Society of Biblical Literature’s Damnably (un?)Holy Alliance with Belief
Posted on November 29, 2011 at 8:02 pm by Dr. Jim
The aftermath of the SBL’s recent national meeting in San Francisco is getting interesting, and so I might as well have my rant, too.
I’ve added a correction and some (happiness engendering) updates based on an email from John Kutzko, executive director of the SBL, highlighting them in red. I do apologize for the error.
Jacques Berlinerblau went public with his (justified) complaints about the Society of Biblical Literature’s unhealthy (and too “damn” “holy”) dalliances with the Society for Pentecostal Studies and other evangelical bible-believing groups at the recent SBL national meeting in San Francisco. His new opinion piece is in the Chronicle for Higher Education.
Summarizing the content of his own presentation that called on the SBL administration to finally decide on whether the society should be an academic organization dedicated to free scholarly inquiry, Berlinerblau writes of his experiences at a session hosted by the Society for Pentecostal Studies (a “Program Affiliate”, i.e., not the SBL, but its sessions still get in the SBL program book).
That these Pentecostal scholars appeared like extraordinarily nice people—the types of folks that emerge from the darkness to help you fix a flat tire—shouldn’t obscure the complex questions that their affiliation with the SBL raises.
To what degree is this type of scholarship comparable with what the rest of the academy understands to be scholarship? If it is taken as a given that God exists, that the Bible is His word and His Truth, and that one’s job is to cooperatively identify that Truth, then what happens to the scholarly ideal of critical inquiry? To what degree does a professor in a Pentecostal seminary have the right to challenge these articles of faith? And what happens to her when she does that? …
It would be wrong to ask these questions solely of Pentecostals. What many of us in the SBL have been alleging for years is that the prevalence of organized religious blocs in the Society creates a state of affairs that is unhealthy for scholarship on the Bible and Bible scholars.
Deanne Galbraith posted some comments and photos of the Evangelical Theological Society (I had originally written that this was another “Program Affiliate”. John Kutzko has pointed out that it is not, and was not on the SBL program), likening them to children “playing” scholarship. The simile is not entirely inappropriate, as they are hardly going to question their most fundamental premises, that the Bible is the word of an extant God. What is most offensive to me, is revealed by the photos Galbraith posted of the proselytizing material from “Jews for Jesus” and other such outfits offered at the book display.
But surely the problem is simply not just with “Program Affiliates” like the SPS other organizations that piggy-back their meetings with the SBL’s and use the larger organization’s drawing power. Rather, the SBL has it is own program units that are really beyond the pale when it comes to scholarship.
One of these SBL program units is called Christian Theology and Bible which seems academic enough. Certainly the bible has a lot to do with Christian theology, and the development, history and continuing theological thought of Christianity is surely a valid topic for research. But it is quite clear that this program unit is not directed at Christian theology as the subject of research but is dedicated to the PRACTICE of theology as an exercise of Christian belief.
This is how the unit advertised its sessions:
The Christian Theology and Bible Section is organizing three paper sessions around the topic of ‘Life in the Spirit,’ which will explore Jesus’ experience of life lived in the Spirit and the ways in which our own experience of life in the Spirit may have been akin to his. Two of these sessions will present papers by invitation only, while the third will be an open session focusing on Galatians and Colossians.
Session 1: Jesus’ life as lived by the Spirit, or the Spirit in Jesus’ life. (Jesus’ experience of the Spirit, and how it might have been akin to our own.) Papers by Invitation only
Session 2: Christological Controversies surrounding Nicea in light of Jesus’ (and others’) experience of the Spirit Papers by Invitation only
Session 3: The Spirit in Galatians and Colossians We welcome papers on the Spirit in Galatians or the Spirit in Colossians, especially those that pertain to Jesus’ experience of the Spirit and how it might have been akin to our own.
And here is one of the paper’s abstracts:
The Spirit-filled Word in the Spirit-filled Life of Jesus
Throughout the gospels we find the Hebrew Scriptures constantly on the lips of Jesus. The manner in which Jesus uses the Hebrew Scriptures suggests that these Spirit-filled words gave shape to the meaning of his life, vocation, and destiny as the Messiah. This presentation will look at passages in the gospels which suggest that Jesus’ own destiny, voca¬tion and life, guided by the Spirit, were formed by the Spirit-filled words of Scripture. We rightly discern here a connection to the manner in which the Spirit-filled words of Scripture give focus to our own lives as well.
This is not really the study of religion at all, but the practice of it. MODERN religious sentiments provide the premises for an ancient text. It is little more than a retelling of Christian mythology. It adds exactly nothing to the academic knowledge of Christianity or the Bible. It has no place in an academic conference.
The SBL is also home to The Homiletics and Biblical Studies unit. Again, a study of how the Bible is used in Christian preaching may make for an interesting study, but this is not really what is going on. Rather, the unit is designed to foster “dialogue among scholars in both fields who share an interest in critical exegesis, its various methods, and the unique hermeneutical and theological problems inherent to the relationship between biblical interpretation and proclamation.” What this boils down to is an attempt to appropriate biblical scholarship for propagating the CHristian message. Here is part of one of abstractsL
Karoline M. Lewis, Luther Seminary
Preaching John: The Word Made Flesh as Theological and Interpretive Method
This paper will explore the theological, literary, and practical issues when preaching John, drawing from interpretive issues on the forefront of Johannine scholarship within the last ten years and giving specific attention to the Gospel’s own homiletical aspirations. The paper will argue for a specific theological framework from which to engage the Fourth Gospel for preaching and suggest an interpretive strategy so as to engage more fully John’s imaginative world.
Why should the SBL be helping preachers preach? Is that really fostering biblical scholarship? It should not be the goal of an academic society to help a religion train its own clergy, or to do the Church’s work for it. Rather, the goal of scholarship should be to understand historically, deconstruct and critique what happens within religious communities. This should not be to help them do it but to locate those practices and modes of thought within the greater frame work of human activity and introspection. In this sense, there is no more reason for the SBL to help improve Christian preaching that there is for the American Academy of Religion to suggest ways the ancient Mayans might have made bloodier human sacrifices.
Similarly, the SBL has a program unit on Bible and Pastoral Theology. Again, an academic society is helping a religion do its own work, without asking whether Pastoral Theology is actually helping people. The abstract for one paper really made me laugh. Jennifer J. Williams, of Vanderbilt University says of her paper, “The Book of Job: On Friendship, Bullying, and Sacrifice”:
Bullying has reached appalling levels in our nation’s schools and universities, culminating in radical and terrible responses (e.g. children seeking plastic surgery, mass shootings in the nation’s high schools, and tragic suicides)… this paper will utilize perspectives and conversations gleaned from high school students who are leaders in their schools and faith communities in order to consider how the Book of Job might shed light on this challenging contemporary issue. … This paper reflects on how Job may or may not be a good example of how to resist bullying and pressure from peers. The story also helps reveal how our own culture of violence repeatedly leaves no other option for the ones being bullied but to sacrifice to and for the sake of their tormentors. Because of this, the Book of Job might necessitate a resistant reading, as it provides little opportunity for deliverance from tormentors for the sufferer and also reinstates an oppressive and illegitimate framework of understanding. Ultimately, the paper considers how an individual friend or an entire faith community might respond in pastoral ways to the issue of bullying and to those who suffer from bullying.
Now, I’m hardly one to say that bullying is not a major issue. I know it is. My point is simply this: WHAT THE FUCK HAS THE BIBLE TO CONTRIBUTE TO SOLVING THIS? (sorry for yelling and swearing as if I’m threatening you to believe me [I'm aware of the irony]). Do we really need more Bible reading to combat school yard thugs? This strikes me as nothing more than bibliolatrous efforts to keep the Bible relevant to everything. Perhaps the issue with bullying is not the Bible at all.
Some of the other papers listed in the abstract book were truly mind-boggling in their bibliolatry. It seems for some that the Bible is the key to everything. Again this is the myth that needs deconstructing and analyzing, not promulgation. For instance, Johnson Leese’ in an “Ecological Hermeneutics Session (again SBL, not an affiliated group) discusses Christ as Creator: Implications for an Eco-theological Reading of Paul. The abstract ends with: .
This following questions will guide this study: What does 1 Cor 8.6 articulate about the relationship between Christ and creation, both cosmological origins and the ongoing creative process? What is the relationship between Christ, God, all things, and us? How might Paul’s specific directives concerning meat/food provide new terrain for ascertaining ethical principles for contemporary questions about the human relationship to the created realm?
Now, why on Earth would we even care what a Roman era Jewish Christian thought about meat and food to help us out of modern ecological problems? The only reason to care (besides purely antiquarian interests, which would be a sideline to the real issue) would be if the Bible really had something trans-historically important to say about the subject, but how could it? It is only through belief that the Bible is eternally relevant that it is brought up in any of these kind of debates.
Do we consult the Vedas for routes to solving global warming? Yet, some folks think global warming is the province for biblical scholars.[Another late addition] Should we as scholars of religion recommend reading the Rg Veda (or Prose Edda, or Ugaritic hymn to Baal, for that matter) to offer solutions to global warming? Why does the BIble get special status?”
In my paper presented in the review session for Roland Boer’s book Secularism and Biblical Scholarship, I noted how some of the contributors to the volume saw a liberating function for biblical studies. To my mind, some of this (not all of it!) amounts to a similar bibliolatry in which biblical studies is grossly over-advertised. Here is a (slightly edited) excerpt from my presentation.
I cannot trade quotes and references to the pantheon of critical theorists or Marxist ideologues with Philip Chia, Joseph Marchal, Roland Boer and Ward Blanton. But I think we might do well to engage in a bit of mischief and and characterize call for emancipatory biblical studies by adapting the words the deepest philosopher of them all, Homer Simpson: “To alcohol! The cause of… and solution to… all of life’s problems”: and so: “To the Bible: the cause of and solution to all of the world’s problems!”
I wonder if the culture critics not attempting too much and heaping too much importance on the BIble and on themselves as its authorized interpreters for the good of the whole world?
Philip Chia offers the most extreme claims for the relevance and scope of biblical studies. He asks asks if the discipline is delivering what people are demanding from it. He writes,
“Biblical studies in particular and Christian/religious studies in general have been seriously challenged with a call for public relevance and market value, thus situating the discipline at the crossroad of human inquiry” (p. 133).
My response is “no”, we are not delivering what people want, but neither should we. Customers are NOT always right, sometimes don’t know what they need, and often go into the wrong shop entirely. Biblical studies has to be very careful not to invent or construe problems in a way we are uniquely capable of solving. We don’t like it when auto-mechanics or politicians do it to us. There is something to be said for the golden rule. I think biblical scholars need to be more honest and modest about what their discipline can and cannot accomplish, and even if people are asking for one thing, to be ready to admit when we cannot provide it.
Chia (p. 134) implies that biblical studies should address “global economy, global warming, environmental ecology, life-sciences such as Stem Cell research, DNA manipulation projects, life cloning etc.” How can biblical scholars do this without grossly misrepresenting the relevance and content of the biblical text, and tossing away any pretext to modesty or shame about their competence? Do we, as biblical scholars, really know enough to contribute as experts in subjects relevant to these issues?
Perhaps a few of us are in some of these areas, but in general, we are no better off here than experts in English literature, American Civil War archaeology, Celtic folk music or knitting. One does not need a PhD in biblical studies to critique the challenges to science presented by creationists. The best thing biblical scholars can do to help the global warming situation is to tell people to recycle their Bibles when they don’t want them anymore, and to pay attention to the relevant scientists who are not on the payroll of Exxon Mobil.
And my conclusion:
Biblical studies still has something to offer humanity, but it cannot be a panacea. Since the BIble is a product of human minds, as are all gods and all religions, the non-religious study of the Bible helps render an account of humanity to humanity without appeal to invented deities. Each bit of research is a tiny drop in a very large bucket, but is a contribution all the same. Biblical studies must stand apart from the religions it examines and closer to the study of all religions and other aspects of culture around the world and through the ages.
Hopefully, the SBL will soon be taking some positive action on this and getting back to exclusively fostering biblical scholarship and understanding religion and forget its sideline occupation of fostering religion and preaching the Bible.
John Kuttzko also made three other points, which do give one reason reason to be optimistic. One will have to stay tuned for all the updates from the SBL.
The SBL Council, following a year of discussion, has approved a new Affiliate Policy, and it will begin reviewing current Affiliates and possible new Affiliates. Reviews of Affiliates will be conducted by a subcommittee of Council. This policy will be announced in the next SBL newsletter and posted on the SBL site.
The Annual Meeting Program Committee, chaired by Francisco Lozada, has drafted two separate handbooks for the Program Unit Chairs and the Program Committee. These will include criteria and standards of discourse for the program sessions.
The SBL Council, chaired by Bruce Birch, read a statement from Council at the Annual Business Meeting on Sunday, November 20 in San Francisco. That statement outlined actions, both realized and ongoing, that will take effect and guide participation in the program. The statement will be posted on the website and included in the next newsletter.
All of this sounds promising. I should also add that there have been a lot of discussions between the SBL and advocates of a secular-only focus for the SBL over the past several years. Many of us involved in that are hopeful of a positive change, far more hopeful than my original rant here would have indicated.