NPR's curiously biased quest for the historical Jesus

Did you know that Jesus wasn't really God? Despite what his disciples claim, he never believed he was the Messiah, much less God incarnate. He was a merely a Jewish revolutionary that was crucified by the Roman Empire and later deified (quite literally) by people who really didn't know him. That's not a new claim, of course, but it's getting new attention because of a new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. Many media outlets have covered the book or interviewed the author. But one of the most peculiar is an interview by Terry Gross on NPR:

Writer and scholar Reza Aslan was 15 years old when he found Jesus. His secular Muslim family had fled to the U.S. from Iran, and Aslan's conversion was, in a sense, an adolescent's attempt to fit into American life and culture. "My parents were certainly surprised," Aslan tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

As Aslan got older, he began his studies in the history of Christianity, and he started to lose faith. He came to the realization that Jesus of Nazareth was quite different from the Messiah he'd been introduced to at church. "I became very angry," he says. "I became resentful. I turned away from Christianity. I began to really reject the concept of Christ."

But Aslan continued his Christian scholarship, and he found that he was increasingly interested in Jesus as a historical figure. The result is his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth — a historical look at Jesus in the context of his time and Jewish religion, and against the backdrop of the Roman Empire.

From that introduction you might get the impression that Aslan is a historian and an unbeliever, probably an agnostic or atheist. So you might be surprised to hear that Aslan is a devout Muslim and a professor of creative writing at University of California at Riverside. While Aslan has a PhD in sociology of religions, he is not a trained historian. Rather than a work of "Christian scholarship" the book is merely one Muslim's opinion about the historical figure of Jesus.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with a Muslim, a sociologist, or a creative writing instructor, producing a book on Jesus. But there is something wrong with media outlets presenting an author as if he were some an objective expert on a subject when they clearly are not.

It's not surprising that secular outlets that are moderately hostile to religion (The Daily Show," Huffington PostMSNBC, etc.) would keep such information from their audience. But for a reputable outlet like NPR to give a creative writing instructor 45 minutes to espouse his historically revisionist views on Jesus without ever mentioning his religious faith or credentials (or lack therefore) reveals a surprising disrespect for it's radio listeners.

As John Dickerson says, "As a journalist and author who is Christian I cannot imagine penning a so-called objective biography of Muhammad and then concealing my conflict of interest in national media interviews." Whether Aslan intentionally concealed his conflict of interest is uncertain. But it it clear that NPR failed to make it's audience aware of that potential conflict and bias. Perhaps they assumed listeners would discount the work as mere opinion and then wonder why they were running such an interview in the first place.

UPDATE: As a reader points out, NPR does acknowledge that Aslan became a Muslim -- forty minutes into the forty-five minute interview.

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