An opera singer, a public intellectual, and a talk show host walk into a bar…

chiasmusI’m in between instances of getting drafts of my dissertation outline back with my advisor’s comments, plus Theodore is asleep, so I’m trying to get some blog posts done that I’ve had on my mind but haven’t had a chance to actually write.

In the last 2-3 weeks there have been a number of incidents in the popular media that impact, on one level or another, things that I care about. They make something of a nice, thematically-related grouping, centering around the question of semi-esoteric (or even elite) disciplines being understood by mainstream Western media. One case is related, broadly speaking, to one of my current active professional activities; another couple of cases are related to my former professional activities.

First off, there’s the matter of Reza Aslan’s FOX News interview. The first time I watched that, there were two things that didn’t sit right with me about how he presented himself. Of course Lauren Green was being an idiot; that goes without saying. Still, there was an initial eyebrow raise on my part when he claimed “fluency” in biblical Greek. “Fluency?” Really? I was under the impression that, by definition, we can’t claim “fluency” in dead languages. A nitpicky point, absolutely, but it was a moment where he rang false. Then, there was the thought — boy, he sure is making a big show of playing, and re-playing, and re-re-playing, the “I HAVE FOUR DEGREES” card and saying, essentially, “I’m kind of a big deal”. Then I wondered — wait, if this is a scholarly monograph as he seems to be suggesting it is, why the heck does FOX care? Out of curiosity, I looked up the book on Amazon, and saw the publisher — Random House. He’s trying to sell a book published by Random House as a work of serious scholarship? Huh? This doesn’t make any sense.

So then, recalling his very specific claim to be “a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament… my job [is] as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually”, I Googled him to find out just what his four degrees actually were and what classes he taught, and what did I find? That his PhD was in sociology, one of his four degrees is a MFA in Creative Writing, and in fact his academic post at UC Riverside is in the Creative Writing department.

To be absolutely clear, in terms of academic standing, I don’t care if Aslan’s Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Shinto, atheist, or anything else, and neither should anybody else who has a clue about how scholarship works. Sidney Griffith is a Catholic scholar who has published on Islam; Steven Runciman was, I think, an atheist (correct me if I’m wrong — I’m going off of a statement from Met. Kallistos Ware that he was not part of any church whatsoever) who published extensively on Byzantine Christianity; and so on. It’s simply irrelevant what Aslan’s confessional leanings are; Ms. Green was way off the mark in making that the focal point of her interview.

Secondly, the issue is not the quality of the book itself. That also is basically a side issue.

The issue that I have with Aslan, who is without question somebody who can be labeled a “public intellectual”, might best be illustrated with a counterexample first. Bart Ehrman is another public intellectual, one who works in the Christian origins sphere and who publishes with trade presses and goes on The Daily Show and NPR and whatnot. Prof. Ehrman also has published peer-reviewed monographs, critical editions, and scholarly articles. So, yes, he takes all of the 3-syllable or more words out of monographs and repackages with a catchy title put out by mass-market publishers and makes a ton of money doing so, but he also has a demonstrable non-commercial scholarly record. His CV shows what qualifies him to do that. Think what you like about him, but he’s the real deal in terms of having done his homework, paid his dues, and then some.

Go to Aslan’s website and you see nothing of the kind. You see a string of popular books and articles; nothing, so far as I can tell, that’s peer-jockeyed or published with an academic press. In fact, according to Lisa Hajjar, a member of his dissertation committee, his dissertation was mostly an elaborated version of a trade press book he had already published. Now, to be clear, the point isn’t to suggest that Aslan “isn’t good enough” (whatever that means) to do what he says; the point is that what he says and what his CV and faculty page at UC Riverside say appear to be two different things.

I should clarify a couple of things. First, why is the sociology thing a big deal? Isn’t sociology of religion a legitimate subfield, thereby qualifying you to talk about yourself as a scholar of religion? Well, sure. But even then, you have to be clear on what you’re qualified to talk about. A friend of mine is the son-in-law of a very well-known sociologist of religion, but he knows what he is and is not trained to do. One of the big differences is language training; another friend of mine wanted to go into academia studying Christianity but was turned off by the language overhead; Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, probably Syriac, maybe Coptic, etc. This well-known sociologist told him straight up: Do sociology. The language requirements are basically nonexistent. Aslan’s own PhD advisor said that the switch to sociology was made to eliminate some language requirements. This matters because, for the most part, reading a source in translation is a no-go for making serious arguments about it as a piece of evidence. That’s not to say there aren’t any exceptions, but Aslan claiming “fluency” in biblical Greek while also having changed departments to obviate language requirements is, at the very least, a major red flag.

It’s also entirely possible that what’s going on here is that Aslan is on a career track that isn’t really about academic scholarship, peer-reviewed articles, and the like — in fact, if he’s in a Creative Writing department, that’s probably the case. Not all academic jobs have the same tenure requirements, most certainly. For all I know, there’s a “public intellectual” career track where you’re supposed to be interviewed on a talk show a certain number of times per year, also have a Huffington Post column, and then you get to go up early for tenure if somebody picks a fight with you on FOX News. But, then, the issue is, you need to be clear about what authoritative claims you’re qualified to make.

Really, nothing here is a huge problem on its own. Claiming to be a historian is fine; that’s something reasonably broad. Pretty sure Herodotus didn’t have a PhD in History. Claiming to be a scholar of religion is fine; again, that’s a broad, interdisciplinary subject. Publishing with a trade press is fine (here I will note that one of the top five most influential books on me ever, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, was a popularizing work published by Random House). Leaving the world of academic scholarship as he seems to have done is fine. The trouble is that then he makes the far more specific claim that his “job [is] as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually”, and the combination of all of these factors raises red flags (and again, picayune as this may be, as does saying he’s “fluent” in biblical Greek; it’s the use of a term of competency that, as he should know if he actually does have expertise in it, is not applicable to the subject named, just like it would be a bit eyebrow-raising for me to say I got a perfect 10 on my GPA. He is perhaps eliding the matter for FOX News, but it still clanks with his claim of academic authority). So, maybe he doesn’t have the CV of an academic scholar because he isn’t an academic scholar anymore, but he asserts the authority of an academic scholar in answering Ms. Green’s (admittedly stupid) questions? Is that not, at the very least, trying to have it both ways? What I’m happy to grant is that the situation was ridiculous and should have never happened at all, but if your response to questions — yes, even stupid ones from a FOX News interviewer — is going to be an arrogant trotting out of titles and credentials, make sure everything lines up, because if it doesn’t, people will notice and it will not reflect well on you. If he had left it at a vague statement of “I wrote the book because I have an academic and professional interest” rather than going for the soundbite of the list of degrees, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

Further, I’d say that these things matter because it matters how you represent yourself to the public (see also the flap over Dr. Laura Schlesinger’s doctorate), it matters under what circumstances you trot out your credentials and titles to claim authority (even — maybe even especially — when stupid people are arguing with you), it matters that those things look like what you say they are when people go and check. It matters because the “I HAVE A DEGREE!” card makes you look like a real dick, particularly when you play it as early as he did and particularly to the anti-intellectual audience he knew full well he had. To me, it more and more comes across simply as peacocking for the NYT Book Review crowd he knew would be Tweeting the video clip within hours.

And if I seem to care a disproportionate amount about this — well, yeah, I do, and it’s because I’m a first-generation college graduate with close family members who think the sun rises and sets on FOX News. I already spend time trying to convince family members that academics aren’t mostly self-important, arrogant, d-bag jackasses who trot out their degrees principally for purposes of self-puffery, and it doesn’t help my case when something like this happens. From where I sit, Aslan’s behavior is bad for everybody.

But, it all comes down to what one actually means by calling Aslan an “academic” or a “scholar”. This may be not entirely unlike the problem with people like Andrea Boccelli or Jackie Evancho being called “opera singers” — that is, if you mean somebody who actually sings roles in operatic productions staged by opera houses, they’re most certainly not. But, if you just mean somebody who appears on PBS specials or Oprah and sings with heavy vibrato a repertoire that tends to be accompanied by an orchestra track, well, then maybe you can call them that. If by an “academic” or “scholar” you mean somebody who does academic, scholarly research, then it’s really unclear whether or not Aslan fits that bill, at least to me, looking at his CV. But, if you just mean somebody who is, to use this term again, basically a public intellectual of sorts, well, okay.

Which brings me to the next incident in question, Thomas Hampson’s interview with the BBC’s Sarah Montague on HARDtalk on the question whether or not opera is an elite art form that basically needs to be allowed to die off. Sarah Montague is grating and aggressive in this interview in ways she clearly doesn’t have the chops to pull off, but Thomas Hampson — by remarkable contrast to Aslan — keeps his cool, and maintains grace and humility while still answering the questions with genuine, unassuming authority. He never pulls out the “I AM AN EXPERT!” card, and as a result, everything he has to say can simply speak for itself.

But then we’ve got something that kind of muddies the waters, and that’s the case of Sean Panikkar, a legitimate operatic tenor in his own right who happens to be very good (I saw him as Lensky in Eugene Onegin at Opera Theatre of St. Louis three years ago, and he was great), appearing as a member of “poperatic” men’s trio “Forte” (doesn’t get any more on the nose than that, ladies and gentleman) on America’s Got Talent. Our godchildren Matt and Erin had gotten to know him in 2010 a bit while singing in the OTSL chorus, and they had mentioned that he was not, as a husband, father, and Christian, entirely enamored with the life of an opera singer (which this seems to bear out a bit), which I can completely understand. But still — putting himself in a situation where Howard Stern is evaluating him? Really?

There’s also this from the Saline Reporter piece –

…[Panikkar] and his agent decided it would be a good idea for him to join because it would help bring exposure to opera considering the show has between 10 and 12 million viewers.  The exposure could also dispel some of the myths surrounding opera, like it is boring or just for the elite, he said. “What I’ve found is when people give it a chance they love it,” he said.

Here’s my question — does that actually work? Now, somebody like Sean Panikkar (i.e., the real deal) doing it is maybe a different case, but at least what I’ve seen amongst people close to me (and yes, these are some of the same people mentioned above who are FOX devotees) is that they get enamored with figures like Josh Groban or Andrea Boccelli or Charlotte Church or whomever (I think I just showed my age with the figures I named — at least I didn’t say Mario Lanza), and maybe you get them to go to one legit opera (or oratorio, or something) performance, only to have them say, “Yeah, I was disappointed because it wasn’t what I was expecting,” and they never go again.

A friend of mine who is herself on her way to being Very, Very Famous Indeed (seriously), and who I think knows Sean, said that part of what’s going on here is the opera world realizing they need to engage the popular TV audience more — that back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, big opera stars appeared on the most popular television shows all the time, and people knew who they were — Beverly Sills showing up on Johnny Carson, for example. That’s certainly true; my dad, no opera fan he, says that everybody knew who Beverly Sills was in the ’60s and ’70s. The question with that, though, is this — was opera more mainstream because people like Carson had people like Beverly Sills on, or did he have people like Beverly Sills on because opera was more mainstream? Mario Lanza’s film The Great Caruso was one of the biggest movies of the year in 1951; while Lanza had considerable star power in his own right, the subject had to hold at least some built-in commercial appeal. Would it even be comprehensible today for somebody to propose, say, making a movie called The Great Pavarotti with somebody of any significant command of the box office?

I’d like to be wrong. I’ve just never seen somebody learn to like opera from this kind of thing; quite the opposite. What I’ve seen is that you probably aren’t going care about opera qua opera without somebody being up front with you about what it is as well as what it isn’t.

So, perhaps, a guy with a real operatic career doing something like this means that something different is being brought to the table. If so, great; I’ll be curious to see what that actually looks like. I still don’t like Howard Stern’s opinion of him actually mattering.

To close off what seems to have become a chiasmus, there’s Timothy Michael Law, a legit, Oxford-trained scholar of Jewish studies, whose book When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible is, it sounds like, an introductory scholarly work (not necessarily a popularizing work) published by an academic press, dealing with a concrete historical issue of Christian origins. Naturally, FOX doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in him, and First Things seems to be the highest-profile coverage he’s getting, but he comes across basically the same way Thomas Hampson does — i.e., like he actually knows what he’s talking about and doesn’t have to show off to anybody to prove it. There’s a lesson here; I’m not sure exactly what it is.

14 Responses to “An opera singer, a public intellectual, and a talk show host walk into a bar…”


  1. 1 segmation 16 August 2013 at 3:25 pm

    Are you sure that this isn’t a joke as well?

  2. 2 segmation 16 August 2013 at 3:26 pm

    Love your blog. Are you sure there isn’t a joke about “An opera singer, a public intellectural and a talk show host walk into a bar…”

  3. 3 maggieannthoeni 17 August 2013 at 10:39 am

    I enjoyed reading your critique distinguishing ‘public intellectual’ from academic scholar. I also enjoyed finding myself ‘in a cultural world’ I’ve not ever really visited.

    I’ve had limited to no exposure to your field of study and to opera treated seriously, and find it a treat to have ‘accidentally’ wandered into a room I’d not noticed before!

    That said – re the ‘accidental’ part – it was your headline that brought me here. I *love* “three walked into a bar” cultural jokes! If you come up with the rest of such a joke – please post!

    Meanwhile, as I said, it’s been a treat to visit. Thanks!

  4. 6 Scotch Jameson 17 August 2013 at 6:14 pm

    I think the first red flag was that he was on FOX news. I wonder sometimes if “public intellectual” on American prime time TV is not an oxymoron. I think Aslan would have a harder time in France (or Narnia, for that matter) where they treat true intellectuals more like celebrities–plus he probably wouldn’t know the language. Thanks for the thoughtful article.

  5. 7 Kduf 19 August 2013 at 6:37 am

    Honest,

    Some enjoy using their degrees as leverage while others have research for their specific research. It’s like a Christian that claims being Christian because he/she believes in God but has no faith or knowledge of the support that lies in the Biblical text.

    This is the danger of “Professionals/Professionalism’.

    Thanks for sharing your insight!

    http://www.kdufresne.me

  6. 10 Ivan 19 August 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Whoops: “one of the top five most influential books on me ever”

  7. 12 Dan O. 26 August 2013 at 7:44 pm

    Thanks for the leg work on Aslan. I’d run into the interview and intuited what you note here, but naturally you went out and got the straight dope on it all, too. That’s why we love you, Richard.

    It struck me that Aslan did exactly what he set out to do, and got precisely the kind of attention he wanted – an absolute slam dunk which doubtless sold him a ton of books…that being the only goal in going on FOX. Being as arrogant and d-bagish (to borrow your terminology) as possible was entirely part of the plan since it appeals to the kind of crowd he’s trying to appeal to with the book (as you imply). It was a start to finish sales pitch, brilliantly executed, which made him tens of thousands, at least.

    What I wonder is what our responsibilities are in these kinds of situations. Good scholarship just can’t get that kind of stage…ever, and when good scholars actually do, it seems like it is only by sinking to this level (which is how I feel about Ehrman). I’m very dismissive of these people and try to ignore them, but am I just a coward? What do we who really do know much more about, say, ancient texts, owe the world here, and how can we possibly deliver?

  8. 13 James Morgan 6 September 2013 at 7:52 pm

    I’ve never been sure what a ‘public intellectual’ is as compared to any other kind of ‘intellectual’, but then I only have a BA in general studies and an MA as a Marriage and Family counselor, which I left long ago. Now I’m retired and stock the dairy cooler in my friendly neighborhood food co-op and am very happy doing that, thank you for listening…

    Jim of Olym


  1. 1 Something doesn’t smell right about the Elizabeth O’Bagy “résumé lie” | Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 13 September 2013 at 8:45 pm

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