March 14, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, March 14, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Cannibalism on CNN's "Believer": How Reza Aslan's attempt to show all religions the same backfired
One of the major questions of the modern age is how religion can be made safe for a secular society. One of the defense mechanisms of secularism is to try to find some way to domesticate or to tame religious truth claims and also religious believers. Evidence of that comes in terms of how the mainstream media is a part of this process in the CNN series called “Believer.” It is moderated by Reza Aslan and it is also getting headlines across the world in a way that CNN surely did not anticipate.
For instance, coming from London, The Telegraph reports,Show Full Transcript
“An American writer and presenter has come under fire for eating a human brain in his new TV documentary. In the first episode of CNN’s new series Believer, presenter Reza Aslan met with the Aghori, a nomadic religious sect based in India. The Aghori worship the Hindu deity Shiva but reject many of the tenets of Hinduism and practice a range of unusual ceremonies including cannibalism.”
The Telegraph goes on to report,
“While staying with the Aghori, Aslan drank alcohol from a human skull and ate a cooked piece of human brain. He later wrote on Facebook, ‘Want to know what a dead guy’s brain taste like? Charcoal. It was burnt to a crisp.'”
Now here we simply have to pause for a moment and recognize that a fundamental question long before we deal with the big worldview question is this: What in the world was CNN thinking of? How can it possibly be justified that someone acting on behalf of the Cable News Network, CNN, could actually have participated in a ritual like this, much less have written about it and talked about it in public, much less done it for a video audience that CNN certainly must have hoped would have been counted in the millions? We are talking about a fundamental lapse in journalistic judgment. We’re talking about one of the questions that must have media people scratching their heads all over the world.
Again, what did CNN hope to accomplish by means of this broadcast? In terms of this new series “Believer,” a major investment by CNN, one of the immediate questions comes back to this first episode and this act by which Reza Aslan who would position himself as very much a cultural sophisticate, speaking of religion, was then found actually to have participated in this bizarre ritual that included, according to his own report, cannibalism.
But then there’s a second question, and that second question was immediately brought to mind by Hindu authorities worldwide who responded in anger that this was being presented as mainstream Hinduism. Now, again, according to this report the Aghori, the group covered in terms of this episode, worship a Hindu deity that is Shiva. We need to note that is a god of death. But we are told even in this article that they reject many of the tenets of Hinduism and they practice a range of unusual ceremonies. Now, at this point, we will simply have to leave it to authorities on Hinduism to determine exactly how the Aghori do and do not represent mainstream Hinduism. But the important thing to ask for our perspective is what in the world CNN was doing in presenting religious beliefs in this way.
There is an agenda here. The agenda could be described as theological voyeurism. Reza Aslan was traveling around the world to find some of the most bizarre representations of religion he could find, and these are presented not only for shock value but also in order to serve some larger worldview impulse. And for that, we really do not have to look very far.
Pavithra Mohan, writing for the magazine Fast Company, suggests that what’s really going on here in the CNN series “Believer” is that Reza Aslan is trying to immerse himself in the rituals and practices of various religious groups as “would-be salve to otherness.”
Now that’s very interesting argument. It basically comes down to this: The argument that what Reza Aslan is trying to do here is to normalize all religion by pointing to the most bizarre examples he can imagine and then saying, “We can really deal with this safely. There’s no deep belief here we have to worry about.”
In a statement for Fast Company, Aslan said this:
“For me, I’ve always wanted to be the person who helps people understand those who may not share their views or their ideas or their skin color or their religion. I want to be the interpreter of religion for people, the one who helps you break through the external shell of a particular religion to show you how familiar and similar it is to your own beliefs, whether or not you yourself are religious. I try to do this with my books,” he said. “I try to do this with my media commentary.” And then his TV show is basically another version of that.
“What I’m trying to do,” he said, “by introducing you to the religious group that may seem different and scary is to show you that, underneath it all, there is a connection that you have with these people even if you don’t believe it. So that’s been my goal.”
Well, there’s the agenda. It’s an implausible agenda. In terms of religious belief, it should be an offensive agenda. But what he’s saying here is that there really are no major differences among the religious worldviews of the world, even though there are different practices. And this may look strange to you. If you scratch below the surface, you will find out that all of these religions are basically the same. They hold to basically the same beliefs. They are driven by the same impulses.
In an essay published at CNN, Aslan said this:
“Of course, as someone who has spent the better part of the last two decades studying the world’s religions and having recently crisscrossed the globe for my new spiritual adventure series, ‘Believer,’ where I immerse myself in religious traditions both familiar and downright bizarre, I know better than to take the truth claims of any religion, including my own, too seriously.”
There’s the quote we’re looking for. Here is Aslan saying that he knows better than to take the truth claims of any religion, including his own, too seriously. His own, by the way, in terms of his identification, is Islam. More on that in just a moment.
First, we need to note that this is exactly what we should expect as a secular society tries to find a way to look at the entire range of religious expressions in the world and say, number one, they do look strange. But number two, when you look more closely, they’re all the same. You can go on beyond that and say, point three, they’re really not as dangerous as you might think.
But behind that is yet another agenda. When you look at Reza Aslan’s view of religion, he sees it again as basically all the same. He says you don’t look at the truth claims. Rather, you just look at the practices. And then if you do do some kind of excavation of this religion, you’ll discover that it’s just like all the rest. His view to religious difference is trying to argue that there are no real differences. That’s becoming increasingly difficult when you consider the range of the kinds of groups that Reza Aslan actually chose to portray in this program, starting with episode one.
If that was his intention, I think we can say at this point, it was a spectacular failure. Just consider the headlines of the last 72 hours. No one is looking at the first episode of his program and saying, “You know, he’s right. Truth claims really don’t matter. And these groups really do all believe the same thing.” Remember what we’re talking about in the first few words of The Briefing today.
Aslan’s view of religion is functionalist and it’s entirely pragmatic. He wrote,
“Faith is mysterious and ineffable. It’s an emotional, not necessarily a rational experience. Religion,” he said, “is a fairly recent human invention but faith, as I have elsewhere argued, is embedded in our very evolution as human beings.”
So, in Aslan’s view, to be human is to be religious in this sense, in this kind of basic faith impulse. And even though that impulse can be directed in many different ways and religious beliefs can take many different forms, in essence, it’s just an evolutionary adaptation. It is simply a part of our evolutionary progress as human beings. Of course, there are those who take that argument and say this is evidently one part of evolution we can well do without. One of the most famous figures in the modern world along those lines is Tufts University scientist Daniel Dennett, again, back in the headlines with his latest book, who argues that religion, religious belief, faith—all of these must have been important in terms of the evolutionary development of human beings in some prior age. But, he argues, they’re now just remnants of evolutionary artifacts that aren’t needed anymore. We can outgrow religion is as Dennett’s point.
Aslan has indeed written several books on religion and they’re all fairly predictable. He wrote a book on Islam arguing that the modern jihadists are a corruption of Islam and that traditional Islam, as he says, is really not so much about beliefs but about practices and, once again, there should be no real threat from Islam to the world, modern or otherwise. He’s written about Jesus Christ. The title of that book was Zealot. He argues that Jesus was basically a Jewish zealot who is misunderstood by his own disciples and wrongly claimed by the early church to be the very Son of God. He’s written a book about conservative religion in the modern world, and this is very similar to the fundamentalism project of the larger academy. He argues that religious conservatives, regardless of whether they be Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or otherwise, are just trying to struggle to adapt to the modern world. Once again, religious truth claims are simply to be overcome or ignored or relativized.
Again, I go back to that statement he made at Fast Company where he said,
“I want to be the interpreter of religion for the people, the one who helps you break through the external shell of a particular religion to show you how familiar and similar it is to your own beliefs.”
Well, just think again of this first episode. The viewers of this first episode would never have gained the impression that Reza Aslan says was his ambition. No one looking at that episode of CNN‘s “Believer” would come to say, “You know, those people believe pretty much what I believe.” As a matter of fact, even those who identify as mainstream Hindus are trying to say this was a misrepresentation of Hinduism, and they’re arguing on the basis of truth claims and history. They’re not arguing on the basis of some kind of hope for reality.
Sometimes we find an argument becoming a parody of itself. And in this case, that’s exactly what we see you in this new CNN series. It’s hard to imagine what CNN thought it was going to gain by this, perhaps some ratings. But the controversy is probably not what the network expected. But they certainly should have expected this. What in the world could they have expected when in the very first episode they present their own moderator of the program as engaged in cannibalism?
Finally on this issue, it’s really interesting to understand how so many amongst the secular and creative elites especially in the media look at conservative Christians tied to orthodox Christianity and say, “Look how strange that tribe is.” But if CNN wants to see strange, all they have to do is watch their own monitors.
Coopers Brewery under fire for association with Bible Society in ad featuring marriage equality debate
Next, the scene shifts to Australia and a controversy over the Australian Bible Society and a beer company and a television ad. It really is important. As The Guardian of London reports,
“Coopers Brewery has come under fire for apparently involving itself in the marriage equality debate by collaborating with the Bible Society on a campaign to ‘reach even more Australians with God’s word.'” That’s put in quotation marks as if we’re supposed to be scared about an effort to try to reach more Australians with the Word of God.
Elle Hunt reporting for The Guardian goes on to say,
“To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the nonprofit organization,” that’s the Bible Society there, “which has the slogan ‘Live light’, Coopers Beer released 10,000 cases of a limited edition Coopers Platinum Light Beer emblazoned with different Bible verses. The Bible Society said on its website that the Keeping It Light campaign was a bid to foster a respectful national conversation” with a society said to become “fraught with shallowness and contempt for those who have a differing opinion.”
Now the controversy has particularly to do with one advertisement, one television advertisement undertaken as a part of this program. It features two Members of Parliament, both of the Australian Liberal Party: Andrew Hastie and Tim Wilson. According to The Guardian, the two debated the issue of same-sex marriage, and in what’s described as a light-hearted clip billed as the first in the series the two “disagree most agreeably over gay Australians’ right to wed while they drink a couple of Coopers Premium Light Beers.”
Now let’s go behind the story. Andrew Hastie, though a member of the Liberal Party, is actually in terms of worldview very committed to classical Christianity and to a traditional biblical understanding of marriage. What you have in the exchange between these two Members of Parliament, Andrew Hastie and Tim Wilson—Tim Wilson being openly gay and very much an advocate of same-sex marriage—is indeed a very respectable conversation. It’s exactly the kind of model conversation you hope would take place not only in Australia but in the United States. And it’s a genuine conversation between two genuine human beings who happen also obviously to care about one another and to sit next to one another in the Parliament there in Australia. Here you have an Evangelical Christian sitting next to an openly gay fellow member of Parliament and here on television they dare to have exactly what the society has billed a respectful, though candid conversation about same-sex marriage. And make no mistake, Wilson’s very much for it; Hastie is very much against it. But they speak with respect making their argument directly and respectfully. And furthermore, in a brilliant take, the moderator of the advertisement asks each to make the best argument for the other, and they actually do so. In this case, Hastie particularly makes the argument for Wilson in a way that’s not only respectful but is very articulate, even as he holds very clearly to a biblical understanding of marriage. He does understand exactly what is at stake.
To his credit, Hastie makes the argument that marriage is indeed a pre-political institution, it exists before government. And no government, including the Australian government, has any right to redefine what is prior to politics. As Christians understand, it is given in nature. That’s why every society has in its own way found its way to privileging the union of a man and a woman as a reproductive pair, otherwise known as marriage. As Hastie said, “We understand marriage to be a comprehensive union.”
So where’s the controversy here? Well, there’s controversy at several levels. But at the most important level, it’s a controversy having to do with the brewery in which the Coopers Brewery is being charged with becoming the sponsor of a conversation that never should have happened. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place. There is now the accusation that it is nothing less than what we could call a crime against humanity to have the classical defense of traditional marriage even aired in what’s presented as—and actually is in terms of it’s substance—a respectable conversation. Now we see how the hardening of the secular culture has come to the point where it’s now considered completely out of bounds to defend what we need to note is still the law in the country of Australia, defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
A simple, civil, straightforward, candid defense of traditional marriage is now characterized as hate speech with whom no corporation should, in any way at any distance, be connected. And Coopers Brewery is now facing a backlash there in Australia with several bars and others suggesting that they will no longer serve nor sell its products simply because it was understood to be a sponsor. And the word there is “understood” to be a sponsor because in reality, as The Guardian pointed out, what the brewery did was to issue several hundred cans that commemorated the 200th anniversary of the Bible Society and then it was one of their products that was being held up and the Keeping It Light campaign. But the brewery insists it did not give permission for its product to be featured in such a way. And furthermore, the brewery issued a statement intended to clarify and I guess you could say it does clarify. Coopers Brewery said,
“We respect the beliefs of our community and do not wish to try and change them. Our family brewery is made up of individuals from a number of different backgrounds all of whom hold different views on politics and religion which we think is reflective of the wider community.”
It’s hard to imagine a greater concession to where we are in terms of the secular moment than that declaration that comes from a spokesperson for a company caught in the controversy in which, with the issue of marriage as the background, they say, and I quote again,
“We respect the beliefs of our community and do not wish to try and change them.”
What are those beliefs? Well, they’re going to be unstated because not only does the brewery not want to change the mind of the community, it doesn’t want to be too particular about what that mind is either.
Years ago it was Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago who wrote a book entitled The Closing of the American Mind. Here we see the closing of the Australian mind. And in this sense, even though Australia’s behind the United States in the legalization of same-sex marriage, we also need to note that Australia is actually the more secularized society at this point. Australia is much more like a Northern and Western Europe in this respect than the United States has been, though what we now note is that the United States is working hard to catch up. But what we’re seeing here in Australia is what we’re also fully expecting to see in the United States: The argument that the debate is over; there is now no civil debate that can be had on the issue of marriage; the country has moved on and those who dare to hold to a biblical understanding of marriage dare not speak unless they be accused of committing a crime against humanity or what’s now defined as hate speech.
We’re also looking at another very ominous development, and that is that there have been Christian ministries, long-standing institutions and organizations, that have received funding from families and from corporations. In this case, the Coopers family has had a long tradition of underwriting several projects in terms of the religious life of Australia including the Bible Society. No doubt the family thought that it was simply doing what it had done at so many points in the past in offering financial support for this celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Bible Society there. An innocuous act no doubt was undertaken by the brewery in attempting to identify itself with the celebration by printing numerous Bible verses on cans of beer.
But now the brewery finds itself being expelled from bars and other commercial establishments in Australia simply because it’s now connected, however tangentially and indirectly, with the conversation which was a civil conversation about marriage that included both sides of the argument. How dare they! And yet at another level of the controversy, apparently, the Bible Society there in Australia didn’t ask themselves very carefully whether or not using beer as a major product in this advertisement might become something of a distraction, not to say, a controversy.
Greg Clark, the chief executive of the Australian Bible Society said,
“We recognize that Christians have different views on the consumption of alcohol and we are not here to promote alcohol. We’re both here to promote the value of the Bible. That’s really the point of the campaign.”
And so the beer company says they’re not really out to change minds on same-sex marriage, the Bible Society says they’re really not out to change minds in terms of beer, and the entire edifice of secularity in Australia is appalled that there could be a conversation, an exchange of honest ideas between people who have very different understandings of what’s at stake in the question of same-sex marriage.
One final note on this, before the brewery issued the statement in which they declaimed basically any connection with the ad, they had issued a previous statement that said,
“As a mature community, it’s a debate we need to have, but in a good-spirited and good-natured way. That,” they said, “is how we’ve done business for 154 years.”
And here you see the progression in just a matter of hours, apparently, from “this is a debate we need to have” to “this a debate we didn’t mean to have” to “this is a debate we should never have.” And in that is the big story.