History is an Act of Creation

So the internet world has blown up today with a shockingly terrible Fox News interview of a professor of religion who wrote a book about Jesus Christ, but happens to be Muslim. Here it is:

Rather than exploring the content of Reza Aslan’s book, the interviewer questions why a Muslim would take an interest in studying Jesus Christ and the history of Christianity.  She also brings in a question from some sort of online chat (around 6:55 in the video) equating Aslan’s study of Jesus to a “biased” Democrat studying the actions of Republican Ronald Reagan. In both instances, apparently, a hidden agenda underlies these scholarly works because of the author’s affiliations outside of the scholarly realm. In sum, they are not “objective.”

There are two points I’d like to make regarding this line of thinking:

1. History is an analysis of the past from the eyes of “Participants” and “Observers”: I’ve had interesting discussions with people regarding who gets to study who in history. For instance, a friend once told me that I couldn’t truly understand the South or the reasons why the Confederacy attempted to secede from the United States because I lived in the Midwest, not the Deep South. Similarly, I’ve heard an argument from a person who shall remain nameless and locationless who recently argued that Whites could never fully understand the plight of Blacks in American History, thus they should not be hired to work at museums and other public history sites that focus on African American history. I also remember taking an undergrad class on Native Americans in America that provided thought provoking arguments about Whites in the 20th Century who attempted to assimilate themselves into Native American culture, but were seen as “frauds” by those who had spent their entire lives enmeshed in that culture.

Such arguments are extremely problematic for many reasons. For one, it suggests, for example, that only Germans can study Adolf Hitler, only Italians can study Christopher Columbus, and only White Southerners can study Jefferson Davis. Secondly, we should remember that history is an ongoing conversation that is constantly up for revision and discussion between all people. We can split everyone into two groups: Participants are people who live in a culture and observe events firsthand. They provide future generations with perspectives, viewpoints, and primary source documents (diaries, journals, newspaper editorials, etc.) that give us unqiue perspectives about a particular time period. Observers are people who do not live in that culture. They live in different cultures and time periods and observe the past from a distanced vantage point. Yet their role in history is equally important. Observers study past cultures and attempt to provide a context for explaining why things happened the way they did. They then use that context to interpret primary sources documents and provide us a sharper perception of the past. Reading a diary from so-and-so in 1850 may help us understand the past to a certain extent, but historians give new us new ideas for understanding that diary and provide us the tools to understand that diary within the larger scope of history. In sum, we need the perspectives of both participants and observers.

I wholeheartedly agree with Eric Foner, who argues that history is owned by “everyone and no one” and that “the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.”

2. We are all biased. Get over it: Unfortunately, the term “bias”–much like the popular buzzword “political correctness”–is too often used to shut down the arguments of others without actually engaging with the content of those arguments. By calling Aslan’s work on Jesus Christ “biased” because of his Muslim background, we fail to acknowledge that a Christian writing about Jesus Christ is biased as well.  When we call the now-deceased Howard Zinn “biased” and use that as a justification for keeping his left-leaning books out of the history classroom without engaging in a discussion about the contents of Zinn’s work, we sometimes fail to see how others are writing textbooks for history classes that have their own set of presumptions and biases.

This is not to say that Aslan and Zinn are wholly right or wrong or that their critics are wholly right or wrong. The point is that we need to learn about their own personal beliefs AND address the content of their arguments rather than throwing out meaningless words that are used to silence dissenting opinions. History is an act of creation, and for that reason it is written, studied, analyzed, interpreted, read and contested by people who observe past cultures while being inherently biased by their role as participants in our world today. Participants of today’s world who write about more recent history (the Cold War or the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example) also carry their own set of biases as well. While objectivity is indeed a “noble dream,” it is just that. A dream.

I applaud Reza Aslan for his judicious and patient explanation for why he wrote a book about Jesus Christ. What do you think?