You may have seen Fox News personality Lauren Greene’s interview of Reza Aslan about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. It is called a “book interview,” but it lies further on the “book critique” end of the spectrum. It caused an outrage in large part because it’s a terrible critique. In this blog post, I will list what I believe to be the essential characteristics of a quality critique, and size up Greene’s interview with John Oliver’s 3-part interview with Aslan from a few weeks ago. While the latter is more toward the “book interview” end of the spectrum, it still adheres to several “book critique” criterium. I will NOT be critiquing “Zealot,” nor will I be critiquing Fox News, The Daily Show, or any personalities that represent them, simply these two interviews at how effective they are at critiquing “Zealot.” It’s a critique of critiques.
Before I begin, I want to clarify something. The word “critique” has a strong negative connotation that it is biased, one-sided, and completely negative. When I use it, however, I think of it as a product of critical thinking, meaning it is neither positive nor negative, but critical. Make sense? Okay, let’s begin.
How To Critique:
1) Analyze your biases. This kind of introspection should start happening before you even crack the book open, and continue through this entire process. Unrecognized biases obscure your view of the world. While I do like the concept that books are left in part to the reader’s interpretation, unrecognized bias can make it so you are reading a completely different book than the author wrote. I say “unrecognized bias” because we can never truly be separated from our biases. They are forever a part of us, but if we can recognize them, we can be free of them.
For critics, it’s more than just internally acknowledging bias, I think they should inform the recipients of their critique, whether it’s the author or an audience of some kind. So, while it is impossible to know whether either interviewer had bias introspection, we can rate them on how they acknowledged them.
GREENE: Not really sure if she has bias or not, although my own biases against Fox News are screaming, “She’s secretly anti-muslim!” Still, she makes no mention of her biases. FAIL
OLIVER: While he mentions his background, there is no introspective look at his biases. FAIL
2) Read the book. No matter how much I want to, I can’t criticize Twilight until I actually read it. Additionally, finish the book. “I’ve read that book,” and “I’ve finished that book” should be synonymous. Anything less is synonymous with “I’ve started reading that book,” (i.e. doesn’t count).
GREENE: In the last 90 seconds of the interview, Aslan accuses Greene of not even reading his book and she doesn’t deny it, then she counters with classic misdirection: “You never mention that you’re a muslim.” To which he counters, “Well, I do mention it on page 2…” To which she ends the interview with a defeated tone. (HILARIOUS) FAIL!
Oliver: He’s holding the book in his hand and he has a clear understanding of the source material. While you can not technically tell if he’s actually read it or just got the sparknotes from an intern, how personal he is with it indicates he really read it. (PROBABLY) SUCCESS!
3) Reread the book. This deserves another slot on the list because your first run of the source material is the “surprise round.” You don’t know where the author is headed, and they are going to throw curveballs at you. Let’s put it another way: If it’s ever even possible to fully understand a book, it’s definitely NOT during the first run. It takes time and effort to digest new ideas, and the most effective way to put in that time and effort is to read it over.
GREENE: Considering she didn’t pass #2, she definitely didn’t pass #3. FAIL
OLIVER: This criterium is more for a critic’s personal use and doesn’t lend itself well to critiques of critiques. INCONCLUSIVE.
4) Think for yourself. A good critique should be personalized to you. How do you react to it, given your background? #1 and #4 play off each other for a beautiful combination, a personal and meaningful reflection free of bias.
GREENE: She only ever gives quotes from critics, never states her own opinion or reflection on the book. FAIL
Oliver: He talks about his own relationship with Jesus and how the book changed it (Part 1, 3:30ish) SUCCESS
5) A good critique is balanced. You measure strengths and weaknesses. You look at the good and the bad. You acknowledge effective parts, while pointing out ineffective parts. It seems obvious, right? But you’d be surprised how neglected this criterium is. Things are either “Good,” “Bad,” or “Mediocre,” as if those are your only three options. But, let’s get meta here. One-sided arguments have a good side: they can go viral and/or make you famous. Polarizing opinions are spread by people on either side for opposite reasons. “Check this out, I totally agree with this.” VS. “Check out this idiot. Could he be any more wrong?” Whether it’s Rush Limbaugh or The Ed Show, you probably agree with one side and despise the other. And that’s how they make their money.
The major downside to this — and it’s a big one — is that polarized opinions are killers of critical thinking. They’re seductive to people who want to agree with them, and can have a brainwashing effect, making it hard to see any other viewpoint. They ignite flames in people who disagree with them to the point that they are so furious that they can’t see any other viewpoint. See any parallels?
Greene: Makes no mention of any strengths of “Zealot.” FAIL
Oliver: Makes no mention of any weaknesses of “Zealot.” He even asks the question (paraphrasing), “How could anyone criticize this book?” FAIL
Note: I am a firm believer that there are strengths and weaknesses to EVERYTHING. If you can only see one side of something, then you don’t really understand it. There is something blocking you from that other side, and that can be as simple as rereading the book, or as complex as deep-seated biases.
6) A good critic does not assume she is correct. This is a companion to #5 and #10. You can have an opinion on something, but just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It also doesn’t mean they are wrong. You could both be right, in a way and are probably wrong in other ways. Aslan says it best when he says, “That’s the thing about scholarship, is that it’s a debate… and I am one of those people making a debate.” The majority of things are up to debate, and history and religion are among the top most debated things of all time. (Notice how Foxnews also makes this political, completing the trifecta)
GREENE: While it’s not entirely clear what Greene actually believes (See #), it seems pretty clear to me she thinks the argument she’s making is unquestionably correct. FAIL
OLIVER: Sometimes succeeding with this criterium is merely the accomplishment of not failing it outright. SUCCESS
7) Be logical. Know what logical fallacies are and how they are used or they will ruin your critique. I’m not expert in logic, but I did notice a few blatant fallacies:
The Genetic Fallacy: Judging something as good or bad on the basis of who is making the argument. Aslin says it best when he says, “I find it a bit strange that rather than debating the arguments of the book, we are debating the right of the scholar to actually write it.” However, logically speaking, you don’t have to be Christian OR a scholar OR a historian to make a valid point about Jesus. We make this association because good arguments are highly correlated with specific experts, but that’s not always the case.
Appeal To Authority: Using the opinion or position of an authority figure or institution of authority in place of an actual argument. Greene made no points on her own. Instead, everything written on Greene’s notecards are quotes from like-minded critics of “Zealot”. Aslan points out that there are plenty of scholars that agree with him, but notice how none of them made it onto her notecards…
Loaded Question: Asking a question that has an assumption built into it so that it can’t be answered without appearing guilty. Her opening sentence: “Now, you’re a muslim, so why did you write a book about Christianity?” The assumption here is The Genetic Fallacy of a muslim being incapable of writing a book about Jesus. Rather than attempt at answering the question, Aslan points out the fallacies in it and tries to move on.
There are more, like the Bandwagon, the To Quoques, and possibly even more fallacies, but those three stood out to me the most.
Greene: She sums it all up with that opening sentence, which beautifully rolls all 3 highlighted fallacies into one. FAIL
OLIVER: I’m no expert in fallacies, but I can’t find any here. SUCCESS
8) Craft a thesis. Notice how this comes really late on the list? A good thesis is virtually impossible to have if any of the above categories are not met. You can’t make a thesis without reading the book. Your thesis is going to be skewed if you don’t analyze your biases. Your supporting arguments are going to be weak without balance, and it will all fall apart with logical fallacies.
GREENE: Even though it is wrought with fallacies and fails most of the criteria I have here, it’s pretty obvious Greene’s thesis is saying, “You are promoting Islam by writing a book attacking Jesus.” SUCCESS
OLIVER: It was hard for me to notice his thesis because of how free-flowing the interview is, but it became clear on my second view: “This is a humanized Jesus you can have a personal relationship with.” SUCCESS
9) Use specifics. So, you have a thesis that is unbiased, etc? Great! Now show me proof. Don’t just say, “A lot of times this happens;” give me quotes and other examples from the source material. Be careful because you could fall for The Texas Sharpshooter fallacy, but if you can’t find enough supportive quotes, chances are your thesis is flawed.
Greene: Considering the only quotes she contributes are from critics and NONE are from his book, Greene gets a big, fat FAIL
Oliver: Throughout the three parts, Oliver gives many examples about how the book humanizes Jesus, such as how political he was and how the bible was not meant to be taken literally. SUCCESS
10) Be open to learning something new. A good critique pushes your understanding of the source material to a deeper level. Additionally, all of the introspection involved should lead you to a deeper understanding of yourself. But only if you let it.
So, who’s the winner? With not only a thesis, but specific examples, with no assumptions or logical errors, and also the open-mindedness to learn something new, and also having READ the BOOK, John Oliver comes in with a clear victory over Lauren Greene, who basically had a thesis but nothing else.
I’m not going to give a critique of Fox News or The Daily Show, but I will say this: Everyone is doing it wrong. Even John Oliver has major room for improvement. From your novice Amazon.com reviewer to your professional movie critic, the individuals who can consistently give quality critiques are horrifyingly few. A big reason I started this blog is because I want to exercize my critical thinking skills and challenge others to do the same.
What do you think, did I hit everything? Did I go overboard anywhere? Please reply with any critiques of my critique of these critiques. 😀