I’m grateful for the supportive comments, observations and constructive reservations that some folks have expressed concerning my post on the 13th called When an Academic Society Does the Church’s Work. Can Elephants in the University be Academic? It got noticed by Daniel McClellan on his blog while James McGrath had a bit more to say at Exploring Our Matrix. Between his original post and comments by himself and others there and in my original post, there are a number of issues that I will need to address and expand on. Hopefully I will have that posted tomorrow sometime. There were serious observations and deserve a serious and cordial reply.
One comment on James’ blog, however, merits more of a scathing reply than a cordial one. John Hobbins’s objections to my post are so laughably misrepresentative of what I wrote and so badly misread the larger issues which I addressed that an ad hominem attack seems more appropriate than any kind of point by point rebuttal. But what the hell?
I find it hard to fathom that Jim Linville sees fit to imply that the following SBL Annual Meeting Program Committee is guilty of a bias against “secular” biblical scholarship:
Francisco Lozada, Jr. Committee Chair, Brite Divinity School
Tamara Eskenazi, Hebrew Union College
Robin Jensen, Divinity School, Vanderbilt University
Jeffrey K. Kuan, Theological School, Drew University
Halvor Moxnes, University of Oslo
Jodi Magness, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Laura Nasrallah, Harvard Divinity School
Is he that unacquainted with the persona and academic profiles of said scholars?
Ok, so according to Hobbins, I imply that I’m the victim of a wilful bias by poor scholars. Here’s what I ACTUALLY WROTE:
Among the ranks of the SBL are many devout Christians and Jews, and truth be told, they make their fair share of valuable contributions to the secular study of the Bible and its cultural contexts.
When I named the people on the committee I said this:
I don’t want to get all conspiracy-theory or impugn the integrity of any of the program committee members but here is the make up of the SBL’s Annual Meeting Program Committee.
That some of these scholars work in divinity schools and the like does NOT mean they are not real scholars.
I then said that committee reaches the wrong decision, not that they are incompetent or malicious. Where is the claim that there was a conspiracy? Not in my words, but in delusions of Hobbins’ mind.
Secondly, Linville seems to define secular biblical scholarship in contradictory ways:
(1) When scholars for whom the Bible is a cultural resource come to conclusions he or some other scholar who thinks of the Bible as so much rot might concur with, they are doing secular scholarship; if not, it is faith-based;
(2) When scholars make comments of the kind Avalos is famous for (see below), we are being offered secular biblical scholarship of the highest order and of the greatest academic rigor.
Neither definition is persuasive.
This, of course, is complete bullshit. First of all, I don’t think the Bible is “so much” rot, and people for whom the Bible is important culturally and religiously disagree with me all the time and typically those objections to my position are quite thoroughly secular. Hobbins’ complaint is directed a giant stawman.
As far as my alleged second “definition” goes, where in my post did I state or imply that Hector Avalos’ work was the finest ever produced? The only reference to Avalos is one little note that he was the chair of the steering committee. Let me repeat: CHAIR, not “hero”, “role model”, “dictator”, “prophet”, “Pope”, or “guru”. He’s just a very well-educated guy with some ideas I agree with and some over which I must beg to differ.
For example, Avalos takes a stronger position than I on the society changing role of biblical academics. I don’t really see my obligation as a tenured academic to end the cultural hegemony of the Bible and Bible based religions in the Western world. One of the points that Avalos makes in The End of Biblical Studies is that I should work towards that goal. But I disagree.
The same would go for all the members of committee of the proposed group. We share some ideas and we have a lot to quibble over. When we first met in 2009 there were all sorts of ideas being presented and few met with complete agreement. Rather, there were compromises and as the informal chair of the meeting, Avalos facilitated these discussions with a lot of flexibility and openness. And that, I think, was why he was later elected chair of the steering committee (and the fact that he has experience working on SBL committees).
I don’t think Hobbins even knows what secular means: it does NOT mean “anti-religious” or even “atheistic”. Believers do secular academic work all the time. Indeed, the majority of believers presenting papers in the SBL national meeting are DOING SECULAR WORK, because their methods and conclusions do not depend on specific religious conceptualizations or premises. Rather, the methods of analysis are easily understandable, accessible and open to someone from any religious tradition or no particular religious beliefs. Those methods and premises can be used by others of any religous tradition without forcing them to “convert” or otherwise adopt religious views.
And, importantly, a critique of those methods do not amount to a critique of whatever religious bellief the scholar may have. In fact, Hobbins himself has probably done secular biblical criticism. I’m almost certain of it. On his website lists these two publications (among others).
“Regularities in Ancient Hebrew Verse: A New Descriptive Model” in ZAW 119 (2007) 564-585
“Resurrection in Daniel and Other Writings at Qumran,” in The Book of Daniel: Composition and Reception. Volume Two (John J. Collins, Peter W. Flint, eds., Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 83/2, Leiden: Brill, 2001) 395-420
I haven’t read either paper, but I can’t believe that the Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft would publish anything but fairly secular scholarship nowadays. The “Regularities in Ancient Hebrew Verse” should be there for anyone to see, regardless whatever deity or deities the reader does or does not believe in. The utility of the model he proposes would rest not on doctrine or revelation but logic and reason. As far as the resurrection paper, there is no reason to suppose here that religious belief has unduly clouded Hobbins’ appraisal of the resurrection theme in Daniel or other early Jewish literature. Perhaps Hobbins thinks Daniel is inspired in some way, but I don’t automatically think that the acceptance of his conclusions about Daniel would require me to believe in a similar kind of revelation. Moreover, one might say his conclusions in that paper are wrong without implying that he should abandon his religion on logical or any other grounds.
My main beef is that the SBL hosts many sessions in which the methods and premises are firmly grounded in religious beliefs and to really enter the discussion one must adopt at least some of those beliefs. In many cases, the level of commitment is pretty high. This include regarding the Bible as divine revelation or construing particular religious groups as being the only ones with a proper relationship with a purportedly real god. I do not think that this is all that compatible with or complementary to the way most scholarship into religion is conducted. It also raises the question of the privileging of some religions’ intellectual engagement with their own scriptures while leaving others out. As I rather playfully implied in my post, religious studies academic societies are unlikely to welcome papers predicated on the belief that human sacrifice can influence the weather. Yet such were the beliefs of some people. On a different note, how much of the history of pre-European colonial North America must be predicated on LDS beliefs about Semetic refugees reaching this continent? Only within the halls of Mormon dominated institutions would that be at all tenable. It would be excluded by secular academic institutions. Why do we allow some religions to “talk shop” in our meetings but not others?
I also faulted the SBL for tolerating this privileging of (some) religion while being reluctant to include discussions about secularity of scholarship and the impact of confessional discourses embedded within biblical scholarship and the SBL. Anyway, more on this will be the subject of a later post.
To return to my original post of last Sunday, please recall that I complained about the “Bible in Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions”. My complaint was that membership in this program unit appeared to be restricted to “biblical professors and scholars from the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions”. This I see as an offensive sectarianism and exclusiveness that serves no academic purpose. But of the abstracts published for the 2010 meeting, here is what I said:
The list of papers in the 2010 program books was, however, reassuring. From my quick survey, they all seemed to have a good scholarly perspective on how the Orthodox Church related to its scripture.
So, here I am freely asserting that these Christians can have scholarly perspectives on their own traditions. My only complaint is that they are not opening the forum to non-Orthodox scholars.
And this raises a larger issue of misunderstanding what the proposed group is about. We are NOT supposing that only we are doing secular scholarship! Hardly. Rather, we just think that the SBL needs a venue for discussing the question of secularity in scholarship and the degree to which this is compromised by the current state of the SBL. The point of my post was to complain that the SBL program committee had made a mistake in not agreeing to let these discussions go forward without restriction. This is an issue that I will return to in a post in a day or so, but let’s get back to Hobbins.
After his misbegotten presentation of my “contradictory”definitions” of “secular biblical scholarship”, he closes with this:
Famous Avalosian quotes:
“Shakespeare’s works have no intrinsic value.”
“[T]he Bible has no intrinsic value or merit.”
“I get paid to do what I love, though my conscience is increasingly telling me to do something more beneficial for humanity.”
So it’s not really about me but Hector Avalos, who seems to have really gotten up our poor, confused, Hobbins’ nose and so make such a convenient red herring to hang around the neck of his stawman. Regardless of what one thinks of The End of Biblical Studies (one of the most misunderstood recent books in biblical studies), Avalos has made more than a few contributions to biblical studies in a number of areas. None of this matters to Hobbins, of course, who so self-righteously accuses me of impugning the dignity and work of others.
And what the hell is wrong with the three “famous Avalos quotes”? Besides not providing any context for them, Hobbins seems to think they are simply wrong headed. But is this really so?
Would Hobbins please enlighten us as to the “intrinsic” value of Shakespeare or the Bible? I’m really interested in this since my recent book on the mythic and poetics nature of Amos has a number of quotes form the Bard. And, perhaps Hobbins could also explain how people who write books on the biblical poetics really think of the “Bible as so much rot”?
Cultural values and appreciation of art are rather subjective and ethno-centric, not to mention class-centric. What intrinsic value could Shakespeare have for someone from China or someone who never reads much? Would native English speaker of African ancestry really think Shakespeare is all that important? Shakespeare, or the Bible, for that matter, hasn’t got a lot to say about a lot of people’s lives. The “intrinsic” value is a constructed value. There is a huge discussion in literary circles about the “canon” of English literature. And why is it wrong for an atheist to reflect on the social impact of his work? Are atheists just monsters with no feeling?
a Jew an atheist eyes? Hath not a Jew an atheist hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means,
warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer
as a Christian is?
Are atheists devoid of a social consciousness, without morality or concern? Certainly some Christians have created such an atheistic boogey man to feed their own sense of self-importance (as many atheists have done to religious folk). Is John Hobbins among them? Or is he just rash and simplistic?
There are more things in Avalos and humanity, Hobbins
Than are dreamt of in your fallacies.
No, its probably worse than short-sightedness. In my first post, I castigated a number of overtly theological groups within the SBL, but Hobbins totally ignores the substance of those complaints. Rather, he so badly misrepresents what I wrote that I find it hard to believe that it is anything but dishonesty (could someone with advanced degrees really be that careless?) And then he goes on the attack against Avalos. Well done, John Hobbins, putting your loathing of a self-imposed bogey man ahead of your brain. You certainly stood up for real scholarship there, well done indeed.
(John, that was sarcasm: look it up before you blame Hector for telling me to use words you don’t understand).
Some other (and more careful and honest) readers, have taken me to task over some other issues. As I have noted, they will have to wait a little for the proper response that they deserve, but I’m working on it.