Source: The New Yorker
Aslan, however, moved with facility among conservative Christians and liberal atheists, scattering data points and sound bites as he emerged as one of the most prominent Muslim-Americans in mainstream media. Now a best-selling author and producer, Aslan has become known for the elegant smoothness with which he toggles between the postures of spokesperson for his own faith and detached scholar of other traditions. During a 2013 interview, a Fox News anchor asked him how a Muslim could write a book about Christianity. The clip of Aslan’s response went viral: “I am a scholar of religions with four degrees—including one in the New Testament—and fluency in Biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades,” he said. “I’m not sure what my faith happens to do with my twenty years of academic study of the New Testament.” In a recent interview in the Times, Aslan described his family as a model of convivencia, a happy gaggle in which a Christian mother, Muslim father, and two sons (“one of whom is convinced he’s Jewish, and one of whom, after he read the Ramayana, was, like, ‘That’s it, I’m Hindu’ ”) live together under a single roof. A similar liberality is at play in Aslan’s new CNN miniseries, “Believer,” whose finale aired on Sunday night. (Tagline: “I’ve been studying the world’s religions for twenty years. Now I’m going to live them.”)
The show is a kind of spiritual “Parts Unknown,” in which religions are ingested like sea-urchin roe—but without Anthony Bourdain’s lovable loutishness. In six episodes, Aslan spends time with human-flesh-eating sadhus in Varanasi, an ark-building Hawaiian apocalyptic cult, goat-sacrificing Haitian vodouistes, excommunicated Scientologists, devotees of Santa Muerte in Mexico City, and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. The first episode examines the Aghori sect of Hinduism, some of whose adherents deploy spectacular practices, like eating human remains and lying on corpses, in order to combat traditional Hindu notions of purity and pollution. In one scene, Aslan is chased by an Aghori nomad who, after feeding him a piece of human brain, tries to urinate on him. The episode’s dénouement, in which Aslan tours a modern Aghori orphanage, elementary school, and leper clinic, and finds, as he puts it, “the Hinduism I was looking for,” did little to assuage Hindu activists protesting outside CNN offices, who felt that the show was sensationalist and short on substance.
After watching the first couple of episodes, I was inclined to agree. Each begins in the realm of benightedness—doomsday prophets rolling around on the floor; gurus eating honey out of skulls—and moves toward enlightenment. By the end of the hour, Aslan has laid bare what is beautiful about the religion and what it offers to its adherents. The answer is the same for Hindus and ark-builders. “Religion isn’t about scripture or temples or priests or rules or regulations,” Aslan says, standing in a circle at twilight with the followers of JeZus, the prophet of the Rainbow Village doomsday cult. “It’s about the individual, and the quest for meaning, the idea that there is something more to life than just what we see with our eyes, what we feel with our hands.” It’s an attractively cosmopolitan, à-la-carte approach to faith, and yet merely stating that scriptures, temples, priests, and rules are insignificant does not make it true for countless believers. As a scholar of religion, Aslan surely knows this, which is why “Believer” amounts to a canny sort of evangelism—not for any one religion in particular, but for Aslan’s own brand of universal spirituality, which regards religions as nothing more than different languages for expressing the same meanings.