On SBL’s Battle of the Bloat: A secularizing suggestion.
Posted on December 3, 2009 at 6:21 am by Dr. Jim
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.
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.