Reza Aslan and the ‘pettiness of academia’

Aslan’s interviews were pretty good too. One night, hoping to spark a self-reflective discussion with some of my colleagues, I tweeted: “Scrolling thru #believer hashtag. Abrams — for failing to incorporate the measured intellectualism that we came to expect from earlier installations of Star Trek into his films. Of course, the acclaim wasn’t universal, but the most negative comments, almost without fail, came from scholars. During every episode, I would scroll through hundreds of tweets to watch people’s reactions in real time. But is it fair to dismiss scholarly criticisms of his show as “pettiness”? candidate in religious studies at Boston University and host of the educational YouTube channel Religion for Breakfast) It is not impossible to produce a TV series that pleases scholars and a popular audience alike because capturing nuance doesn’t automatically mean “boring.” Capturing an audience’s attention doesn’t automatically require sensationalism. Without this emotional investment and specialized training, it is very easy to enjoy a visually arresting show with an engaging host. In my own subfield of early Christian studies, we even struggle reaching across fellow academic disciplines (as it turns out, archaeologists and historians don’t always see eye to eye). The cinematography was excellent, a credit to the skill of the people behind its production company: BoomGen Studios. Many lauded the show as the highlight of their week. If the Believer hashtag on Twitter tells us anything, many people loved the show. Translating our research to a popular audience demands a skill set above and beyond the training we receive in doctoral programs, and Aslan undoubtedly excels at engaging the public. In the series, he sits down with an evangelical pastor, a Catholic priest, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and rogue Scientologists who left the main organization, allowing them to share their experiences without him editorializing. With that in mind, I hope that “Believer” doesn’t mark the last attempt to bring religious studies to a mainstream audience, but rather, challenges scholars to enter the fray with their own attempts at popular engagement. And to be sure, parts of “Believer” worked well. But for those who don’t have 50 years of Trek episodes memorized and dozens of convention receipts in their pockets, these complaints strike the casual moviegoer as petty. My colleague Sarah “Moxy” Moczygemba, a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, likened the academic backlash to how fans of pop-culture franchises complain the loudest after a company reboots their beloved franchise. But labeling scholars’ disapproval as mere academic pettiness brushes aside many convincing and substantive critiques that I hope Aslan will heed in future seasons (if CNN deems its ratings worthy). Everyone else loving it. Although we don’t yet know if CNN will approve a second season, one thing is certain: Scholars of religion didn’t really care for it. We notice uncomplicated uses of tricky terms (cult, religion, spirituality) or problematic pedagogical strategies (“trying on” religions for a day). Others have accused Aslan of conducting sloppy research and failing to cite leading experts of the religions he chose to showcase. Still others argued he transgressed basic religious studies methodology, trading in his role as a neutral scholar of religion for the role of a “spiritual guide” or “retailer of import goods.”

But what did everyone else think about this series? And his audience wasn’t scholars. Scholars of religion hating the show. In this respect, Aslan succeeded at creating an experiential journey, laying bare the daily lives of these people for his audience. Everyone else loving it. (RNS) After a six-week run, Reza Aslan’s “spiritual adventure” series “Believer” completed its first season. We have a vested interest in calling these issues out and trying to steer the public conversation when the topic of religious studies suddenly steals the media spotlight for a few weeks. Scholars of religion are not known for reaching audiences outside of their academic circles. Scholars of religion hating the show. During a conversation at Harvard Divinity School in 2013, he blamed scholars of religion for failing to communicate “our skills, our scholarship, our research (and) our theories to a popular audience.”

READ: Reza Aslan tries to make a ‘Believer’ out of everyone

And he is not necessarily wrong. #Believer https://t.co/OtfGbNCHyw
— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) April 3, 2017

Aslan has leveled this same complaint against academia over the years. Some have criticized it for sensationalizing religion for the sake of ratings (including myself over at my YouTube channel). Many of these critiques may indeed seem petty to those outside the discipline. Many old-school Star Trek fans despised the recently rebooted films, lambasting an outsider — the non-Trek fan J.J. (Andrew Henry is a Ph.D. Others admired what they saw as Aslan’s respect and curiosity for other religions. We have dedicated years of our lives in pursuit of understanding religion and trying to share what we learn with students and scholars alike. What are we missing?”

Scrolling thru #believer hashtag. Reza Aslan particpates in a Vodou ceremony in his show “Believer.” Photo courtesy of CNN
In much the same way, scholars of religion are the superfans of this subject. — Andrew Mark Henry (@andrewmarkhenry) April 3, 2017

Within moments, Reza retweeted me with his own answer to my question: “The pettiness of academia, that’s what.”

The pettiness of academia, that's what. What are we missing?