Posted on March 13, 2011 at 12:04 pm by Dr. Jim
The Society of Biblical Literature is the world’s largest academic society dedicated to the study of Jewish and Christian bibles’, the cultural contexts in which it was produced, and the history of its interpretation over the centuries. Within the scope of its work falls the work of thousands of historians, linguists, Assyriologists, archaeologists, philosophers, and ideological critics, among many others. Its members do a tremendous amount of good academic work that is at least the equal to the critical work done any other product of ancient cultures and religion.
The Society holds it annual meeting in November and there are literally thousands of people in attendance to hear papers on topics ranging from ancient near eastern cultural practices to feminist critiques of modern religion. Last year’s meeting was in Atlanta and this year it will be in San Francisco.
The SBL is the primary organization for the critical study of the Bible. There really is no international organization of a comparable scope and size. Yet, the SBL lives in two worlds: the theological and the secular. 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.
Alongside the many secular sessions are those organized specifically for in-house Christian theological discussions. In the opinion of a number of observers, this number is growing (I don’t know the institutional history enough to be certain of this). In the mind of many, the mix of secular and confessional compromises the academic standards of the society as a whole as there is a widespread lack of discrimination between the secular and sectarian.
This is the proverbial elephant in the room. The standard view is that it would not do to criticize a presenter’s thesis on the grounds that it seems supported more by religious belief than rules of evidence. Many scholars, even atheist ones, are willing to turn a blind eye to it all. Others, however, are not.
Every once in a while the issue blows up but is quickly buried again under a barrage of rhetoric about the virtue of being open to multiple viewpoints, about fears of censorship and so forth. Most recently, there was an uproar last year over Ronald Hendel’s very public resignation from the SBL In Farewell to SBL, published in the quasi-scholarly Biblical Archaeology Review that has a wide readership among SBL members
When I learned of the new move to include fundamentalist groups within the SBL, I wrote to the director and cited the mission statement in the SBL’s official history: “The object of the Society is to stimulate the critical investigation of the classical biblical literatures.”3 The director informed me that in 2004 the SBL revised its mission statement and removed the phrase “critical investigation” from its official standards. Now the mission statement is simply to “foster biblical scholarship.” So critical inquiry—that is to say, reason—has been deliberately deleted as a criterion for the SBL. The views of creationists, snake-handlers and faith-healers now count among the kinds of Biblical scholarship that the society seeks to foster. [sadly, the whole article is not available for free]
The SBL published a response to correct some points of Hendel’s claims about the SBL’s institutional history but then added that it
has seen no inherent contradiction between “critical investigation” and including in the conversation “all interested in biblical literature,” a perspective that is consistent with the SBL’s current mission statement: “to foster biblical scholarship.”
The uproar lasted several months with some claiming that Hendel wanted an academic “thought police” . There was a failed motion to insert the phrase “critical scholarship” into the SBL’s mission statement at the annual business meeting but I’m not sure of the all the details.
Before Hendel sent in his resignation, another group of scholars were planning to raise the issue of theological work done in the SBL and in the wider guild of Biblical scholarship by proposing to the SBL a program unit called Secular Biblical Criticism. We organized a steering committee and went through all the hoops of the application process. I’m on the steering committee and the Chair is Hector Avalos of Iowa State Unviersity. The rest of the committee members:
William Arnal (University of Regina)
Zeba Crook (Carleton University)
Randy Reed (Appalachian State University)
Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds)
Our efforts have made little progress but only go to show how bad the situation really is.
I’m not sure how others on the steering committee would feel about me venting in public about the notice we received the other day from the SBL Program Committee but I’m pissed off.
We originally applied to the SBL to form the new group well ahead of the deadline for consideration for the 2010 meeting in Atlanta, but little was done. We received a response indicating that authorities-that-be were concerned weren’t quite sure what we meant by “secular” and were reluctant to give the green light to proposals that advocated “normative” reading strategies. We replied by answering all their concerns but no decision was taken in time for 2010. So, the decision has finally been made and we are essentially on probation.
Our application was denied but “gauge the extent to which a new unit is needed, the Committee supports a special session for the 2011 Annual Meeting.” Well whoopee. We had to provide 2 session proposals for each of two years to provide a rationale for the new group, and we did this, with scholars from North America and Europe contributing on a wide diversity of topics. The one they accepted was the most programmatic, but still quite specialized, dealing with the issue of the secular nature of historical-critical scholarship. I won’t reproduce the line-up for the session since the steering committee hasn’t accepted SBL’s “invitation” to host this “special” session.
I should also admit to some level of sour grapes since the proposed session my paper was to be in has been rejected. Alas, but it would probably have been the more controversial of the two.
Frauds, Pious Frauds and Biblical Origins
The session explore the extent to which “pious frauds” should be a proper category for religious studies, and it would encompass genres ranging from vaticinia ex eventu to claims about the origin of social and legal institutions (e.g., Josiah’s Book of the Law).
My paper was:
“The Royal Scam: Josiah, Joseph Smith and Believing one’s own Pious Fraud.”
Oh well, that paper IS going to show up on the SBL program at some point. And perhaps the paper I proposed to the Bible, Myth and Myth Theory section will be accepted (and even if not, that program unit is one of the most necessary the SBL has). In any case, I’m not missing an excuse to go to San Fran!
I can appreciate that the SBL was inundated with new proposals and that many of these would have been quite strong. There have already been some justifiable complaints about too many new units of limited appeal (April DeConick wrote in late 2009, and I was among a number of other bloggers responding). What bothers me, however, is that there really isn’t any reason for our rejection provided and the perceived lack of a need for the unit wasn’t the main concern given for rejecting our first application last year.
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.
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
That some of these scholars work in divinity schools and the like does NOT mean they are not real scholars. But when one looks at the SBL’s list of program units for the November meeting in San Francisco I think it is pretty darn obvious that there is a need for our perspective adn the committee were wrong to think it needed to prove itself. And given how much the pro-god camp is represented at the SBL, room should have been made.
As usual, there are a whole host of fascinating sessions for the upcoming meeting in S. F. that I won’t have time to go to, and a number of others on issues that are important but don’t hold any particular interest for me. Then there are some which I don’t really see the point behind, probably because I don’t quite understand what the heck they are all about.
And then there are God’s cheerleading sections.
Now, I’m not talking about the society’s bizzarre fascination with allowing religious groups to hold their meetings at the same time with the SBL and to share the SBL’s organizational machine. They are bad enough. No, I’m talking about the even more bizzarre situation of the SBL allowing sessions fully under its own auspices that essentially confuses the SUBJECT of inquiry into religion with the PRACTICE of religion that should be analyzed.
Here is the cut and paste job from the program units site (with some emphasis added by yours truly just because I’m mad):
CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY AND BIBLE
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.
First of all, these sessions don’t seem to have a darn thing to do with actual description of the program unit itself. Immediately preceding the above quote is this:
Our task is to explore the intersection between the disciplines of Christian Theology and Biblical Studies. Does or can such an intersection exist? What then could be or would be theological exegesis? What is its relation to religious communities, the history of interpretation, historical theology, history of confession and doctrine, so-called Higher Criticism, etc.?
Well, I suppose someone might argue that the “intersection” of theologizing and academically studying the bible has a place in an academic conference (I don’t). But how in the name of blazes does this stuff about Jesus’ and “our own” “life in the Spirit” have the slightest thing to do with the description of what the group is about? The theme has nothing really to do with Christians talking about the “intersection” of academics and faith. Rather, is Christian myth-mongering. The only way to make this display of pious posturing part of an academic program would be to fill the room with anthropologists who can conduct field research into lived mythology. As a part of a religious group’s self expression it is beyond critique. Allowing it academic credibility alongside groups studying linguistics, social sciences, history, archaeology, and so forth, however, is an abomination. This only raises suspicions that a lot of the “intersections” of faith and critical scholarship talk is simply a a cover for confessionalism that gives the appearance academic credibility to discourses that really stand outside of the critical examination of religion.
HOMILETICS AND BIBLICAL STUDIES
The Homiletics and Biblical Studies Section encourages 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.
Call for papers: All papers are being considered for an open call. Those who submit are encourage to deal with an aspect of Homiletics and Biblical Studies in their submission.
Well, it’s nice to see that this call for papers asks that participants actually talk about issues relevant to the section. But again, here is a claim that the section will look at the two hats some members of the SBL wear: as scholars and as functionaries in religious communities. What I don’t get is why this is an issue for an academic society. I can appreciate that this is an issue for religious folk who are also scholars but the real venue for this discussion is within the faith community itself, not a public academic setting. It needs to be remembered that this session is not a meeting of the “Academy of Homiletics“ that met alongside the SLB in Atlanta in 2010. No, this is a section within SBL itself. And despite around a DOZEN sessions hosted by the “Academy” the SBL’s program group still had THREE of its own!
The theme of one of these was dealt with “Preaching from Mark” another was “Preaching and the Personal: Prophecy, Witness and Testimony”. Hmm, rather than discussing “academics” and the personal,the session deals with the OTHER end of the “dialogue” and how to preach. Why am I not surprised? Another of their sessions was an open one, but one of the papers presented in it says a lot, but perhaps not what the author intended.
Elizabeth Shivel of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary had a paper called “Can Narrative be Normative? Marking a Way”
We may hear the term “normative” and identify the Bible with modes of command, proposition, and principle. The Bible contains a variety of modes, however,and the most extensive is narration. In this paper, I demonstrate how narrative can perform a normative function through preaching, using the ending of Mark’s Gospel as a test case. The sense of incompleteness upon arriving at 16:8 is an invitation to reconsider the Gospel anew. The Markan Jesus promises to meet his disciples in Galilee (16:7). We, on the other hand, return to the Galilee of the text, where the story began. Rereading the Gospel through the lens of the empty tomb account, we may pause at the story of the Gerasene demoniac.
Oh yeah, we can’t have NORMATIVE reading strategies (unless it is religious). And why should a scholarly organization seek to help with religious “proclamation” anyway? The real academic course would be to subject their discussions about preaching to analyses as expressions of the ideology and social dynamics within particular religious groups. Should the North American Association for Study of Religion help scientologists spread the word of L. Ron Hubbard? Of course not. Why should the SBL help the Christians?
BIBLE AND PASTORAL THEOLOGY
In order to help bridge the long-standing ‘practical’/’classical’ disciplines divide, this consultation invites collaboration between biblical interpreters and pastoral theologians in order to expose the multivalent tensions and possibilities in interactions between biblical and human texts, integrate cognitive, practical, and normative aspects of pastoral practice, provide a forum for bi-vocational pastor/scholars, and develop a new paradigm for collegial exchange among diverse faith traditions. Through collaborative conversations between biblical scholars and pastoral theologians, we aim to examine assumptions about both the Bible and pastoral practices, so that the complexities inherent in their interaction might provide a rich resource for effective pastoral practices and transformative biblical interpretation.
“Interactions between biblical and human texts” Ok, so implicitly the Bible is not a human text. Well, so much for the approach many SBL members take. Once again there is a claim to provide a venue for scholarship to meet faith. Yet, behind the “conversations between biblical scholars and pastoral theologians” seems to me to be a pretty selective view of what counts as scholarship. Would they admit atheist scholars to their discussions? Just which assumptions about the Bible are open to examination?
Here again an academic society is expected to do the church’s work in getting its clergy and theologians to talk to each other. I wonder what the enlightened geniuses who let this into the program think scholarship isn’t? Would it be scholarly for an academic society to try to find improved ways to employ Santaria traditions to cure patent’s ills through more efficacious chicken sacrifices? I can’t see the fundamental difference between that and what the Bible and Pastoral Theology group does.
BIBLE IN EASTERN AND ORIENTAL ORTHODOX TRADITIONS
This program unit will offer a forum for biblical professors and scholars from the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions (the latter including Aramaic, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, Georgian, Coptic, among others) to engage in critical study of the role of the Bible in eastern Christianity, past and present. A particular aim of this section will be to engage participating scholars in dealing with issues raised by contemporary and critical biblical scholarship. The committee invites presentation and discussion of papers from a variety of approaches and methodologies, including (but not limited to) theological, historiographic, philological, and literary studies.
This is the one that really ticks me off, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, but it makes me mad for a different reason. 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. But notice how the group is made up of “scholars from the Eastern and Oriental traditions”. It is an in-house “let’s talk about us” session that ignores input from anyone else. The SBL should have nothing to do with such sectarianism.
THEOLOGICAL HERMENEUTICS OF CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURE
The Group explores the hermeneutical innovations and theological implications of the location of critical biblical interpretation within the confessional communities of the Christian tradition. Particular attention is given to the relationship between systematic theology, practical theology, philosophical theology, and biblical studies, with respect to their nature and status as discrete disciplines.
Here we go again with the familiar canard about discussing were scholarship sits within a religious community. I wonder just how much “criticial” biblical interpretation gets a look in. Here is an excerpt from the SBL group’s website:
Theological interpretation does not reject out of hand the importance of the bread and butter of modern critical study of the Bible — viz., historical investigation and linguistic inquiry — but insists that these do not exhaust the subject matter of the Bible, nor the ways in which the biblical materials might be engaged critically, nor the role of Scripture among God’s people.
A theological hermeneutics of Christian Scripture concerns the role of Scripture in the faith and formation of persons and ecclesial communities. Theological interpretation emphasizes the potentially mutual influence of Scripture and doctrine in theological discourse and, then, the role of Scripture in the self-understanding of the church, and in critical reflection on the church’s practices. This is biblical interpretation that takes the Bible not only as a historical or literary document but as a source of divine revelation and an essential partner in the task of theological reflection.
Ok, so the Christians make more of the Bible than historians and linguists do. Big deal. So do the post-modernists. Ah, but then post-modernism is a fuzzy beast and can be highjacked to ironically open space for claims of authoritative “scripture”. “Every claim to knowledge is relative and subjective so let’s talk about God!”
Of course, how the Bible is used among Christians is a valid thing to study academically. But these people aren’t doing that. They are USING the Bible as (the self-professed) “God’s people”. There is a big difference. Besides this, their language is deeply troublesome for the any academic organization. The THCS group is expressly Christians and their language makes claims about their association with a God and implicitly denying such claims to others Jews, Muslims, and others.
For the THCS, the Bible is “a source of divine revelation”. The SBL should not touch this with a 10 foot pole.
No academic society can afford to surrender the least bit of ground to religious (or other) claims that only insiders can truly understand a particular ideology or set of beliefs and practices. Sure, none of us will never know what it is like to be a Mayan priest sacrificing some poor slob to make the rain come, but we might be able to learn things about the Mayans that even they were not aware of. There is no perfect objectivity, but neither are we simply drowning in a sea of abject subjectivity, incapable of learning anything. Hell, even the worse post-modernists write books hoping to be understood. A (partial) objectivity and an outsider’s perspective can open one’s eyes to all sorts of things that insiders may not see, want to see, or be capable of seeing. The distanced academic perspective is not “limited”. Indeed, I think it can far more unbounded than theological perspectives that tie one to dogma.
And then there are the confessional societies with whom the SBL has recognized and works with. Some of the
CHRISTIAN THEOLOGICAL RESEARCH FELLOWSHIP
This crew says that their “sessions are listed in the “Additional Meetings” section of the AAR [American Academy of Religion] Program Book, and as the Christian Theology Group in the SBL program book, but this year it is actually listed under the “fellowship’s” own name.
EVANGELICAL PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY
This outfit’s claim to infamy is that its Vice President is William Dembski of ID fame. Proposals for their session(s) in San Francisco are to be mailed to apologist William Lane Craig.
GOCN FORUM ON MISSIONAL HERMENEUTICS
In the spring of 2009 the Gospel and Our Culture Network Forum on Missional Hermeneutics announced that they had “become an Affiliate Organization of the Society of Biblical Leadership [sic] (SBL), which more firmly establishes its Forum on Missional Hermeneutics as a part of the annual SBL meeting each November.” Their call for papers for the 2011 meeting asks this:
What would it mean, and what might it look like to read the Bible self-consciously from, and with an explicit methodological starting point in, an ecclesial location that is construed as fundamentally missional in cast and character?
It would mean that you are no longer doing any kind of meaningful scholarship into religion, and you should recuse yourself from contributing to meetings of academic societies.
SOCIETY FOR PENTECOSTAL STUDIES
“The Society for Pentecostal Studies began in 1970 and is an organization of scholars dedicated to providing a forum of discussion for all academic disciplines as a spiritual service to the kingdom of God.” Yup, church.
*snark mode: ON*
I think it is time to propose to the SBL a program unit that interprets the Bible as a source of revelation from the Gnostic demiurge Nigel, who suddenly manifested himself in a cloud over Albuquerque last Tuesday. It makes as much sense as allowing the presupposition that the Bible is revelatory of some other god.
Clearly, sessions given to overtly religious topics (many of which are duplicated by SBL’s association with religious organizations) imply that a discussion of the place of secular approaches is necessary. There seems to be some level of double standards at play here (although I think perhaps unconsciously, as I said above, I’m not going to accuse anyone of administrative censorship).
In 2010, a session of the Ideological Criticism group was devoted to secular biblical criticism and introductory textbooks. Despite being at a less than opportune time, 4:00-7:00 p.m., we still had a fairly good turnout. There is a desire to talk about these issues.
What other area of academic interest allows faith perspectives as accepted academic methodologies in the name of being methodologically open, but then refuses to fully legitimize critique of that acceptance?
So, what is now to be done?
Clearly, I’m not happy with the “probationary” status of the Secular Biblical Criticism consultation. It is not a partial victory at all. It is a snub. Why SHOULD an open discussion about secularism in a an academic society that hosts evangelical theological discussion have to prove itself?
Just accepting the status quo is NOT an option I’m willing to entertain. Elephants in rooms or universities need to be let outside. Creeping Christian conservatism and fundamentalism is inserting itself into all sorts of public institutions of politics, economics and education. While the religious camp within the SBL would wholeheartedly reject the label “fundamentalism” (and in some cases the rejection is appropriate), academic standards across the board are at risk from further blurring the boundaries between practice and analysis of religion.
Indeed, as I’ve reported here, there are even SBL members who cannot get their heads around the idea that the Bible or ancient Israel can even be studies from a non-confessional perspective, let along should be. This might seems like a radical position, but the longer the situation is not addressed the more more normalized such perspectives will become.
I have no idea which new program units the SBL approved, but if any one of them is confessional in orientation it may be time for me to consider just walking away from the SBL despite all the good it does in other regards. Would another shit-storm result in change?
There is talk of interested parties forming a separate society and then trying to affiliate itself with the SBL to piggy back on the annual meeting’s organizational machine and the let us bring our concerns to the huge SBL membership. I would hate to ghettoize the overt secular voice, however.
Could pressure be put on the SBL from other academics (from historians to scientists) about the need for secular standards? The SBL is a member of the American Council of Learned Societies
The mission of the American Council of Learned Societies 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.
Anyway, constructive suggestions in the comment section would be gratefully received! And perhaps the SBL’s president should get some, too. Not sure it would do any good, though.
For more: see here: