Society of Biblical Literature’s Damnably (un?)Holy Alliance with Belief

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:

Gregory Polan:

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. 

 

33 Responses to “Society of Biblical Literature’s Damnably (un?)Holy Alliance with Belief”

  1. “Not Really the Study of Religion At All, But the Practice of It” « Daniel O. McClellan Says:

    […] (and too ‘damn’ ‘holy) dalliances” with Bible thumpin’ organizations. See ‘em here. Plenty to chew on, especially the questions at the end regarding what biblical studies brings to […]

  2. Russell McCutcheon Says:

    I too was a respondent on that SBL panel and admit to being perplexed by far more than I spoke about in my response. Above you write:

    “The only reason to care (besides purely antiquarian interests […]) 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?”

    I agree completely–but somehow the people who see themselves as cutting edge and secular also still care deeply about what the Bible says, presumably because it has enduring relevance (such as all those claims that it can help us establish justice and emancipation)–this is the point that no one responded to on the panel. If we make the move that they seem to be recommending, then why study it any more? That is, why not recognize that the Bible is purely a discursive object, thus the discourse on it is open to study rather than the object itself. For instance, I kept wanting to ask “When you say ‘the Bible’ which bible are you referring to?”–for we all know that there are any number of different canons, some of which are still in use today and some not, all with curious similarities and differences, indicating that there is no such one thing as “the Bible” (making “the Bible says” statements either theological or, when coming from the pen of a so-called secular scholar, kind’a silly and historically very sloppy). I was guessing they didn’t mean the Hebrew Bible or Marcion’s but did they mean Jefferson’s or maybe Cady Stanton’s? The Syriac canon is not the same as the Greek Orthodox as the Catholic as they… And don’t even get me started on the Coptic…. You see my point. Yet everyone kept talking about “the Bible” as if we knew what we were talking about.How is this not sloppy scholarship that relies on assumption of homogenization and transcendentalism…? It would be unfair of me to assume that most everyone was talking about the Protestant canon and thus exemplifying their own theological origins (making the SBL a homey place for them, ironically) and disgruntlements but I’d need more data than I currently have to make that speculation stick. Wouldn’t be tough to do, I bet…

    My point? These critics are still all insiders–on the theological/political far left, perhaps, influenced by Marx in some cases, but they are still involved in the same debate over the significance and meaning of the same discursive object. Case in point, the “we” of your final sentence in the quote above–to whom does that refer? For I have no doubt that there are indeed ritual users of the Rg Veda who think it has enduring relevance for all sorts of contemporary situations (lots of them, in fact), yet Sanskritists and Hindu origins specialists are not contesting them for the right way to read the Vedas–they read it differently, not plumbing it for its meaning but, instead, studying its use, its historic origins, reasons for its continued use despite other changes, etc.,–that is, studying the ancient or modern interpreters/users and the texts as a coherent whole, since both require the other. They’re not in a contest with the Brahmins… Yet in biblical studies, even scholars on the far left can’t tease themselves out of the “we”, they can’t recognize that it is a ritual text that needs to be studied as a ritual text, not read for its correct meaning.

    Given the panel’s general silence on my attempt to make these points (though some members of the audience seemed quite interested in chasing down some of the implications) means to me that these points either strike a nerve or are seen as irrelevant since the presumptions I tried to identify are not seen as presumptions but self-evidencies that are beyond critique….

  3. Mike Gantt Says:

    I’ve known people to make reading the word of God an academic exercise (as opposed to a means of learning God’s will in order to do it), but I’ve never seen anyone describe doing so as if it were a virtue as strenuously as you do.

    • Nathan Rein Says:

      Mike, presumably that means you haven’t spent much time around secular scholars, for whom reading what some people call “the word of God” is already an academic exercise and doesn’t need to be “made into” one. For such people, it’s not a matter of describing it “as if it were a virtue” — rather, it’s just a matter of distinguishing between doing secular scholarship and performing a devotional exercise. Presumably you can see the difference, even if you don’t agree with Jim and Russ about which strategy is more appropriate.

      • Mike Gantt Says:

        Thanks, Nathan. I do see the difference, and your comment describes it well.

        I can only add that it sounds to me like a couple of Shakespearean scholars complaining that the others are enjoying the plays too much.

        • Nathan Rein Says:

          Actually, i’d say the comparison would be more like a couple of Shakespearean scholars complaining that their academic conference is being used by another group to debate how to get more people appreciate the plays more, or which play is most relevant for this or that particular modern problem, etc.

          • Mike Gantt Says:

            Yes, but even then can’t they be happy that the guy that wrote the stuff off which they get to make a living is so popular that it’s hard to have any kind of meeting about his stuff without stirring up all sorts of interest?

            And wasn’t it that guy who said, “Whose bread I eat, his song I sing”?

          • Nathan Rein Says:

            Well, I think that’s a defensible position, certainly. I think what we have here, though, is a perception that these approaches don’t represent simply a diversity of views of the material but rather two opposed and incompatible conceptions of what scholarship is meant to accomplish. Given that within the academic world there tends to be pretty intense competition over resources (and prestige), there are real stakes to this argument.

          • Mike Gantt Says:

            Ah, yes. Let us eat His bread, but do not make us sing His song.

          • Nathan Rein Says:

            Oh, sorry, for a minute I thought we were having an actual discussion. In that case, please do “make me sing His song.” Whatever you say, Mike.

          • Mike Gantt Says:

            We were having an actual discussion. And a civil one at that. You made your point and I made mine. I just happened to be making my point on behalf of Someone other than myself. I would not think of “making you sing His song,” but I pray that you will want to.

          • Nathan Rein Says:

            Sorry, then, my mistake. In that case, if you don’t mind, I’d like to push you to clarify your next-to-last comment. When you say “do not make us sing His song,” whose mouth are you putting those words into, and who do you imagine this person is speaking to?

          • Mike Gantt Says:

            I’m applying those words to anyone who is willing to make a living off of the Old and New Testaments but is unwilling to glorify their protagonist.

            And lest you think I’m picking on scholars, the words can apply more broadly to any creature who is willing to enjoy life but unwilling to glorify the Creator of it.

        • Nathan Rein Says:

          You seem to be operating on the premise that to read the Bible at all, legitimately, requires that one be a believer, a stricture which I assume you wouldn’t apply to any other text. Reasonable enough if you’re already a believer, but if you’re not, it seems to be a pretty circular and self-confirming position to take. Or am I misunderstanding you somehow?

          • Mike Gantt Says:

            You are misunderstanding me.

            I myself began reading the Bible as an unbeliever. (It was only after I continued reading it that it won me over to its point of view.) But I would not have thought to try to make a living off of it when I didn’t believe it.

          • Nathan Rein Says:

            Right, I get that, but presumably you wouldn’t make the same argument with regard to, say, “making a living off” Shakespeare, to go back to your earlier point? Or “making a living off” German history, or Hindu literature?

            I assume that by “making a living off” you mean “holding a job that requires that you study and/or teach about” — is that right?

          • Mike Gantt Says:

            As to your second question, yes. In other words, be a paid expert on…

            As to your first question, not only would I make the same argument, it was the broader application I had in mind when I made the argument. First, for the scholars’ own sake they should not have to, nor would you expect them to want to, become expert in a subject to which they are not strongly attracted. Second, who wants to listen to an expert on Shakespeare, German history, or Hindu literature who doesn’t love the respective subject matter? Third, wouldn’t it be unseemly to have salaried and tenured Holocaust-denying professors teaching about the Holocaust? And would it make it any more seemly if they said they were only focused on the non-Jewish aspects of the Holocaust?

          • Nathan Rein Says:

            That’s a popular point of view, of course, but if you think it through to its logical conclusions you get into trouble very quickly. First, you need a working definition of “strong attraction,” which is problematic in and of itself. Your example of teaching about the Holocaust is a case in point. How would you decide if a person is sufficiently “strongly attracted” to the Holocaust to be qualified to be a “paid expert” in the field? And what would it even mean to be “attracted” to the Holocaust?

            Presumably you can see that attraction does not equal uncritical acceptance. A person can be “attracted” to Shakespeare, or fascinated by German history or ancient Greek religion, and can still recognize, say, that Shakespeare’s treatment of women in The Taming of the Shrew, or of Jews in The Merchant of Venice, raises (or should raise) some issues. Similarly a person can be “strongly attracted” to the Bible, or the Qur’an or the Dhammapada, and yet still fail to recognize those texts as “true” in the sense that a believer presumably would.

            Then we have the other aspect of the issue you raised, which seems to imply that only believers should legitimately be able to be “paid experts” in whatever religion they are teaching or researching about. How granular do you get with that restriction? Can an Ashkenazi Jew teach a course on the history of Judaism where he discusses the Sephardim? Can a Catholic teach about the history of the English church? Can a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon teach about Christianity? Can a Nicene Christian teach about Gnosticism? Can an expert on Zen assign students to read Thich Nhat Hanh? Is there anyone in the world who would be able to teach a World Religions course? Where do you draw the line? And what about if you go outside the realm of religion — can a white person teach a course about the blues? Can a German teach a course on American law in a German university?

            I’m not trying to do a reductio ad absurdum here or to make fun of your argument. My point is that as soon as you start making distinctions about who can (or should) legitimately be able to speak about a tradition or a text in the way you have, it raises a whole host of other questions which need the same sorts of answers, and those answers need justification. If you say you ought to be Christian to be a paid expert on the New Testament, then why shouldn’t you also have to be a member of the Heaven’s Gate sect to talk about Heaven’s Gate?

          • Mike Gantt Says:

            Nathan, you are reacting as if I am proposing a rule or law. I am not.

            As far as I am concerned, people can do whatever they want. However, and I’ll revisit the three points here:

            1) For a scholar’s own sake, he ought to be strongly attracted to his subject. That attraction does not have to be based on love of the subject per se, as I am sure Jewish Holocaust historians don’t love that subject; their strong attraction is to the idea of preventing a recurrence. And a person could study Hitler being strongly attracted to the idea of trying to prevent another one from rising to power. But whether a scholar studies Mother Theresa or Adolph Hitler, we’d think him strange if he said he had no feelings one way or the other about his subject. I’m not trying to prevent this phenomenon; I’m just noticing that it would be considered strange if practiced in any field other than biblical studies.

            2) I would not be interested in studying the work of an expert on Mother Theresa or Adolph Hitler who said he wasn’t interested in the respective subject. In addition to being strange, I can’t imagine the work of such a scholar would be very interesting or helpful. People can pride themselves on their objectivity, but they do their best work when their energies as well as their reasoning faculties are involved.

            3) The Old and New Testaments deal with the most important subjects of life with the greatest possible passion (voluntary submission to death on a cross in expectation of a resurrection from the dead to an everlasting life requires a serious commitment to one’s point of view). To demand the right to earn a living from their study while, either vocally or tacitly, denying the documents’ central thrust seems beneath the dignity of a self-respecting scholar. To approach the subject critically is one thing, but to deny its central premise is quite another.

            I agree with you that trying to formulate a rule or law which would prevent such strange, unhelpful, and unseemly behavior would be problematic. Of course, we only see such behavior when it comes to the Bible because people self-regulate in all other fields (Where is the white expert on the blues who is disinterested in it?) We just have to live with such anomalies when it comes to the Bible, but that doesn’t mean they’re praiseworthy.

          • Nathan Rein Says:

            Okay, so if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re only making the point that it would “seem strange” for anyone to study (or, as you put it later — only when talking about the Bible, I notice — “to demand the right to earn a living from”) any subject matter about which they did not have some kind of strong feelings, whether positive, negative, critical or uncritical, or whatever. I’m sure no one in the world would disagree with you on that. However, it still leaves a couple of questions open. First, have you ever encountered any Biblical scholars, religious, secular, or in-between, who have no feelings about their subject? By the argument you just made, those “feelings” could just as easily include vehement rejection as uncritical acceptance. And second, presumably you can recognize that your assessment of the “central thrust” of scripture is not shared by every reader (say, to just name the most obvious example, many Jews). It seems like in the first part of your argument you make the relatively trivial claim that it would be odd for a person to devote his or her life and career to the study of something he or she didn’t care about. In the second part, though, when you turn specifically to the Bible, you seem to turn the idea of “caring about” the Bible to accepting as true your version of the “central thrust” of the documents. You can see that those are different ideas, right?

          • Mike Gantt Says:

            The central thrust of the Old and New Testaments, when taken together, is that Jesus Christ was the manifestation of God on the earth, and that paying attention to Him is the best possible investment of one’s attention. I care more about conveying that view than winning points in a discussion. I had hoped that my comments would draw some attention to Him, and I stand by them, but I do not wish to belabor the argument.

            You have been a congenial conversationalist, and I appreciate your engagement with me. If you would like to engage further, I’d be happy to do so on my blog. As for this blog, I appreciate the hospitality and tolerance of the owner who has let me proclaim the name of the One who I believe loves us all. If you, and the owner, and others do not yet believe that, then I trust that one day you will. In the meantime, I thank you for the hospitality.

            I hasten to add that my message is not about joining a church or changing ones affiliations. It’s all about a Person I believe very much to be alive and in our midst. Everyone is going to heaven – it’s just a matter of how much good we can do for Him and each other between now and then.

  4. Dr. Jim Says:

    Russell, I agreed with your response to the book too. (could you send me a copy? I have a lousy memory for conference papers, probably due to events of the evening before…)

    You are spot on when you highlight the different bibles that are all homogenized. I really wanted to go after that question in the comment period too, but no one was really willing. I often take the shortcut of saying “The Bible” as a collective plural, i.e. all bibles (including the LDS one, rather popular around these parts (southern Alberta).

    As for the “we do not consult the Rg Veda”, again, I”m being sloppy, and I’m changing the line. I was probably thinking of “we” as “secular biblical or Religious Studies scholars, bu tas you point out, “we” can be pretty fuzzy and problematic when it comes to the blurred boundaries of biblical scholarship.
    I should have written a more rhetorical question to highlight the special status that this gloriously fuzzy idea of “The Bible” has in our academic guild: “Should secular 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?”

  5. Duane Says:

    What do you have against the Hymn of Baal, you Baal hater!

  6. Dr. Jim Says:

    Bah, Humbug on Baal. Now, a few nice Asherah icons, and I can get all faithful…

  7. Donny Says:

    “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.”
    It seems to me you are frustrated at people for using scriptures for a certain reason, even though you, as a scholar, study it because it was used for that same reason. You’re crossing the line that you, yourself drew. I agree with your point that scholarly pursuits should be separate from religious belief, but you’re also ranting about the bible being used to deal with modern issues. You want to keep academia separate from religious belief? Good, I’m on board with that. But that also means you can’t use academia to debase religious belief. To quote The Offspring: gotta keep em separated!
    Scholarly study is important because “non-religious study of the Bible helps render an account of humanity to humanity without appeal to invented deities”, and you’re right, but did you stop to think about why the account of humanity you’re presenting even had an impact on humanity or why it’s worth studying? When you’re debating the translation of one word in the Bible that changes what we think people actually believed 4000 years ago, you can’t get upset when their religious descendants become interested in what you’re doing and you certainly can’t get upset at them for using the same book to guide them in their lives.
    If you’re just upset because they presented papers at the SBL conference that didn’t belong, fine. You’re right and ignore this post. But it seems like you’re arguing against people having religious belief at all, and that’s not very scholarly of you. Academia shouldn’t appeal to invented deities or the lack thereof.

  8. Biblical Studies Carnival 69 (November 2011) | Remnant of Giants Says:

    […] [SBL] Jim Linville (Dr. Jim’s Thinking Shop) simlarly provides a critique of the excessive number of theological and confessional units of non-academic obscurantism polluting […]

  9. Christian Wedemeyer Says:

    Actually, literarily, a good case can be made that you-know-who is the antagonist in “the Bible,” not the protagonist.

    Regardless, should film critics “sing the tune” of every character in the works off of which they “make their living”? That view strikes me as either incoherent or dogmatic.

    • Mike Gantt Says:

      Christian,

      I won’t call your first statement incoherent. However, your “good case” is not as self-evident as you seem to imply.

      As for your second, you’re misapplying the analogy. A good film critic loves movies. That does not mean at all that he gives four stars to every film, but it does mean that he believes movies are good thing. He does not say, “I only care about the mechanics of filmmaking and I am not interested in the audience’s experience.” Such film critics do not exist, because either they or their readers make sure that another career is sought.

      • Christian Wedemeyer Says:

        Who said anything about “self-evident,” Mike? Not me. I merely said a case could be made. While reading more carefully, you’ll also note I said “literarily.” Pro/antagonists are structural roles in narratives, not just the “good/bad guys.” Whether or not the various divinities of “the Bible” are antagonists, they certainly are not the protagonists, with the possible exception of Jesus in some of the gospels. The protagonist is the “lead” in the story, the one who undergoes a fundamental transformation. Presumably, i.e. metaphysically, an eternal divinity could not be so fundamentally transformed in the course of a story. And, regardless–again literarily–I don’t think in fact there is a book wherein s/he does.

        On the contrary, there seems to be a sleight of hand in your rejection of my use of the analogy. For you, the correlate of “film” for the critic seems to be “the Bible.” However, on my reading of the analogy, the Bible (or biblical literature) is merely a sub-genre or (set of) work(s) to be analyzed by the critic of a larger literary genre (“sacred” text) or type of human creation (semiotical practices). Bible may be a speciality (a very popular one, no doubt), like a scholar of literature might specialize in Shakespeare or comic books (or even Superman comic books), but that does not make these latter scholars of, say, Superman, who convene conference panels to discuss how much they admire the Man of Steel. They study an area of human activity of which Superman comics (or Shakespeare) are an exemplar and it is perfectly appropriate to reject the “central premise” that there are super-powered people from outer space vulnerable to pieces of their home planet or that there are fairy royalty in the woods near Athens.

        Regardless, it might be convenient if your perspective wins the day: my wife would be delighted to learn that, henceforth, I only need to teach on Sunday mornings… ;-)

        • Mike Gantt Says:

          I do believe Jesus is the protagonist of the Bible, and in precisely the way you have defined the term – His transformation being from God to man and back to God again.

          Regarding the analogy, if an unbelieving biblical scholar views his situation as similar to the person who has chosen as his life’s work to be an expert on superhero comic books then I think this in and of itself makes a statement which requires no further comment from me.

          As for my perspective, if it were to win the day, no one would go to church on Sunday or any other day. Rather, we would all live life in the constant awareness of our Creator/Redeemer, doing only good to each other, and seeking glory only for Him.

  10. Rebecca Lesses Says:

    Thank you for this blog post. I wrote something similar last year after the SBL, and got slammed for it – but it’s still a big problem. Why can’t these groups simply have their own conferences? When I read through the program book this year it was plain that the Society for Pentecostal Studies had once again created an entire counter-program – one could simply go to all of their sessions and not once interact with a historical-critical approach to the Bible. Why is the SBL enabling groups like this? I believe that our purpose is entirely different from theirs.

    • Dr. Jim Says:

      Rebecca,
      I remember your post and thought you really hit the nail on the head. I do think things might change in the next few years. I’ve been talking to John Kutzko a bit and there are some emended policies in the works, but at present I don’t what they are (I avoid business meetings). In any case, John is on our side, but as he explained it to me, his hand are really tied. The SBL admin cannot break promises and agreements already made and they cannot go over the heads of the program committees. I sense that he is also concerned with not alienating the very many scholars who do good secular work but have religious faith themselves, and I certainly don’t want them to feel unwelcome, either. So, things must proceed at a measured pace. It is good to keep the pressure up, though.

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