Canadian Technology Years Ahead of the Pack

Some astounding scientific news:

After having dug to a depth of 10 feet last year, British scientists found traces of copper wire dating back 200 years and came to the conclusion thattheir ancestors already had a telephone network more than 150 years ago.

Not to be outdone by the Brits, in the weeks that followed, an American archaeologist dug to a depth of 20 feet, and shortly after, a story published in the New York Times:

“American archaeologists, finding traces of 250-year-old copper wire, have concluded that their ancestors already had an advanced high-tech communications network 50 years earlier than the British”.

One week later, Canadian Dept of Mines and Resources in Northern Canada  reported the following:

“After digging as deep as 30 feet in Northern Canada in the Ontario region of Thunder Bay Jack Lucknow, a self-taught archaeologist, reported that he found absolutely fuck all.

Jack has therefore concluded that 250 years ago, Canada  had already gone wireless.

Thanks to Howard V. for the news tip.

President Roosevelt on his first official tour of Canada learns about high speed public transportation.

The Selective Biblical Principles Party Prepares for the Impending Election

In a news conference held at the Tim Hortons across the road from his house in East Armpit, Alberta, Rev. Dr. Hermann Newticks, leader of the new Selective Biblical Principles Party Of Canada, stated that the party has hit the ground sojourning.

“We are the only pro-life, pro-choice party” the leader declared. “We base our lives on the best chosen of all the myriad of biblical principles. Let it be done in politics as it is on the pews.” When asked by a reporter why his party is selective and does not base itself on all biblical principles, Newticks said “I dare anyone to try. You can’t balance all that good, god stuff all at once let alone deal with the kind of questions that arise in the dirty political world. The last politician to try barely got a vote from his own church, and the media kept hounding him about perceived contradictions in his platform. The poor guy went mad and is currently trying to evangelize Monton NB with a sign that says “God, I have FAQs”.

“The Selective Biblical Principles Party is the right choice for selective Canadians because we have the best selection of biblical principles.” Newticks said. The party fully supports the teaching of biblical creationism in the classroom. Rather than just take the standard Genesis 1 and/or 2 option, Newticks said they have selected the God vs. Leviathan theme found in Psalm 74  and Isaiah 27. “It’s more of Made in Canada option since we have so many dragon fossils that keep turning up in Alberta.

When asked whether he thought the SBPP would split the Christian vote that would otherwise go to the Christian Heritage Party, Newticks said “They’re real Christians? Could have fooled me!”

“Canadians, as Christians, need to be more socially attuned”, said Newticks. He described the CHP as “more rightwing than right-hearted and their right hand doesn’t know what their left behind is doing, but not in the biblical, Matthew 6:3 sense, either”.

Rather than trust “that den of thieves, big business” to cure poverty, Newticks says his party has already selected appropriate biblical principles to address the problem. For example, land owning Israelites were forbidden were o harvest all of their crops but required to leave some in the corners so the poor could glean it (Leviticus 19:9-10). Newticks said that this is infinitely more fair and reinforces the values of self-motivation and reliance. Citing the biblical story of Ruth, a tale of a poor woman who finds romance and a lawful wedding while gleaning, and whose grandson from this union was King David, Newticks said that such a program in Canada is the only way out of our current predicament.

“People have been asking for a sign”, said Newticks. “And if they contact our campaign office, we will give them one! They can put it on their lawn or place of business.” As an object lesson in “biblical principle selection” The party leader cautioned about wearing the sign as a frontlet between the eyes. “It pretty big and it would be able to see where you are going.”


Woot! Dr. Jim’s has a new home!

Yes, I’m back after a few hours in limbo-land. Dr. Jim’s has vacated the free WordPress site for my own slice of the internet. Thanks to Mary for doing the actual work.

Sadly, I’ve lost all my site stats in the process so I’m back to 0, but this move should be good. I can have lots of plugins for various in-pluggy purposes.

And comments have been turned back on for your commenting pleasure!

Dr. Jim’s Undergoing Repairs.

I will have to turn off comments for a little while so that Mary, Dr. Jim’s deary sweetie love can move whatever the heck this is to a new home on the internet. All should be up and running in a day or so!



Dr. Jim

Student Conference Shaping Up!

This year’s Research in Religious Studies conference to be held here at the University of Lethbridge April 30 and May 1, is starting to look like it will be another success!

The conference is for undergraduate and MA students (or PhD candidates in the very early years of their programs) in any field of the academic study of religion.

The paper submissions are starting to come in, although we don’t really expect a lot until closer to the deadline. Still, we have already accepted contributions from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, John Carroll University in Ohio, and Trinity Western University in British Columbia, not to mention a number from Alberta and elsewhere!

The paper topics already span the iconography of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha,  a comparison of the mystical philosophies of Sankara and Ibn Arabi (and another paper on the latter), Kali, Kerouac’s Buddhism, and exogamous marriages in Ezra and Nehemiah.

Go here to submit your paper proposal. All we need is a title for the paper and a 200-300 abstract (summary) of the paper. You don’t need to submit the whole thing. For more information, including tips on presenting papers, writing abstracts, and the like, to to our conference blog: Research in Religious Studies.

Our keynote speaker for the banquet on Saturday May 1 is Marco Hilgersom from Lethbridge College, who is one of the most engaging and entertaining speakers we have heard. He formerly taught Buddhism and other courses here at the University of Lethbridge and will be talking about the  many religious studies students: what the heck good is religious studies anyway?

Religious Studies Rules!
Marko Hilgersom

Are you tired of responding to “What are you going to do with that?” or “Are you going to become a pastor?” when you tell people you are a Religious Studies Major? There is a simple reason for devoting your life to a religious studies ma-jor. Religious Studies Rules! Religious studies will not only make you a fantastic dinner guest and more attractive to the opposite sex but it provides the key to a successful life. Where else can you find such a varied approach to knowl-edge? Religious Studies is parts history, philosophy, anthro-pology, psychology, literature, sociology, and fine arts. It is truly the most liberal of the Liberal Arts and the most human of the Humanities. Religious studies majors of the world, unite! All you have to lose is your shame.


Anti-Cancer Underpants

Well, I hope the weather is good for this (or bad, I haven’t quite decided). Jim West, I presume, will see it as total depravity, and that’s enough to (athletically) support it.

Saw this on the U. of Lethbridge’s website, and I cut and pasted it for your convenience.

The University of Lethbridge’s Organization of Residence Students (ORS) will be stripping down to their skivvies and running around campus for charity this weekend.

ORS is hosting its second annual Underwear Affair Run/Walk, a two kilometre run/walk around campus on Saturday, Mar. 26 at Noon.

“The ORS has devoted a lot of time into developing philanthropy projects in the community and the Underwear Affair is our continuation of the groundwork laid by our dedicated team,” says Kyle Hammond, ORS President.

Last year the event attracted over 70 participants and a total of $6,700 was raised and donated to World Vision. There is a $5 fee to participate in the event, with all money raised this year to be donated to the Canadian Cancer Society.

“Many people’s lives have been affected by family or friends that have fought cancer and we feel that it is important to help raise awareness and funds for this issue to help those people in need,” says Hammond.

The run will start in the University of Lethbridge Bus Loop, in front of the Students’ Union Building. Participants will traverse the two-kilometre specified route and end at Patterson Centre where they will enjoy a barbecue and refreshments for their efforts.

For further information, contact the event organizer at

heck, they might as well run around on a Saturday in their undies. Many students come up to the public areas of University Hall (residences are in the lower floors) to get to the cafeteria in their pajamas during the week…

Pants, they were invented for a reason, people!


A Crypto-apologetic Old Testament Textbook

This past week I received from Pearson Higher Education the new edition of John H. Tullock and Mark McEntire, The Old Testament Story (9th Edition: Prentice Hall 2012). It was sent unsolicited and was followed up by an email to see if I would be interested in using it for one of my courses.

The original was published some 3 decades ago and from the 7th edition, I believe, Tullock’s original text has been revised by his colleague at the School of Religion at Belmont University a Christian university in Nashville TN.

No, I’m not going to order it for my classes. If any student asks about it, I will warn then away from it.

The volume has absolutely no indication on its front or back cover of the kind of introductory Old Testament/Hebrew Bible class for which it is intended. Is it possible that it might fit a course in secular university such as the one that employs me to teach? The publisher sent me a copy so one might think so.

At first, the book seems intended for a basic course in the OT with a mind to critical scholarship. The preface begins well:

The purpose of this textbook is to introduce students to the collection of literature from ancient Israel that has, for Christian traditions, become the Old Testament. This task necessitates familiarity with the content of the literature  itself, an awareness of the basic framework of the history and culture of the ancient Near East, and insight from the methods of reading ancient texts that have been developed in contemporary scholarship. (p. xv)

Things go totally off the rails quite quickly, though. By page 3 there is a fudging between the Exodus story and the “Exodus event” and on page 4 we learn that there really was an exodus. How is this supported by contemporary scholarship?  Immediately after this, the authors refer to biblical episodes that did not actually occur but they mention only “etiologies” and “fables” such as that told by the character Jotham in Judges 9:7-15, and not any substantial event in the bibles’s story of Israel.

On page 6 the book’s academic perspective is badly compromised. In discussing the process of creating the Old Testament, the authors write:

Some will be quick to point out that it began with God. Even so, God worked through human agents, and it is the work of these human agents that is being discussed. The common belief that God directly dictated the worlds of the Bible is called plenary verbal inspiration. This view is not assumed here. (emphasis original).

From the point of view of a secular class, it might as well have been, even though Tullcok and McIntire quickly concentrate on human actions in recalling and transmitting traditions which eventually formed the Old Testament. A god has no place being inserted into any point in the reconstructed history of a text, or any other causal chain. While it would be natural to do that within confessional circles, it is really anathema to naturalistic social sciences and humanities.

Also on p. 6:

Finally, someone conceived the idea, through what religious people people call inspiration, that the stories of God’s dealing with the people needed to be written down or put into a complete story so that they could preserved.

Here again pietism slips into the discussion. That someone decided that old stories needed to be collected is fine, it happens a lot in religions, but is it the same process that believers would call “inspiration” or are there two different processes, one acknowledged by secular research and another by “inspirationists” (to coin a label)? What purpose can there be to conflate the two perceptions but to unnecessarily legitimize believe in a text that is supposed to teach how to analyze beliefs?

Page 10 discusses why an academic approach is worthwhile as opposed to the alternative “‘Why not just accept it as it is’ and includes “theologians” alongside redaction critics, archaeologists and so forth. Included in this camp are “those who try to look at the message of the Bible as a whole”. Now, I wonder what that “message” might be? That a cobbled together collection of diverse texts as a “whole” message is a product of tradition, and so it that “message” is is not really there to study outside of the study of the early Jewish and Christian thought. How Jews and Christians invented, transmitted, and continue to invent new “messages” for the Bible to convey is the real subject of examination, and not any “message” in and of itself.

The next two pages present the question of the authorship of the Pentateuch. Citing the difficulty in knowing exactly what the ancient label for these five books, “The books of Moses” actually mean, T. and M. write:

Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch thus turns out to be a tradition of unknown origin. Because of this, it is difficult to construct rational arguments for or against this idea.

Really? How about the difficulty in ascertaining the existence of a Moses, the internal contradictions within the Pentateuch, the increasing recognition that much of the biblical material is not nearly as old as once thought, the wholly speculative nature of claims of a long oral transmission before the Pentateuch traditions were recorded in writings? rather than present modern scholarship, the books seems to filter and qualify  it to avoid the worst impact on the faithful students.

Just this brief survey of some issues I have with the first chapter should demonstrate how ill-suited this volume is for the secular classroom. Many more abound thoughout the text:

Joseph could not live forever, nor could one expect the Hyksos rulers to dominate Egypt forever. Joseph died, and the Hyksos were overthrown. As native Egyptians regained control of their government, the circumstances of the Hebrews changed. (p. 64)

This equation of the Hyksos with the Hebrews is horribly simplified. The historicity of Joseph and the “original seventy persons in the family of Jacob” is also strongly implied, something totally exceeds the limits of real scholarship. Such rationalized paraphrase of the biblical text that has learned nothing over the past few decades of methodological self-criticism within biblical scholarship.  Cheap pietism also abounds. On the same page as the above quote, one reads

Moses is the major human character in the Exodus narratives but they are designed not to glorify Moses, but rathe to glorify the LORD, the God of Israel. It was the LORD of history and the master of the created order who brought Israel out of Egypt.

Why the pious rhetoric in the scholarly voice? Tullock and McEntire cannot here be speaking of what the Bible says about the deity in the exodus myth. A close look at the descriptions of God can make this clear.

“The LORD, the God of Israel” is a biblical construction (although “God” might be more accurately rendered with a lowercase g). As any one with  a single serious course in the Hebrew Bible (let alone biblical Hebrew) should know, “LORD” (with uppercase or small caps) is typically the way the divine name YHWH (Yahweh) is represented in English translations that wish to follow the Jewish custom of substituting the word adonai “my lord” to avoid profaning YHWH. The problem is with the second use of LORD. Note the author’s dual references to the deity.

LORD of history / master of the created order.

“LORD of history” is not a biblical epithet at all and one wonders what “Yahweh of history” could possibly mean. Tullock and McEntire’s sentence is hardly an accurate depiction of how the Exodus narratives describe or name the deity. Rather, their epithets refer to the “biblical” deity they believe in. The expression indicates that they subscribe that modern Christian myth that the divine is revealed through the history of the Israelite people and that the Bible reflects this “historical” reality. “LORD of history” must have its origin in such a myth as it makes no sense whatsoever on any kind of academic level. The divine name, regardless of how it is is represented in English as “LORD” is not a real synonym for “master”, but that is how our authors seem to be using it.

That Pearson’s sales rep decided that I would consider a book that maintains that there is a god behind the writing of the Old Testament is a product of the unacknowledged border between scriptural study and secular academic biblical study. Sales reps should know their market and their products and Pearson’s seems to know neither. I won’t blame him except as an accessory to a textbook industry that recognizes no distinction in the makeup of its market for books on the Bible between confessional and secular schools. But this should change.

I checked the online order page for this book from Pearson Higher Education. Its list price is $104.00 and there is no indication there of the Christian perspective of the authors. It is sold for $83.06 at What is interesting here is that some of the online reviews fault the book for its allegedly “extreme liberal” bias and for buying into the documentary hypothesis! I wonder how many people mislead by these reviews bought the book thinking they were getting a fairly secular introduction the Old Testament! The reviews and the lack of accurate descriptions of the book make this a real possibility.

Pearson is probably not alone in mislabelling, or perhaps better, under-labelling their products. The situations isn’t likely to change until people start speaking out.  So, here is the response to Pearson’s representative I sent just before posting this.

Thanks for thinking about me in sending me the review copy of the 9th edition of Tullock and McEntire’s The Old Testament Story. I’m sorry to report that I find the book entirely unacceptable for my introductory class in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. My primary objection is that the presupposes that the readers will accept the existence of a deity at work in the history of ancient Israel. Although the authors are hardly “fundamentalists” or “literalists”, they remain more conservative than liberal in their beliefs and this causes unacceptable compromises of academic standards. As the University of Lethbridge is a fully secular university, I  cannot in good conscious require my students to purchase this volume.
There is no indication on the volume or your online marketing for this book that the author’s take a confessional stance, but it is quite obvious when the book itself is read. I would recommend that your marketing people begin to make a distinction between secular and confessionally oriented books. In teh very least, it would save your company the expense of mailing complementary copies to people who have no use for the volumes.
That being said, I would still be interested in receiving updates on future Pearson titles that are more up my alley.

See my comments on some other introductions to the Hebrew Bible and their treatment of myth.

And my comment on declining an offer of contributing to a book intended for a confessional audience.


Ladies, please keep Jesus out of your undies.

Ah, yes, the hand of God!

Hat tip to Craig M. who posted this video on facebook.

Cafe Press

And then there is this video that has been all around the internet lately

It does make you wonder

Of course, you don’t want Satan in your underpants, either!

How graduate students get to class

Joel Watts, who is always late for class, and has to hurry:

Scott Bailey, who refuses to go for that canned MP3 music and prefers do it his own way!

Categories: Fun

1 Comment

More on the (Secular) Society of Biblical Literature

It’s good to see this discussion about secularism and the Society of Biblical Literature developing since I first posted on the subject on March 13. Since then, Scott Bailey has a great post on the topic and there are numerous long comments there by others. Much of it is trying to clear up John Hobbins’ misrepresentations and misunderstandings (t o no avail, apparently), but there are a lot of substantial points are made along the way. James McGrath has a post too and there are some substantial comments.  I discussed very briefly some of the issues in a post on the 16th that predominantly deals with Hobbin’s misreading of my original post and I promised a longer reply to some other reactions, and so this is little essay should go some way to fulfill that promise.

At the outset,  I need to restate some things that are often overlooked in the heat of the discussion in which popular misconceptions sometimes come to the fore. So let me state clearly:

1) Secularism does not equal atheism or anti-religion.

Secularism, of course, can mean different things to different people, and the members of the Secular Biblical Criticism steering committe themselves disagree on its boundaries and what, if any, term might be a better replacement. During the Secular Biblical Criticism’s group’s initial planning session in New Orleans in 2009, before the steering committee (William Arnal, Zeba Crook, Randy Reed, Johanna Stiebert and myself) was chosen, we had a good discussion on what to call ourselves. Our choice of terms is still debated on our private email list which now has around 20 members. Our recent discussion have to some extent confirmed our earlier choice as the least inappropriate of any alternative.

“Non-confessional”, a term I often use, is not ideal since it indicates what we do not do, instead of what we do. “Scientific” was suggested, but it carries specific connotations that cannot really cover the full range of sub-disciplines and approaches we feel are integral to biblical criticism. The use of “critical” as a label is, for many in our group, completely redundant, as any scholarship is necessarily critical, and there cannot be an uncritical scholarship. As some on our large email list have pointed out, some confessional groups use the term “critical” to define their approach to their scriptures, so it is a hotly contested term.  Other terms bandied about included “humanistic”, “humanist”, “analytic”, but none really seem to fit the bill.

One of our group asked in a recent email to consider our problem from this angle: how odd do these disciplines sound: “Humanist Shakespeare Studies. Non-Confessional African History. Analytical Homeric Criticism.” This is the essence of the problem we see see with the current academic landscape surrounding the study of the Bible, its producers, and consumers throughout the ages. It is an issue that does not arise in most of the humanities and social sciences too often and scholars working in these fields do not have to identify themselves over and against “confessional” perspectives. Within Religious Studies, such matters arise more often but mostly in the areas which overlap with the interests of the sub-discipline of biblical studies (e.g., history and thought of Christianity, Judaism, religion in the modern world). For much of religious studies, however, the boarders are relatively easy to identify.

In biblical, Christian or Jewish studies, however, “scholarship”, “critical” etc. are all used by people working within theological contexts whose research contributions employ as premises the existence of a historically active deity, the possibility of miracles, and the historicity of biblical narratives for which no external corroboration can be found. There must be a way to identify work that is not built on such religious belief.

We picked the word “secular” and, as I’ve noted above, it is understood in different ways in various contexts. What I mean by secular, and I think the majority of the committee won’t have serious reservations about it, is this: discourses that seeks naturalistic explanations for the products of human experience, thought and culture, including religion. These discourses, therefore, stand out side of any particular religious world view.

To some people, the word “secular” evokes a hostility to religion or, worse, a denigration of religious people. The SBC committee does not imply anything like this. Nor does “secular” mean for us a view that implies the impossibility of there being a deity but includes agnostic positions or the bracketing of faith commitments for the sake of an academic argument.

One concern that many in our group have is that any term we use to label ourselves has the potential to be misread by others. Given the sharp polemics in the public sphere over religion, which spans science education, politics and more, virtually any term we could have settled on would be taken by some as battle cry against religion and the integrity of religious people. As one correspondent in the email discussions pointed out, even if we found a suitable term that is currently is not interpreted by the faithful as an attempt to demonize them or their religion within a year it would be!

But let us take a lesson from scholarship, shall we? “Myth”, in its popular usage, is a term that has negative, disparaging evaluations of a story (i.e., “lie” or “error”). In academic usage, however, it regularly means something else entirely, and when scholars call the Puranas to be collections of Hindu myths they are not indicating that these stories are to be insulted. So too with academic uses of “secular” (or “humanistic” for that matter).

Following from this:

2) Secular scholarship represents the majority of work done under the SBL’s auspices at the meetings and certainly in terms of its publication efforts.

We did not intend to imply by our group name that we would be the only people doing secular biblical criticism.  We certainly are under no misconception about that. What the group is intended to do is to talk about the necessity of secular perspectives as a part of the critical examination of the Bible and the negative impact on this work from the existing unclear boundaries between itself and confessional approaches that do not bracket out the content of faith commitments.

3) People who work for denominational colleges or are believers can be, and often are, very good scholars and do a lot of work fully in tune with what we mean by “secular”.

This point cannot be under-emphasized. Considerable amounts of the best scholarship on the Bible is done by believers who work in a wide range of institutions and everyone in the SBC committee and our supporters know this adn will freely acknowledge it publicly. Much of this work is fully at home in a purely secular setting as well.


I hope the above discussion goes some way in alleviating the concerns  James McGrath seems to have about our views concerning the many scholars who do work in confessional institutions. I also hope that this clears up a few issues that arise from his post in which he asks his readers if the SBL should  “simply allow secular, atheist and other views to have their own sessions to[sic]?” As noted, atheists and secular scholars already have sessions. What is lacking, however, is a forum to talk about secularism.

McGrath certainly has some sympathy with my original post but he also makes the valid observation that the scholars who work in faith-based institutions do their work essentially in the service of the church. He seems to be a bit wary about our views on this situation. He writes:

At present, my inclination is to view the matter thus: I don’t mind other people doing things that I don’t personally find valuable, as long as (1) there is academic rigor; and (2) all viewpoint are free to hold their program units. And at present,  there does indeed seem to be legitimate cause for concern in both these areas.

Each member of the SBC committee or those in the larger group of supporters has their own sense of what is the most interesting or relevant topics to study and each probably has a few subject areas that are considered of dubious merit, yet we are committed to defending a great level of diversity within the SBL if there is, as McGrath puts it, “academic rigor”. Where we would part company, however, is over the issue of faith-based work, regardless of its academic rigor. But let us not forget that we do not construe all work done by Christians or Jews in confessional institutions to be inadmissible, but only some of it.

My personal view is that if the details of these scholars’ specific pieces of work does not require a faith commitment to accept or if there is no challenge to the author’s faith committments if the work is refuted on rational, academic grounds, then there is no problem presenting this work at the SBL meetings, in its publications or any other academic venue. I certainly do not wish to give the impression that all of a scholar’s efforts must pass our test before any of it is presentable!  The SBL should judge the merits of each paper presented to it on an individual basis and ignore the religious affiliations of its author. We should judge the work and not the worker.

Now, there clearly are  conceptions of the Bible, the Church and ancient Israel within Christianity and Judaism that do require belief in a deity to make any sense  and upon such premises many books and articles are produced. To my mind, the products of such thought, regardless of how well thought out they are, are hardly compatible with the way the Bible is studied in the majority of SBL sessions in which acceptance or rejection of scholarly conclusions do not depend upon religious belief.

The Society of Biblical Literature is a member of the American Council of Learned Societies whose mission is “the advancement of humanistic studies in all fields of learning in the humanities and the social sciences and the maintenance and strengthening of relations among the national societies devoted to such studies.” The ACLS is a secular organization of secular societies. What the SBC group wishes to do is to promote these secular academic values as essential to the role of the SBL in its own mission to promote biblical scholarship.

Having said this, let me repeat that any restriction on the scope of the SBL that the SBC might imply by this is directed at specific works of research on an individual basis and not on the individual researchers or their institutions. Thus, some of the output of one scholar may be welcomed into the SBL and other papers may not.

We need to remember that the Society of Biblical Literature is not the only venue for the products of careful examination of the Bible, and the SBL cannot represent the totality of research areas of all of the institutions for which its members work. It already is selective. Most likely a large number of faculty who belong to the SBL (including myself)  have academic interests that are outside of the scope of biblical studies or put their education to use in non-academic areas (e.g., political commentary, or various forms of activism). Since the SBL is essentially secular, we feel that it needs to view confessional study  of scripture as beyond its purview as well.

It needs to be remembered that even as it as it is today the SBL is not host to any and all thought about the Bible. The SBL probably excludes more than it includes. But should it be a free for all? McGrath understandably argues that  “academic rigor” should be the determine the admissibility of a program but here I would have to differ.  Intellectual sophistication and can occur within religious contexts that seem to an outsider to be quite conservative or even “fundamentalist”. But can a scholarly society otherwise dedicated to the social sciences and humanities entertain papers that take the existence of Abraham or Noah “on faith” that the Bible’s God would not mislead the reader? Should these  be allowed? And if so, what about a historical Noah or Adam? Where should inclusiveness end? It must end somewhere if the term “scholarship” is to mean something.

In my original post on the 13th, I mentioned a number of program units that engage in confessional scholarship.  I need to ask now why the supporters of these units thought they needed this particular kind of unit and recognition by the SBL. My sense is that such units are attractive to some members because it allows the bracketing out of some of the secular methodologies and critical questioning of the Bible in which the majority of sessions relish. But if critical questioning is curtailed in particular units, are they really deserving of inclusion, regardless of whatever intellectual rigor guides the particular papers?

For example, the Christian Theology and Bible session will be hosting three sessions in San Francisco on “Life in the Spirit”, one of which will deal with Jesus’ “life in the Spirit”. For the supports of this group Jesus truly had a “life in the Spirit”. As I said earlier, this is the stuff of modern Christian mythology (in its positive academic sense) about Jesus, yet in these sessions it is simply taken as historical reality beyond doubt. Mythology has displaced academic integrity.  Indeed, for one session they would interpret “Christological Controversies surrounding Nicea in light of Jesus’ (and others’) experience of the Spirit”.  I wonder if this program unit would entertain papers or the presiders acknowledge objections from the spectators that this “life in the spirit” is a modern phenomenon being read into the past, or that the biblical evidence of what Jesus’ own spiritual life was like is a tendentious construct not to be accepted at face value?

The Homiletics and Biblical Studies unit advertises itself as encouraging “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.” This group also recognizes that some critical exegesis proses problems for the “proclamation” of the divine word. But why is an academic society that sees itself as part of the social sciences and humanities interested in  proclamation in the first place? I can see how scholars who have an interest in actually proclaiming (rather than just analyzing proclamations ethnographically)  may wish to talk about the intersection of their two careers. But the proper venue for that discussion would be in conferences of theologians and pastors, not secular academia.

Similarly, I’ve noted in my original post how the Bible and Pastoral Theology group construes the Bible as something different from “human texts”. But Pastoral Theology is a vocation that exists within the confines of Christianity. It is properly something that could be studied but its practice is something beyond what the SBL can legitimately engage without compromising its own scope of analysis and critique. How would this group’s participants take to requests for a demonstration of the Bible’s non-human nature? That is a claim that is based on faith, not scholarship. Yet, the SBL will freely treat religious texts from other traditions as “human texts”. The status quo in the SBL implicitly ranks the legitimacy of various religions. Rather than have a free for all, the best option is to treat all scriptures, all claims to inspiration and revelation, and all religious formulations as human and historically contingent products.

The “Theological Hermeneutics of Christian Scripture” unit openly declares the Bible to be divine revelation and Christians to be “God’s People”. The group claims that critical approaches to the Bible have limits. But then, let them explore the openness of faith in the context of their own churches and meetings of theologians. A secular society committed to those “limited” methodologies is hardly the place. Rather, it is the THCS unit that places limits on what scholarship can or can not study or critique, and as such, I cannot see how they can justify their existence as part of the SBL. Indeed, their claim about “God’s people” again implicitly ranks religions.

When I first began blogging about my dissatisfaction with SBL, I was wondering if it would be best to avoid the 2009 meeting in New Orleans. I went through the program book and found a listing for  paper by Margaret B. Adam in the  “Christian Theological Research Fellowship”, which holds meeting in affiliation with the SBL. The abstract for “Catastrophe Transformed: Suffering Together as the Dependent Body of Christ” includes this:

Then, when pain does come, when life ceases to go according to plan, it seems unprecedented, unfair, and catastrophic. This modern autonomous self thus suffers the incongruously heightened vulnerability of an endangered illusory self-sufficiency, an illusion to which the gospel offers an alternative both truer and more fully human: baptized into the body of a suffering Lord, they unite in interdependence; their solidarity equips them to endure suffering…

I cannot believe that anyone would permit a speaker  in a 21st century academic meeting to assess ideas according to a scale  of partial to “fully human”.

Many people have expressed concerns the SBC is seeking to limit opportunities and restrict scholarship. In my view we are doing something quite the opposite. We are defending the integrity of scholarship against those who would place limits on critically examining their own religious views.

To close this overly long post, let me just say recent conversations with a variety of people in person, in blogs, and through email have given me a good bit of hope that the SBL can sort itself out, and to some extent, I regret some of the severity of what I wrote on the 13th. I am certainly not the first person to criticize the SBL’s welcoming of confessional program units. In recent years, the issue was becoming very public and the SBL issued its own response to Ronald Hendel’s well publicized refusal to renew his membership. But length of the arguments about the secular nature of the SBL should have been an indication to the program committee that critical self reflection on this was necessary and that people willing to talk openly about this should be accommodated.

In one regard, perhaps there has been a misunderstanding about the process of approving a new unit. As the SBC committee understood the process, the application requires the steering committee of a prospective unit to submit a two year plan with two sessions for each year. We did this last year only to have the application returned for additional clarification on what we meant by “secular”. We reapplied this year and were told that the application was rejected but we were granted one of the two sessions as a trial. There seemed to be nothing in the SBL literature that this was a possible or likely preliminary step in the approval status. I and some others took this perhaps too harshly, and perhaps if the SBL in future iterations of its documents could spell this possibility out, future misunderstandings and hard feelings could be averted. Be that as it may, I still remain a little dumbfounded that a ostensibly secular society that embraces confessional work would think that a discussion of secularity needed a trial run. As I suggested early, “secularism” has become the elephant in the room and the SBL has not done itself any favours by letting the situation persist for so long.