Reza Aslan, Career Opportunism and the Media’s Religious Illiteracy

A couple of weeks ago, Reza Aslan’s Believer premiered on CNN as a six-episode series in which Aslan “immerses himself in the world’s most fascinating belief systems”. 

I watched the first episode which focuses on Hinduism and suffice to say, I was appalled. As numerous critics has noted, Aslan’s coverage of the Aghoris, a fringe, Vamamarga (left-hand path) sect solely concentrated in the outskirts of the North Indian city of Varanasi, was purely sensationalistic. It was evident to me that rather than an informative documentary analyzing and summarizing the subtle intricacies of religion, Believer was nothing more than a cynically-devised ratings-grab. 

But what else could you expect from CNN. Talk about fake news!

Considering that Reza Aslan was the host, I should have lowered my expectations. Over the past few years, Reza Aslan has secured a role as the news media’s “go-to person” on religion. His claim to fame is a best-selling book that’s nothing but a rehashment of discredited 19th century claims about Jesus of Nazareth, along with his hilariously awkward Fox News interview on which he defended the aforementioned book claiming that he was “a Ph.D in the history of religions”(an overstated claim at best) while being grilled by a Fox News anchor who was baffled that a Muslim would/could write a book about Jesus.

He nauseatingly claims to be a “the leading Muslim scholar in the United States”, ignoring the likes of Wael Hallaq and Hamza Yusef, both of whom are professors of Islamic studies, unlike Reza Aslan, a professor of creative writing. 

Now although he may not be a theologian or a religious scholar, Reza Aslan is well-learned on religious topics. In addition, his charisma and eloquence makes him an effective communicator on the subject. Reza Aslan is to religion what Bill Nye is to science. However, unlike Aslan, Bill Nye doesn’t overstep his boundaries of expertise, and he definitely would not sell out to a TV news channel to boost his own public image. 

Believer’s deplorable coverage of Hinduism exemplifies the news media’s poor grasp on religion. Generally, religious stories don’t garnar as much public attention as the latest reports on politics, technology or celebrity gossip. Therefore, for most news organizations, religious correspondents are not in demand. Lacking a staff member with some comprehensive insight on matters of faith, reporters are bound to fudge up the facts on religion stories. 

So we shouldn’t be baffled when CNN reported that Pope Francis approves of homosexuality. Or when the Washington Post stated that Pope Francis welcomes atheists in heaven. Or when USA Today claimed Pope Francis gives the a-okay on married priests. 

The frequent misquotations of Pope Francis’ statements attests to the news media’s sinfully facile reporting! 

Which brings us back to Reza Aslan. Unlike most journalists struggling to write an article on a faith-based story with limited prior knowledge on faith, Reza Aslan is well-acquainted with the world of spirituality. He may not qualify as an Islamic allamah, but Aslan has the ability to articulate the nuances of a subject of which so few people understand. 

Unfortunately, Reza Aslan did not do that. 

In his desperation to promote his own public image, Aslan took the low-road in attempts to attract a mass audience. Instead of reading through the philosophically-dense content of the Vedas and Upanishads, trekking through the mythological world of the asuras and devas, and exploring the regional variations of ritualistic practices, Aslan decided to immerse himself in a lunatic fringe cult led by self-styled gurus who drink their own urine. 

 In other words, Aslan took a eclectic, 5000-year old spiritual tradition and reduced it into a crude caricature akin to Mola Ram from Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. 

Whatever ounce of respect I had for Reza Aslan went down the toilet! 

Reza Aslan should have known better than to do a religious documentary in the format of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown! You can’t fully immerse yourself in a religion by spending a week with some hospitable hosts and eating up whatever they have to offer! 

Unlike exotic dishes, religion can’t be consumed in one sitting. It takes years, arguably even a lifetime, to immerse yourself in a spiritual path. There are Christian monks who have eschewed wealth, modern technology and even sexual pleasure in favor of leading a ascetic life solely devoted to prayer, meditation and scriptural studies. And despite taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, even those monks hesitate to consider themselves fully immersed in the gospel message. 

Considering that, in numerous interviews, Reza Aslan conceptualizes religion as nothing more than “a language”, claiming that his Islamic faith is “no more true” than any other religion, it’s clear that this self-professed religion scholar has a superficial, “touchy-feely” perception of religion that would only appeal to self-enlightened, “cosmopolitan” liberals. No wonder they’re his core fan base.

Being Comfortable with Mortality

I need to inform you on something and this isn’t going to easy for me to say.

Are you ready? 

Brace yourself…

You’re going to die!

And and everyone you know. And so am I.

We’re all going to die. 

A Funeral is no one’s idea of a good time. Death is frightening to think about. Even petrifying. 

We’ve cooked up legends and myths involving the possibility of an afterlife in order to sooth our internal anguish. 

I once read a report about a man who was celebrating his 113th birthday. To complete 113 years on Earth is a remarkable feat. And to have lived through dozens of pages of history is truly mystifying.

However, when asked about his diet, this supercentarian nonchalantly remarked that he lived on bacon and whiskey!

So apparently those so-called nutritional experts had their heads up their asses!

In contrast, one of my friend’s father was a complete health nut. He started every morning with a jog around his neighborhood. He meditated daily. He abstained from smoking and drinking. He consistently turned down sweets and sugery beverages. And being a devout Hindu Brahmin, he maintained a strict vegetarian diet. 

He was physically-fit and handsome. He was often mistaken for being at least ten years younger. In fact, his appearance had earned him the admiration of girls who were his daughter’s age. 

Unfortunately, a few years ago, my friend had lost her father to a brain aneurysm. He was only fifty-eight years old. 

It seems that nature had done severe injustice to my friend’s father. The man had done everything by the book to maintain his physical and mental well-being. And yet, he was struck by the angel of death. 

Meanwhile, a bacon-consuming hard-drinker had been spared from the threat of his own mortality! And he has no plans to change his diet or lifestyle. 

Death is inevitable. And worse, death is unpredictable. A seemingly healthy person could drop dead before he/s reaches the age of 20. 

There really is no enlightening explanation to console us. The only thing we can do is cherish life’s smallest pleasures and moments of joy. I know it sounds cliched and hallmarkish. However, we can’t dwell on the possibility of death. And I also don’t think we should invest our hope in a fanciful afterlife. After all, false hope will only drown us in delusion. 

Death is the period at the end of a sentence. We may not know when it is come. But we know it’s inevitable. And the only thing we can do is say what we need to say before our sentence concludes with a period. 

Book Review: Middlesex

Although Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex was published in 2002, the story carries more relevance today, given the recent “bathroom bill” controversy and other nationwide discussions pertaining to our understanding of gender identity.

md20527819112However, this story is more than about sexual orientation and non-binary genders. Middlesex incorporates a wide range of intertwined themes that encompasses the pursuit for identity which include an immigrant’s ‘rebirth’ in a new world, the clash between traditional and modernity, the battle between old-world superstitions and reason, teenage angst, sexual discovery, the bleakness of old age, the inevitability of death, and generational gaps.

Our protagonist, Calliope Stephenides is a Detroit-born, third-generation, Greek-American. During her teenage years, she discovers an unsavory revelation about her true sexual identity. This triggers an existential crisis, setting her on a journey to conceptualize her sense of self in relation to her biology. 

Calliope’s parents, Milton and Tessie, are first-cousins. If that isn’t scandalous enough for your sensibilities, you might want to brace yourself before you read this next sentence. In addition to being a product of a first-cousin marriage, Calliope’s paternal grandparents are siblings!

Yes, you read that correctly.

Calliope’s grandparents, Eleutherios (Lefty) and Desdemona, were orphans residing in Bithynios, near Smyrna (present-day Izmir) in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) during the early 1920s. Their parents were killed in the on-going conflicts between the Greeks and the Turks so they only had each other to rely upon. Somehow, inexplicably, their intimate sibling bond mutated into carnal lust. I suppose the Westermarck Effect did not apply to them. When Lefty and Desdemona finally managed to escape the carnage in their beloved yet irredeemable homeland, they did what so many immigrants did upon arriving in America. They constructed a new identity for themselves.

In their native village, Lefty and Desdemona were brother and sister. However, in their new home in Detroit, Lefty and Desdemona became newlyweds. And other than their Americanized cousin, Soumelina, who harbored a sordid secret of her own, nobody knew otherwise.

It is heavily implied, throughout the novel, that Calliope’s unusual gender orientation is rooted in her grandparents’ decision to procreate.cara

Now, it should be pointed out that not all intersex people are the result of incestuous relationships. Many literary critics have lambasted Eugenides for implying that to be the case. However, I’m willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt. In my opinion, I think Eugenides just wanted to write a story that heavily touched on multiple taboo subjects, including incest and non-binary genders.

We are a society rooted in Abrahamic tradition. According to our holy texts, God created us as male and female. And you can’t argue with the sacred.

However, recent developments in psychology and medical science have concluded that gender is a lot more complicated than we had originally anticipated. Yes, 99% of us fall into the categories of male or female. However, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the 1% who don’t. Those who are transgendered, or afflicted with medical conditions like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia or 5-Alpha Reductase Deficiency (like Calliope) are just as human as the rest of us. It’s regrettably disheartening to see the genuine concerns of non-binary people be dismissed as “special snowflake saltiness” due to our puritanical proclivities.

Middlesex has been rightfully branded by the Metro Times as ” the Detroit Epic Novel”. The majority of this story occurs within the backdrop of a perpetually-changing Detroit. The beginning of the novel depicts our protagonist’s grandparents arriving in, what was then, a relatively small but bustling town. Throughout the novel, we witness the up-and-coming industrial hub gradually evolve into “the arsenal of democracy” during the Second World War before despairingly devolving into the “no tax-base, white-flight, murder-capital of the Coleman Young administration”. We receive an in-depth narrative of the infamous 1967 riots, leading numerous affluent White residents to abandon their homes and businesses in Detroit and embark on an exodus towards the suburban towns of Grosse Pointe (including Grosse Pointe Park and Grosse Pointe Farms), Sterling Heights, and Livonia (aka, my hometown).

In addition, Middlesex also invests pages into covering aspects of Detroit history that are usually glossed over by the textbooks. Most Americans aren’t aware that the Black-supremacist Nation of Islam was originally founded in Detroit. Nor do they comprehend the historical context in which the Nation of Islam was established. Jeffrey Eugenides succinctly highlights the motives of this unusual organization and its overall impact on the city.

Middlesex is written as a first-person narrative, so we’re able to further empathize with Calliope through her/his inner thoughts and conflicted feelings. I think Eugendies brilliantly conceptualized Calliope’s personality. Despite being a fictional character, the narration allows us to perceive Calliope as a real-life person.

What I find most intriguing is how Calliope refers to certain people in her life. Normally, our siblings are our first best friends (as opposed to being lovers in the case of Lefty and Desdemona!). The bond between siblings is impenetrable. However, Calliope always refers to her brother as “Chapter Eleven”. It’s not an affectionate nickname that most of us would refer to our brothers or sisters. The name “Chapter Eleven” references Calliope’s brother’s fault in leading their father’s business into bankruptcy. In fact, the term “Chapter Eleven” refers to bankruptcy laws. However, some literary critics have cleverly deduced that the “nickname” also refers to the emotional bankruptcy of that sibling relationship.

In a way, the novel depicts two polarizing extremes pertaining to siblings. Desdemona and Lefty occupy one extreme where the line between familial love and sexual desire is nonexistent. Calliope and her/his brother occupy the other extreme where the two, despite having grown up in the same home, regard each other as nothing more than strangers.

I’m not surprised that Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize. I can’t imagine a novel like this not being lavishly celebrated with accolades. Jeffrey Eugenides’ prose is  vivid, witty, ironic and charming. He has the rare talent of eloquently describing a baby pissing on a priest during a baptism ceremony.

“From between my cherubic legs a stream of crystalline liquid shot into the air…propelled by a full bladder, it cleared the lip of the font and struck Father Mike right in the middle of the face!”

If you’re not planning to drive to your local library to check out this book, you’ll be missing out.

Sabhayude Prathisandhi: A Tale of Sacrilegious Scandals 

A few days ago, a priest in Kerala, India was taken into police custody after attempting to board a flight to Canada. Fr. Mathew Vadakkumchery (also known as “Robin Achen”) was the parish priest of St. Sebastian Church in Kottiyoor, a village in the northern Kerala district of Kannur. He is currently being charged with the unpardonable crime of raping, and impregnanting, a sixteen year old girl. Vadakkumchery is also being accused of bribing the girl’s family with RS 10 lakhs to discreetly keep the matter from the public eye.

Vadakkumchery will pay for his transgressions through the justice system. The evidence is overwhelmingly stacked against him. Unfortunately, Vadakkumchery is only one of numerous sexual predators attempting to hide behind the sanctuary veil.

Within the Catholic community in Kerala, the past few years have been marked with numerous tell-all memoirs written by ex-nuns and ex-priests, elaborating on the deplorably depraved sexual abuse rampant in seminaries and convents in God’s Own Country. From Sister Jesme to Fr. Shibu Kalamparambil, a myriad of idealistic priests and nuns were forced to relinquish their childhood dreams of religious life upon discovering an unholy truth. Coinciding with the scandal in Kottiyoor, another former nun named Mary Chandy has recently had her tell-all memoir published, further attesting to the widespread hedonism ubiquitous behind closed doors. rape-victim-660_120213014528_121313094906

Most of us are inclined to blame the sexual abuse cases on the Catholic Church’s rigid requirements of clerical celibacy. Although I concur that celibacy is unrealistic and antithetical to our biological needs, we’re ignoring a bigger culprit: power.

Power corrupts. How many times have we’ve heard that adage? The Church’s sociopolitical influence in Kerala exemplifies that quote. Although the Catholic community comprise of ten percent of Kerala’s population, they are hailed as one of the most affluent communities in the state. In Kerala, the most renowned educational institutions  and top-rate health care facilities are operated by the Catholic Church. Catholic clerics are hailed as the most respected residents of their vicinity, particularly in south-central Kerala. Even Catholic bishops have been known to dabble in the Kerala political sphere.

In Kerala, it’s not uncommon for low-income Catholic families to pressure one of their sons to pursue the religious life. In the seminaries, young men receive a reputable education at virtually no cost. Their families take advantage of the extensive support provided by the church, mitigating their financial burdens. Once the young men receive the privilege of the white collar, their families get to bask in honor and respectability, a refreshing change-of-pace from previous years of treading the poverty line.

In the eye of zealously devout churchgoers, the ornately robed clerics are as immaculate as the Virgin Mary. They are immuned from the various temptations that burden mere mortals like us. In other words, an achen or pathiri can do no wrong.

Power corrupts. That phrase is more than an overused platitude.

The crimes of Vadakkumchery were initially concealed by those who were determined to protect the church’s reputation. Yesterday, eight people, including five nuns, were booked for conspiring a cover-up. The fact that eight people were willing to put their own lives on the line to protect a predator priest is a testimony to their blind loyalty.

Power corrupts. That phrase is more than just some overused platitude.

The cliched response to this ungodly story is to advocate for systemic reform and blah blah blah. Even Pope Francis had made it a priority to instill accountability to prevent clerical abuse.

However, promises and resolutions can only go so far. The catalyst behind the abuse of clerical privilege is the extreme reverence shown to priests and bishops by their God-fearing parishioners, who  continually treat them like the second coming of Christ.

Of course, we were told in our catechism classes that a Catholic priest acts in persona Christi. A priest assumes the role of Jesus when we confess our sins to him. As we see a priest standing in a dignified pose as he consecrates the Holy Eucharist during mass, we forget an undeniable truth. Behind the white collar and decorated attire is a mere mortal, enslaved to the same moral failings of which we are all enslaved.

As long as churchgoers exhibit undying reverence for priests, the Church will never be cleansed of her innumerable scandals.