpful or hurtful in perpetuating narratives of religious groups?

In this short forum, we have asked a handful of scholars to discuss the relationship between scholarship, public knowledge, and popular media.

Our respondents are:

Laura Harrington, Boston University

Samira Mehta, Albright College

Hussein Rashid, Independent scholar

Lisa Sideris, Indiana University- Bloomington

Diane Winston, University of Southern California

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Religion in the hallway by Laura Harrington

“[I’ve had] late-night mojitos with a born-again Bible editor considering rebirth . . . tea before a shrine to an anarchists martyr’s slingshot . . . steamed with primitivists who insisted on nudity.” America, Jeff Sharlet reminds us, has its own communities of religious “exotics.” They can be explored without succumbing to Orientalist tropes and the tired binaries of “scholar” vs. “seeker” to yield startling truths about American political and religious identity. “I prefer the questions posed by Angela Zito,” Sharlet explains. “What does the term ‘religion’, when actually used by people, out loud, authorize in the production of social life?” This foregrounds “the ways in which we compose ‘the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. . . .’”

Such stories are the stuff of Reza Aslan’s edutainment, and precisely the datum for my religious studies. Unlike Michael Altman, I take seriously the self-definitions of the Aghori. I revel in the attendant internecine food-fights over representation because they reveal “the concerns of those involved and the questions at stake in their historical moment.” Altman deems those concerns to have little to do with “religion in India,” and there’s the rub: I adopt a different definition of “religion,” and set of framing questions, than he. And that’s fine. “Religious Studies departments,” observes Kathryn Lofton, “are confederacies of difference gathered together to determine the subject of religion. This should be a project conducted in collaboration, conducted in the space between offices . . . .”

In my office, I value the marginal as a window into unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable insights. They throw me off-balance, steer me away from hidebound tropes and binaries, and shake me and my students out of easy assumptions. Altman can choose otherwise. That’s what makes the liminality of the hallway so rewarding.

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The bigger questions by Samira Mehta

When one labels religious practices as “bad” or “good,” bad religion is rendered unintelligible. Such a rendering goes against the very goals of religious studies. Ideally, for the religious studies scholar, to quote J. Z. Smith, among others, “nothing human is alien to me.”

The opening episode of Believer featured Hinduism and focused on the Aghori, a small religious group who reject Hindu notions of purity, impurity, and the caste system. Much has been made of the contrast between the two Aghori groups that Aslan encounters, one of which eats human flesh and the other of which cares for lepers and orphans. Aslan certainly frames the two groups as bad and good versions of the sect, deviating from a fundamental lesson of religious studies. Furthermore, he contrasts that sect as a whole with the rest of Hinduism.

Looking into the camera, Aslan announces that he has always disliked the caste system, specifically the justification that people who are suffering on earth deserve it because of wrongs committed in past lives. He likes the Aghori specifically because they reject this piece of Hindu teaching. Aslan implicitly labels the caste system as a bad practice and therefore does nothing to help his audience understand the variety of ways in which mainstream Hindus make sense of the ideas of caste, karma, and dharma.

The exoticization of the Aghori sadhus is certainly problematic. The dismissal of a major component of Hinduism as worthy of rejection—without exploring how many Hindus understand, struggle, or appreciate the concept—is a deeper failure. My worry about this episode has less to do with how Aslan exoticizes the feces-eating Aghori and more to do with his wholesale avoidance of a bigger question, which is: How is it that so many Hindus make sense of the very ideas regarding caste and karma that the liberal Aslan abhors?

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Who is a scholar of religion? by Hussein Rashid

When we ask what sort of religious studies work Believer does, we are truly asking, what is the nature of our field and what sort of work do we do? As Edward Said, amongst others, noted, we are now academics, not intellectuals. We talk in guild-speak for ourselves, and are not invested in public engagement, even to our first public, our students. We have a conflicted relationship with public engagement. On one hand, we recognize the need to share our knowledge, but on the other we fear being in the public.

Reza Aslan’s credentials are regularly questioned as to whether he belongs to our guild. It is unclear as to whether it a question of methodology, or because he is one of the most prominent members of our discipline in the public eye that forces to question what our discipline actually is. By most standards, I do not have a degree in religion, nor have I been trained in it. I did an undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, a Masters in Theology (alongside Aslan), and my PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Yet, for over a decade I have been teaching in religion departments and have served on multiple AAR committees, groups, and task forces.

Believer, as a work of television, needs to be criticized to make it better. In my opinion, narratives could be tighter, the focus of each episode narrower, and believers should be speaking to us and each other much more. Yet, these are stylistic suggestions, for particular work I want it to do. The important point is that the show did do work in religious studies. It may not be work that we recognized within the guild, but it is still work informed by our discipline. As a result, there are critiques of method that can still be made, such as against religious tourism. However, we also need to question whether some of our trepidation of what Believer does is because it holds a mirror up to us, making us uncomfortable with what we see.

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The wonders of religions by Lisa Sideris

I have tried and mostly failed to summon outrage at Reza Aslan. True, the opening credits of Believer are a bit much. Each episode opens with repeated citations of Aslan’s (disputed) bona fides as a “scholar of religion.” The camera captures him in beatific, awestruck moments, his handsome face besmudged with mysterious substances (is that blood?). And his commentary is a grab-bag of theories of religion, not all of them lacking in sophistication. Aslan gestures grandly toward the commonality of the human experience as manifest across the spectrum of religions.

Above all, Believer is premised on the idea that Aslan—and, vicariously, his viewers—can experience serial immersion in a variety of religious cultures. Critics fault him for blurring the line between studying religion and endeavoring to live it firsthand, as if the two ambitions never meet in respectable scholarship.

Rather than applaud or condemn Aslan, we might make the most of Believer as a teaching resource, an opportunity for scholarly self-reflection, and a tool for promoting the wonders of religious studies. For me, the most interesting question is: who watches Believer, and why? What agenda do they hope to see affirmed or undermined? Many viewers likely tune in for the same reasons students turn up in our religion courses. Their motives are often autobiographical or therapeutic. Sometimes they are looking for a fight.

The same is true of many scholars of religion. I find that those engaged in religion and science research are frequently, and none too subtly, working out their lingering hostilities toward Christianity. As for the sin of sensationalism, consider Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s distorted, triumphalist histories of science. Someone ought to scrutinize that guy’s credentials as tour guide to everything that has happened since the Big Bang. Aslan is not the most unreliable or unlikeable guide to religion we could have.

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Stories as a vehicle for critical thinking by Diane Winston

I am going out on a limb to say that many Americans do not know much about religion. And, yes, in the best of all possible worlds, it would be good if more of us knew the differences between Shi’a and Sunni Islam, the genesis of Hindutva, and the history of Buddhism.

But that is not the world we live in, and neither television documentaries nor crossover trade books will change it. We need primary and secondary school curricula that teach the basics of religious history, literature, and praxis along with other academic subjects to improve religious literacy for the future.

As for right now, I ask students to think about meaning, identity, and purpose: what is important to you and how does that direct your life? I explain that most of us learn what is important through stories that help us apprehend the world and our place in it. The construction of ultimate meaning through stories, which is a function of religion, occurs 24/7 in our news and entertainment media. But most of us do not make time to unpack the message. That’s why I ask students what Game of Thrones has to say about sacrifice and redemption. Or what they make of the struggle for meaning that impels characters in The Leftovers. I also remind them that it is not just “quality television” that’s laden with life lessons: Consider the moral universe and ultimate “good” enacted on Keeping Up with the Kardashians or Survivor.

Popular entertainment is neither religion nor a substitute for it. But it is a vehicle for storytelling that can touch on the fundamentals of existence. Stimulating conversations on what stories say to us likely will not affect Americans’ religious ignorance. But it may help some to sort out what matters to them and why, how they know what they know, and what it takes to be a critical thinker.

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