On SBL’s Battle of the Bloat: A secularizing suggestion.

Last Wednesday (Nov. 25), April DeConick posted an open letter about the Society of Biblical Literature on her blog, Forbidden Gospels.  I just noticed it the other day, so here is a late response in view of my own hopes to add a new group to the SBL’s already bloated schedule. She makes three closely inter-related main points.

She complains is there is far too much overlapping of groups with similar interests or themes. This only divides the audiences. She suggests that the SBL could engage external consultants to work on scheduling of the conferences. I’m not sure that extenal consultants are the solution, that sounds like a terrible expense, but I agree wholeheartedly with her recognition of this problem. Part of that issue is the proliferation of so many groups, which is her primary concern.

But before dealing with that, we need an  interlude:

DeConick also deals with scheduling. Organizing the time table for sessions for the SBL and the American Academy of Religion meeting (which used to be held concurrently) must have been a nightmare. DeConick observes that the problem of overlapping sessions is actually worse now that the two societies do not hold joint meetings, since the SBL has seen such a dramatic rise in the number of specialized groups.

Her primary complaint concerns the view expressed in the group Chairs’ meeting that the large number of sessions at the recent conferences was a sign of the society’s health.  In her opinion, the rapid growth in the number of sessions and groups has led to over-specialization, diminished audiences for all groups and to a reduction in the actual sharing of ideas among people. I cannot but agree with this. She writes:

Our groups have proliferated to the point that there is so much competition for audiences that entire sessions are beginning to have only a handful in attendance. Papers that may have taken a year to prepare may have an audience of five. This means that there is little discussion and little in terms of dissemination of research to the broader community.

The increasing specialization and fracturing of scholarship into ever more rarified sub-disciplines is, as Steve Wiggins noted in a comment on DeConick’s post, endemic to the wider field of scholarship, but I wonder if it really need to be so bad in the SBL. I think DeConick is right, the SBL could sure stand to loose a lot of the different groups, consultations, and what not it has acquired over the years.

One odd thing about the present situation, however, is that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find sessions to which I might propose a paper. My stuff often does not fit anything but the very general, open sessions on the Hebrew Prophets and such like.  Yet, these open sessions seem to be rarer and rarer as even the broadly defined subject areas host many sessions with specific themes some of which can be quite narrow in focus. The opportunity for papers that do not fit into these pre-arranged categories appears to be far slimmer now than a decade ago. I might be wrong about this, but it is an impression I am getting.

Agnes thought the SBL New Orleans  Session on "Throwing your Pearl Beads on Lolcats:  Interactive Approaches" was a glorious success.

Remember when T.V. had variety shows? I remember watching Ed Sullivan as a kid. You never knew what you were going to get on any evening. Jugglers then the Beatles, or a broadway singer, a comedian and the Rolling Stones. It was wonderful, and everyone watched everything (although my dad had a fit when he saw the @$^%!!(#^$!(!!! long-haired Beatles for the first time. Some childhood memories will never die).

I like variety. The SBL should have more of it, but not not a wide variety of exclusive-club, inward-looking talking shops, each with their own totemic, esoteric jargon and secret handshakes.

All that being said, I should admit that the plan to start a Secular Critical Scholarship of the Bible group would just be adding to the mess of groups already there. What would the justification for that be?

(Another interlude: A probably apocryphal, but still telling, story I heard during my last years as an undergrad at the U. of Alberta was that there was a committee struck to look into how the university might reduce the number of committees)

First of all, the question of secularism in the SBL is not a peripheral subject but strikes at the heart of the what the SBL is, does, and should be doing to “foster biblical scholarship”. I have heard some opine  that since scholarship should be secular, why do we need to talk about secularism at all? The answer, of course, is that Biblical Studies is not fully secular. Many scholars are, but the academy is definitely NOT. And since people continue to attribute to the texts we subject to critical analysis a fundamentally unique status among writings and human thought, the issue of secularism should be a significant topic of discussion. Yet, it is not. The SBL seems to be OK with papers, sessions, and affiliations with faith-based perspectives. This is a major issue and needs to be discussed openly.

Biblical exceptionalism is rampant in the SBL. Rather than offer analysis the Bible as one of the many textual products of human culture, some presentations seem to construe the Bible as the primary human text and even as a divine text. The latter has no place in academia, and the former often strikes me as simply a quasi-secular corollary to overt theological work.

The last point may be a little harsh but at least it deserves to be discussed openly. What is the SBL for? As a short exchange on this blog and elsewhere several weeks ago reveals, there are members of the SBL who simply cannot see the validity or even existence of non-religious thought about the Bible. One would have thought that an international academic society would do a better job preventing such an identity crisis. As Alan Lenzi argued in Feb. 2008, the SBL needs to adopt some standards for membership.

What does the SBL require for full membership? $65 (see here, updated on February 11, 2008). What kind of learned society has no requirements for its members? The problem this creates is most evident, in my experience, at the regional meetings where I have witnessed pastors or, in one case, a woman who had had a visionary experience share their thoughts about the Bible or god or religion. Is the SBL the appropriate venue for this kind of report?

Full membership in the SBL should be restricted to people with an academic doctoral degree from an accredited program. Student membership should be restricted to academic doctoral students. We should make it harder to join instead of easier. Furthermore, given the function of what we study for contemporary religion and the fact the membership in a learned society can give credibility to one’s status in the field, it does not seem unreasonable to inform potential applicants for membership about the Society’s orientation to academic Biblical Studies. Namely, the application should make it clear that all members of the Society engage the Bible as a product of and influence on human culture. By joining, members implicitly agree in principle to the practice of using the same critical faculties and exercising the same kinds of judgments on the Bible as one might use on, say, an Assyrian royal inscription or a non-canonical gospel. In other words, it should be clear that members of the SBL do not privilege the Bible with a special mode of inquiry (see note).

I agree whole heartedly with this (M.A. students, of course, would not be banished entirely!). As Lenzi points out and as I have said elsewhere there, clearly, many religious people can do good secular research, and we cannot morally impose a religious test for membership. Yet, society as a whole tends to treat “secular” as synonymous with “atheist” and since very strident and widely read atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (who count as non-academics when it comes to the study of religion) rub so many people the wrong way, attempts to “secularize” biblical studies is taken by some as being equivalent “church bashing”. It is not. It is merely church-ignoring.

From my experience, it is far more likely that in any given session in the SBL meetings that someone will start to speak overtly from a faith perspective, or to try to make critical scholarship palatable to “faith communities” than to openly declare secular standards of scholarship. It was such a relief to attend the North American Association for Religious Studies session in New Orleans, that placed biblical studies in the light of  wider scholarship into religion. A very different atmosphere to what I noted in many SBL sessions. NAASR is one of those affiliations that SBL should be encouraging.

So, back to the SBloatL problem identified by DeConick. I think a partial solution would be to eliminate the “religious” sessions. They simply do not belong. Studying religion academically is very different from furthering any one religion’s internal discourses, no matter how intellectual those discourses are. The SBL needs to sort out its identity. It cannot be a clearing house for all talk about the Bible and the Judeo-Christian traditions that uses big words and produces big books. Affiliations with the overt theological groups need to be broken. Theological groups (that is, those that do theology, rather than critically examine other people’s theologies) within the SBL should be ended.

I think far too many SBL members see the society as a vehicle for furthering the inner-church discourses carried out in seminaries and even from the pulpit. Why the hell does the SBL have sessions on “Homiletics and Biblical Studies“?  From their call for papers:

Invited panel session: Preaching from the Psalms. Invited panel session: Preaching and the Personal: Prophecy, Witness, and Testimony. Open call: The Homiletics and Biblical Studies section is seeking papers dealing with the relationship between biblical interpretation and proclamation.

The SBL could certainly loose this and a number of other faith-based sections and groups and its academic credentials would only increase.
What is the intended audience of critical biblical scholarship?  It must not be construed as solely those consuming biblical interpretation as an expression of or aid to their religious beliefs. The SBL actually should not be catering to that market at all. The way I see it, the real audience of biblical academics are those interested in the wider knowledge of human society, culture, and religiosity.

The SBL should abandon its attempts to be all things to all people, resist any attempt to use it as an adjunct of the church or seminary, and take its mandate to further scholarship seriously as part of the wider explorations into human life conducted in the secular humanities and social sciences.

22 Responses to “On SBL’s Battle of the Bloat: A secularizing suggestion.”

  1. John W. Loftus Says:

    The SBL should abandon its attempts to be all things to all people, resist any attempt to use it as an adjunct of the church or seminary, and take its mandate to further scholarship seriously as part of the wider explorations into human life conducted in the secular humanities and social sciences.

    Hear! hear!

  2. stephanielouisefisher Says:

    I agree with absolutely everything you say Jim, including Alan – except when he says ‘accedited’ programme… I presume he isn’t restricting membership to Americans!? 😉

    However I also think papers presented should be restricted to people with PhDs except perhaps in special circumstances.

  3. Jim Says:

    lenzi’s standards would eliminate the likes of luther or dibelius or bultmann or – well – any european – from participating since they arent victims of the purely american phenomenon of ‘accrediting agencies’. his parochialism is showing. indeed, the irony is that his ideas are as excluding as the fundamentalists who manage ETS (where you cant be a member unless you sign a statement adhering to inerrancy).

    lenzi is, then, nothing but a fundamentalist of a different sort.

  4. stephanielouisefisher Says:

    I think his use of ‘accredited’ was more a reflection of his ethnocentricity rather than a deliberate exclusion of international scholars.

    (ethnocentric … I seem to be using it alot the last few days and I hate the word – it’s thrown around by the Context Group – which is even actually ethnocentric itself – and applied wrongly)

  5. Jim Says:

    yes but you always see the glass half full, steph.

  6. stephanielouisefisher Says:

    no idea what you mean Jim. Obviously Alan wasn’t excluding the world deliberately and obviously the Context Group are flawed to the crust. But if you like your glass full Jim, that’s not only gluttony, you’ll spill it. :-)

    Maurice has no idea either, so there!

  7. Don Says:

    I agree with some of what you have said- especially with regards to the open membership. It is true that the balance between academia and faith is one that needs to be considered- notice I said balanced, not cut. Are you suggesting that someone, such as myself, who has a faith position [which I do not keep separate from my academic life, and is, in many ways, based upon it] should live with a sort of imposed cognitive dissidence?

    To suggest philosophical idea that naturalism is the only academic method and that the only academic or scholarly way to approach a question is to disallow suggestions of the divine, is wrong. To then move that anyone who does not share your viewpoint should be restricted is thought control.
    It is particular sad that the influence of believing scholars working in secular Universities, such as F. F. Bruce, I. Howard Marshal, etc…, haven’t managed to demonstrate to some people that the two can, quite successfully, work hand in hand.

    Please also see Daniel Wallace’s post on his experience at SBL [posted over on the Parchment and Pen blog]. Some of his comments include this insight:

    ‘A genuine liberal used to be someone who was open to all the evidence and examined all the plausible viewpoints. Now, “liberal” has become a hollow term, invested only with the relic of yesteryear’s justifiably proud designation. Today, all too often, “liberal” means no more than left-wing fundamentalist, for the prejudices that guide a liberal’s viewpoints are not to be tampered with, not to be challenged… evidence, examine all sides, and wrestle with the primary data through the various prisms of secondary literature. He’s open. I tell my students every year, “I will respect you far more if you pursue truth and change your views than if you protect your presuppositions and don’t.” And they know my mantra, “Go where the evidence leads.” Sadly, some of the most brilliant scholars in biblical studies have become radically intolerant of conservatives. When conservative professors have that same attitude, they’re usually afraid of having their ideas challenged’

  8. Alan Lenzi Says:

    Just for the record, “accredited” in the quote attributed to me above was not intended to conjure some technical American agency. Perhaps I used the wrong word. I simply meant student members should be in “legitimate and recognized” PhD programs. The SBL would have to decide how to judge that kind of thing.

    The next paragraph after the quote above clearly shows my ideas about membership are not anti-religious fundamentalism.

    I say: “I am not saying that people in Biblical Studies with a religious commitment are not scholars. That is obviously ridiculous. I am saying, however, that whatever else one might think the Bible is, we can all agree that it is manifestly a human document and therefore that it is most appropriately engaged in a humanistic manner in a learned society like the SBL.”

    I honestly think it is a crying shame that we are even talking about “secularizing” our learned society. I talked to another non-believer at the SBL who is likewise appalled that this has to even be a topic of conversation. Faith or no faith, we’re all scholars (or we’re supposed to be) and we should all be agreed about very general things like not shielding our data from critical scrutiny or not overtly and shamelessly privileging the perspectives of faith communities that use the text we study.

    If these ideas are parochial, then I am guilty as charged.

  9. Dr. Jim Says:

    Alan, that is exactly the way I read you. I also agree that it is a shame to have to talk about secularization.

    Don wrote:
    “To suggest philosophical idea that naturalism is the only academic method and that the only academic or scholarly way to approach a question is to disallow suggestions of the divine, is wrong. To then move that anyone who does not share your viewpoint should be restricted is thought control.”

    I cannot see the force of this argument at all. WHAT divine? WHOSE divine? Can we do a study of the Old Testament with a mind that Vishnu, Thor, Baal actually exist? Would this be acceptable to evangelicals in the SBL?

    IF we can study all sorts of other religions and beliefs as human phenomena, why should we accord a special status to Jewish or Christian beliefs?

    Wallace’s post on his blog http://tinyurl.com/yfbwuq9 is self defeating. He complains about how graduates of his seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary, are denied a fair appraisal when they seek positions in other institutions because of Dallas’ very conservative reputation.

    Wallace writes: “As remarkable as it may sound, most biblical scholars are not Christians.” Wow! He then defines Christianity so narrowly that the label “Christian” is denied the majority of those who would claim it for themselves. How can we take at face value his claims that his students are superior to those of other institutions when he has such a narrow view? Are his views representative of how students are taught and assessed by Wallace or other faculty there?

    Rather that make valid points about bias against DTS, Wallace actually validates reasons to be wary of the place.

  10. JohnO Says:

    I’ve often wondered about where the line of theology is drawn, so I’m glad you’ve brought it up. There must be some element of doing theology that is equally critical as critically examining someone else’s theology. Wouldn’t restricting sessions to only critiques create a situation in which theologies are only destroyed/lessened/rendered lame, rather than be constructive. And that constructiveness need not only be constructive for a specific group (e.g. the church), but for any group, and perhaps, hopefully, all groups? I guess I wonder at the specific audience-focused nature of some sessions that are permissible (feminist, lgbt) while some are not (faith-based). Granted, anyone refusing to be critical or academic in any of these specific audience-focused groups should be refused. I would find it strange that a group for theological readings of lgbt or feminist issues would be permissible while a group for theological readings of ecclesiastical issues would be denied (especially while lgbt and feminist issues are more and more being brought directly into ecclesiastical situations.)

  11. Alan Lenzi Says:

    “There must be some element of doing theology that is equally critical as critically examining someone else’s theology.” Maybe there is; I doubt it—but maybe. Still, the question is: Why does this need to be in the SBL? Aren’t there theological societies for such? I’d say the SBL should not be doing NORMATIVE theological readings in general, LGBT, ELCA, or SBC. Historical theology is different, as long as it is descriptive. “What did the psalmist mean when he wrote, ‘you made humans a little lower than god'”? That’s an SBL question. “What is god trying to tell us about what we ought to think about humanity in this verse?” is not. (Of course, many SBLers would disagree.)

    “I guess I wonder at the specific audience-focused nature of some sessions that are permissible (feminist, lgbt) while some are not (faith-based).” This statement is right in line with a common post-modernist argument appropriated by conservative Christians to get their voice heard. It is a sort of “no fair” tactic. Since all perspectives are equal in this post-modern world, so this reasoning goes, why not the faith-based one? The problem here is, at least for me, that the other ideological critical perspectives aren’t necessarily working with a “ghost in the text” mentality. They aren’t going to appeal to the Holy Spirit or some theological, unverifiable principle in their argumentation (it’s a fair bit more complex than this, but that’s the gist). These other critical perspectives are based squarely in sociological and anthropological ideas about human interaction. “Faith-based” approaches have an entirely different metaphysical basis. They claim to know the mind of god, REALLY, not the mind/behavior of another human. That’s what makes the “faith-based” perspective fundamentally different, in my opinion.

  12. JohnO Says:

    Alan, thanks for responding. I’m not claiming that any group has the ‘right’ to ‘be heard’ in the SBL – I’m just wondering why (sociologically) some are, and some are being forced (or wanting to be forced) out. And your answer is quite fair.

    I would agree that the “ghost in the text” should be taken out *if* any or all of these groups *are* present in SBL. But the social perspective of the church (thinking here of high church , so-called, liberals which might claim that the authority of the church stems itself from the church and not from any other claim) also has a right to be critically grappled with.

  13. Dr. Jim Says:

    Alan and John, thanks for the conversation so. Sorry for jumping in late.

    For me, I see everything through the lens of comparative Religious Studies in its bid to understand human religiosity. To that end, privileging ONE religious formulation over others-even if it is the one currently being studied-is a major methodological error.

    Modern Christians, by virtue of their “faith”, have no greater insight into the Bible or its history of interpretation or cultural impact than anyone else has by virtue of their different religious beliefs (or lack thereof). As Alan says, one must be wary of the “Ghost in the Machine”. Theology is a fitting subject of secular scholarly study but it is not a mode of such investigations. I really do not see how they are any more compatible than is the alien abduction theory to the study of sleeping disorders and other psychological phenomena.

    I’m also wary of some other aspects and sub-disciplines of modern biblical scholarship that seeks to advance, rather than merely understand and analyze, the cultural position and status of the Bible as relevant to modern discourses on ecology, feminism, gender, war and peace, etc. etc. As Hector Avalos described in his book, this amounts to a “bibliolatry”, although I should say that I take a rather weaker position in this regard than he does.
    By the same token, I don’t see it as part of biblical scholarship to seek to undermine the present cultural position of the bible. For me, the two are separate. I find no “truth” in the Bible and nothing that need concern modern ethicists, scientists or politicians. Yet, working towards that goal is something I consider quite separate from scholarly pursuits.

    “But the social perspective of the church … also has a right to be critically grappled with.” It would all depend on what the field of study is. Ancient Israel’s religion? The perspective of the church has no real role in the academic discussion about that. Modern ethics? Sure, but its status as a religious organization gives it no right to claim a wisdom beyond what other people are capable of attaining. In fact, I would suggest that we invert your thinking, the church has no right to expect its perspectives on anything treated with special deference by scholars.

  14. JohnO Says:

    Dr. Jim thanks for adding, it is helping me understand the discussion. I would agree that “faith” gives no greater insight. I would ask to hold off on lumping me with the opposition just because I’m seeking to find the perimeters of the argument.

    “I’m also wary of some other aspects and sub-disciplines of modern biblical scholarship that seeks to advance, rather than merely understand and analyze, the cultural position and status of the Bible as relevant to modern discourses on ecology, feminism, gender, war and peace, etc. etc”

    It seems then, that critical study is only towards the purposes of understanding where we have been and where we have arrived – but has no basis on which to suggest a direction? If that is the line, then what is to be done with critical studies once they have crossed that line (I am sure we are capable of thinking of a few). Ought not the penalty for any transgression of critical method, in either direction or motive, be just as sternly warded off?

    I agree that the church has no right to expect special treatment, but to refuse the church to speak as a social institution, while other social institutions do get to speak (such as feminism, minorities, lgbt, etc) strikes me as odd. I would obviously not think the church gets to speak about ancient Israelite religion, but ought it be able to speak about contemporary issues, sociological issues, in the same manner that these other groups do? Or have I fundamentally misunderstood something else? All I think I’m saying is that the church get to speak as a social entity, much like other social entities already get to speak.

    But I fully understand and support your position. There is nothing that angers me more than to hear someone speak on a topic they know absolutely nothing about.

  15. stephanielouisefisher Says:

    And alluding to my original comment after having finished the most appalling piece of pseudo scholarship ever apparently debunking the historical Jesus, I’d limit the phd’s needed by paper presenters to those in biblical studies, religious studies, theology and the like. This piece was written by someone who demonstrated the most extraordinary assumptions but provided no argument or evidence, was technically incompetent and ignorant of the historical method and midrash, selected the most obscure apologists to represent xtian scholarship with no knowledge of any learned critical secondary literature at all… Just bizarre. And the ridiculously sarcastic endorsement by a well known scholar who also lost his ‘faith’ was ironically fitting.

  16. Alan Lenzi Says:

    That’s just elitist!

    Actually, I think this kind of thing could be nipped in the bud in the application process. Those who make application with degrees from, e.g., “Mid-Missouri School of Theology and Taxidermy” OR from Harvard University in an unrelated field, e.g., Bio-Chemistry, would be flagged by the committee. They would then request further documentation, publications, letters of support/recommendation from members in good standing (like CBA requires), or something else(?) to help convince the committee to approve such an application for membership. The problems I foresee here: the membership committee could simply rubber stamp everything and thus lose its gate-keeper role OR they could become so discriminating that they would unduly filter SBL’s membership–for political or whatever reasons. It would be a committee that would need constant monitoring, I think, and open to all kinds of criticism (even if done carefully). And there’d have to be an appeal process. Hmm. Maybe that’s why we don’t have any membership standards to speak of in the SBL . . . .

    No process will be perfect. And implementing one as complicated as the above may not be a good idea. But for starters, I think having a simple statement on the application that says members of the SBL are committed to studying the Bible CRITICALLY, i.e., as any other ancient text produced by humans, would help our cause a lot.

  17. stephanielouisefisher Says:

    If it’s elitist to demand decent academic standards, too bad 😉 Anyway, there’s a difference between proper analytical academic biblical criticism and so called criticism of the bible which seeks to debunk all history purely because some Christians believe some stories to be historical, and which doesn’t actually understand the literature or method at all.

  18. Alan Lenzi Says:

    I totally agree. We have a faculty member (in the math dept., I think) who denies Jesus has any historical basis whatsoever . . . and recently emailed my NT/Early Christianity colleague to inform her of his research (posted on some website)! She was absolutely ticked. And I don’t blame her.

    BTW, the SBL questionnaire went out today. My answer to question #27, about what theme/topic should be covered at next year’s meeting: “Clarifying our rather general motto, “to foster biblical scholarship.” “Scholarship” should be modified by words like “critical,” “academic,” and “secular” (i.e., non-religious/devotional). We should be no more religious in orientation than the MLA. This issue needs addressed, especially as more and more theological agendas are popping-up in the meeting.”

    Maybe a bunch of us should say something like this.

  19. stephanielouisefisher Says:

    I filled it in earlier. I put ‘to foster critical biblical scholarship’ – I should have included ‘secular’ but you know how filling these surveys is… I also complained about too many phd papers and non critical papers and complained about too many faith based sessions in response to other questions. I did celebrate the venue though … I just loved New Orleans! By the way, why weren’t you at the meeting???? The book to which I am inferring above is by Zindler, not a biblical scholar. Maurice Casey devotes quite some chunk to it in his forthcoming book, since I brought it back from the SBL, as well as Price – whose rather silly endorsement is attached to the above book – and others.

  20. Dr. Jim Says:

    I noted n question 25 (what is one thing that must be changed) that the theological affiliations should be dropped.
    For 27 I said,
    “The open membership policy of the SBL against its stated goal of furthering biblical scholarship is a major issue. Not only are non-scholars welcome to join, but the association of the SBL with overt theological agendas. What is the point of calling the SBL a learned society when its meetings have sessions on “homiletics”?”

  21. stephanielouisefisher Says:

    Absolutely to 27. I put something similar to what should be changed. I wonder who reads the surveys and how seriously they are taken? Do they act on them?

  22. Theories of Knowing | TheoRadical Says:

    […] Over at the Tea Shop they’re talking about fortifying SBL against theologizers. I felt curious about the issue, since last year when I was at SBL here in Boston – Nawlins is just too far for a poor student like myself – I was not under the impression that SBL was being taken in such a fashion. It might be my naivete, or I picked some good sections, who knows. […]

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