Jim West on the Wrath of God

Jim West's Somewhat Inauspicious Arrival On Earth
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Couldn’t have happened to a nicer cat-disliker.

All Knowledge in the Universe Conveniently Categorized and Graphed.

Maybe not accurately or responsibly, but no one ever visited this site looking for that.

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On SBL’s Battle of the Bloat: A secularizing suggestion.

Last Wednesday (Nov. 25), April DeConick posted an open letter about the Society of Biblical Literature on her blog, Forbidden Gospels.  I just noticed it the other day, so here is a late response in view of my own hopes to add a new group to the SBL’s already bloated schedule. She makes three closely inter-related main points.

She complains is there is far too much overlapping of groups with similar interests or themes. This only divides the audiences. She suggests that the SBL could engage external consultants to work on scheduling of the conferences. I’m not sure that extenal consultants are the solution, that sounds like a terrible expense, but I agree wholeheartedly with her recognition of this problem. Part of that issue is the proliferation of so many groups, which is her primary concern.

But before dealing with that, we need an  interlude:

DeConick also deals with scheduling. Organizing the time table for sessions for the SBL and the American Academy of Religion meeting (which used to be held concurrently) must have been a nightmare. DeConick observes that the problem of overlapping sessions is actually worse now that the two societies do not hold joint meetings, since the SBL has seen such a dramatic rise in the number of specialized groups.

Her primary complaint concerns the view expressed in the group Chairs’ meeting that the large number of sessions at the recent conferences was a sign of the society’s health.  In her opinion, the rapid growth in the number of sessions and groups has led to over-specialization, diminished audiences for all groups and to a reduction in the actual sharing of ideas among people. I cannot but agree with this. She writes:

Our groups have proliferated to the point that there is so much competition for audiences that entire sessions are beginning to have only a handful in attendance. Papers that may have taken a year to prepare may have an audience of five. This means that there is little discussion and little in terms of dissemination of research to the broader community.

The increasing specialization and fracturing of scholarship into ever more rarified sub-disciplines is, as Steve Wiggins noted in a comment on DeConick’s post, endemic to the wider field of scholarship, but I wonder if it really need to be so bad in the SBL. I think DeConick is right, the SBL could sure stand to loose a lot of the different groups, consultations, and what not it has acquired over the years.

One odd thing about the present situation, however, is that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find sessions to which I might propose a paper. My stuff often does not fit anything but the very general, open sessions on the Hebrew Prophets and such like.  Yet, these open sessions seem to be rarer and rarer as even the broadly defined subject areas host many sessions with specific themes some of which can be quite narrow in focus. The opportunity for papers that do not fit into these pre-arranged categories appears to be far slimmer now than a decade ago. I might be wrong about this, but it is an impression I am getting.

Agnes thought the SBL New Orleans  Session on "Throwing your Pearl Beads on Lolcats:  Interactive Approaches" was a glorious success.

Remember when T.V. had variety shows? I remember watching Ed Sullivan as a kid. You never knew what you were going to get on any evening. Jugglers then the Beatles, or a broadway singer, a comedian and the Rolling Stones. It was wonderful, and everyone watched everything (although my dad had a fit when he saw the @$^%!!(#^$!(!!! long-haired Beatles for the first time. Some childhood memories will never die).

I like variety. The SBL should have more of it, but not not a wide variety of exclusive-club, inward-looking talking shops, each with their own totemic, esoteric jargon and secret handshakes.

All that being said, I should admit that the plan to start a Secular Critical Scholarship of the Bible group would just be adding to the mess of groups already there. What would the justification for that be?

(Another interlude: A probably apocryphal, but still telling, story I heard during my last years as an undergrad at the U. of Alberta was that there was a committee struck to look into how the university might reduce the number of committees)

First of all, the question of secularism in the SBL is not a peripheral subject but strikes at the heart of the what the SBL is, does, and should be doing to “foster biblical scholarship”. I have heard some opine  that since scholarship should be secular, why do we need to talk about secularism at all? The answer, of course, is that Biblical Studies is not fully secular. Many scholars are, but the academy is definitely NOT. And since people continue to attribute to the texts we subject to critical analysis a fundamentally unique status among writings and human thought, the issue of secularism should be a significant topic of discussion. Yet, it is not. The SBL seems to be OK with papers, sessions, and affiliations with faith-based perspectives. This is a major issue and needs to be discussed openly.

Biblical exceptionalism is rampant in the SBL. Rather than offer analysis the Bible as one of the many textual products of human culture, some presentations seem to construe the Bible as the primary human text and even as a divine text. The latter has no place in academia, and the former often strikes me as simply a quasi-secular corollary to overt theological work.

The last point may be a little harsh but at least it deserves to be discussed openly. What is the SBL for? As a short exchange on this blog and elsewhere several weeks ago reveals, there are members of the SBL who simply cannot see the validity or even existence of non-religious thought about the Bible. One would have thought that an international academic society would do a better job preventing such an identity crisis. As Alan Lenzi argued in Feb. 2008, the SBL needs to adopt some standards for membership.

What does the SBL require for full membership? $65 (see here, updated on February 11, 2008). What kind of learned society has no requirements for its members? The problem this creates is most evident, in my experience, at the regional meetings where I have witnessed pastors or, in one case, a woman who had had a visionary experience share their thoughts about the Bible or god or religion. Is the SBL the appropriate venue for this kind of report?

Full membership in the SBL should be restricted to people with an academic doctoral degree from an accredited program. Student membership should be restricted to academic doctoral students. We should make it harder to join instead of easier. Furthermore, given the function of what we study for contemporary religion and the fact the membership in a learned society can give credibility to one’s status in the field, it does not seem unreasonable to inform potential applicants for membership about the Society’s orientation to academic Biblical Studies. Namely, the application should make it clear that all members of the Society engage the Bible as a product of and influence on human culture. By joining, members implicitly agree in principle to the practice of using the same critical faculties and exercising the same kinds of judgments on the Bible as one might use on, say, an Assyrian royal inscription or a non-canonical gospel. In other words, it should be clear that members of the SBL do not privilege the Bible with a special mode of inquiry (see note).

I agree whole heartedly with this (M.A. students, of course, would not be banished entirely!). As Lenzi points out and as I have said elsewhere there, clearly, many religious people can do good secular research, and we cannot morally impose a religious test for membership. Yet, society as a whole tends to treat “secular” as synonymous with “atheist” and since very strident and widely read atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (who count as non-academics when it comes to the study of religion) rub so many people the wrong way, attempts to “secularize” biblical studies is taken by some as being equivalent “church bashing”. It is not. It is merely church-ignoring.

From my experience, it is far more likely that in any given session in the SBL meetings that someone will start to speak overtly from a faith perspective, or to try to make critical scholarship palatable to “faith communities” than to openly declare secular standards of scholarship. It was such a relief to attend the North American Association for Religious Studies session in New Orleans, that placed biblical studies in the light of  wider scholarship into religion. A very different atmosphere to what I noted in many SBL sessions. NAASR is one of those affiliations that SBL should be encouraging.

So, back to the SBloatL problem identified by DeConick. I think a partial solution would be to eliminate the “religious” sessions. They simply do not belong. Studying religion academically is very different from furthering any one religion’s internal discourses, no matter how intellectual those discourses are. The SBL needs to sort out its identity. It cannot be a clearing house for all talk about the Bible and the Judeo-Christian traditions that uses big words and produces big books. Affiliations with the overt theological groups need to be broken. Theological groups (that is, those that do theology, rather than critically examine other people’s theologies) within the SBL should be ended.

I think far too many SBL members see the society as a vehicle for furthering the inner-church discourses carried out in seminaries and even from the pulpit. Why the hell does the SBL have sessions on “Homiletics and Biblical Studies“?  From their call for papers:

Invited panel session: Preaching from the Psalms. Invited panel session: Preaching and the Personal: Prophecy, Witness, and Testimony. Open call: The Homiletics and Biblical Studies section is seeking papers dealing with the relationship between biblical interpretation and proclamation.

The SBL could certainly loose this and a number of other faith-based sections and groups and its academic credentials would only increase.
What is the intended audience of critical biblical scholarship?  It must not be construed as solely those consuming biblical interpretation as an expression of or aid to their religious beliefs. The SBL actually should not be catering to that market at all. The way I see it, the real audience of biblical academics are those interested in the wider knowledge of human society, culture, and religiosity.

The SBL should abandon its attempts to be all things to all people, resist any attempt to use it as an adjunct of the church or seminary, and take its mandate to further scholarship seriously as part of the wider explorations into human life conducted in the secular humanities and social sciences.

A Parable Unparalleled: Stewart Lee and Jesus

Absolutely hilarious!

Video of James McGrath Singing In New Orleans Released!

Here is the Matrix explorin‘, keyboard ivory-ticklin, Bible-bebloggin’ James McGrath giving his presentation on Genesis in New Orleans (notice the nice carnival atmosphere he creates by his stylish hat!)

Too bad they didn’t let him near the keyboards. Alas. But to console him, I saw this musical kittie on ICHC and thought I had to do something with it. I’ve never met him, but now he owes me a beer.

James McGrath Plays the Stray Cats

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No idea if he likes the Stray Cats, either. They didn’t have a piono player so maybe not. Keeping with the Bible theme, here are the Latter Day Genesis (in their superstar Phil Collins phase). James probably doesn’t like that either, but he still owes me the beer.

Lolcat Awards for reviewed books relevant to my interests: Dec. 1

Once again it is time for Dr. Jim to give away three custom made lolcats for the three books reviewed in the new The Review of Biblical Literature edition tat are most Relevant To My Interests!

Here they are!

Maria-Zoe Petropoulou
Animal Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Religion, Judaism, and Christianity, 100 BC to AD 200Gud. Alter reddy. Cielin' Cat be pleezed
Reviewed by Adele Reinhartz


Stephanie Dalley
Esther’s Revenge at Susa: From Sennacherib to Ahasuerus

Sennacatrib surveys  the ruins of Susa.  Revenge is Sweet
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Reviewed by Aaron Koller


Susan R. Garrett
No Ordinary Angel: Celestial Spirits and Christian Claims about Jesus
What the Hell are you lookin' at?
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Reviewed by Tobias Nicklas



Blessed are the tattooed, apparently.

I saw this over at One Minion’s Opinion and thought I had to share it with my minions. I’ll bet Jim West will find this another example of Total Depravity™.

A Church in Seattle (reported in the Tuscaloosa Times) has gives out tattoos to congregants as part of their services.

The sight of a woman being tattooed live on the altar accompanied by the sound of a buzzing ink gun provided a startling backdrop to Sunday’s evangelical sermon.

Your parents’ church service this was not. In the drive to stay relevant, the Gold Creek Community Church has been hosting a series called ‘Permanent Ink’ that featured Sunday’s live-tattoo finale.

The Mill Creek, Wash., church is not exactly staid — booming 20-minute rock sets launch regular sermons — yet the pastors acknowledge this series was pushing societal norms.

‘We’ve said from the start that we are not advocating tattoos — nor discouraging them,’ said pastor Larry Ehoff.

‘We think of it as amoral. It’s neither immoral nor moral, it’s just the choice of a person.’

Ehoff said the church is telling the same story of Jesus as always, it’s just finding different ways to tell it.

As the story reports, the “most famous symbol” emblazoned on a person  is 666, the mark of the “Beast” (of course, some manuscripts have the number as 616, but that’s a story for a different tattoo parlor).

But there’s also mention in the Bible of markings on Jesus, saying he is the king of kings and lord of lords, [Pastor Dan] Kellogg said.

Another congregant who volunteered, Erica Armendariz, was getting work done on an arm tattoo she calls her ‘faith sleeve.’

Faith sleeve, yeah, ok, whatever. Somehow it just seems to me to be another way some Christians try to build an alternate reality that looks just like the world they are trying to leave but is stamped with all the proper ideological brand. Some people only where one designers underwear, some people get Christian tattoos. Not a lot of difference that I can see.

It’s not that there is anything wrong with Christians getting tattoos.  Of course, Christians are not bound by the Old Testament injunction against getting tattoos. but when it becomes part of the service and others watch it being done as such, one has to wonder how disconnected they really are from the roots of their tradition. What next, tying your shoes for Jesus?

There is even a “Christian Tatoo Association“, and they could probably put you in touch of an “artist” who would give you what you want, tattooly speaking, of course.

Here is the work of one of their members, Religious Tattoos:

Their caption on this image reads: ” The writing is Hebrew and is Song of Songs 2:16.”  It is a good thing they have a disclaimer that reads “Religious Tattoos makes no guarantees concerning translations in tattoo pictures. The onus to verify a translation rests with the person who wishes to get a tattoo.” The Hebrew writing is, well, lets just say “directionally challenged.”

Secular Criticism of the Bible. SBL meeting report.

Thanks to Hector Avalos who chaired the initial meeting concerning secular biblical studies at the SBL meeting in New Orleans. He has just posted his official report and there are some very interesting developments. A draft went around last week, but some of these developments are now confirmed. Here is a cut and paste:


Dear colleagues,

What follows is a brief report of our meeting to explore the feasibility of establishing a group that would focus on non-religious approaches to biblical studies.

Time and Place: Saturday, November 21, 6:45pm-8:15pm in Conference Room Studio 6 of the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans, LA.

Attendance: Kenneth Atkinson, Hector Avalos (moderator of meeting), Zeba Crook, Stephanie Fisher, Jim Linville, John Loftus, Ken Pulliam, Frank Zindler.

The meeting began with introductions, and a description of the goals that such a group should have. Two basic positions were identified: (1) an activist position that would focus on direct challenges to religion and/or the Bible; (2) a non-activist position that would focus on scholarship from a non-religious approach. A compromise of sorts was reached by focusing on scholarship that could both challenge religionist biases and ideas in biblical studies in a scholarly and non-hostile manner, and also contribute original scholarship that would be distinctive of a non-religious approach.

The participants agreed to pursue a two-track approach to establishing the group. One track would focus on preparing the proposal necessary to establish a new unit within the SBL. By a vote of 8-0, the proposed name of the unit chosen was “Secular Criticism of the Bible” consultation/group. However, the establishment of a new unit in the SBL is a long process that might take 2-5 years before the first session would be scheduled in an Annual Meeting of the SBL.

Accordingly, second track was adopted that would work with an existing SBL unit, preferably the Ideological Criticism Section, and propose sessions on non-religious approaches to biblical studies. Such sessions could be scheduled as early as next year. These sessions also would help to draw people interested in working with the first track.

The final main item of discussion was a proposed session for next year within the Ideological Criticism Section. The group agreed to have a session, titled tentatively “Secular Biblical Criticism and Introductions to the Bible.” The session would examine and critique the current textbooks used in introductory courses to the Bible, and invite a respondent, preferably an author of one of those introductions. Participants agreed to work on ideas for individual papers that would then form a coherent set for a session. The session would also address the question of what a secular Introduction to the Bible would look like.

No decisions were made on a steering committee for our group, and who would be in it. I will check with the requirements of the SBL before further action on this.


On Monday, November 23, 2009, Hector Avalos attended the business meeting of the Ideological Criticism Section, which is co-chaired by Randy Reed. One result is that Avalos has been added to the steering committee of the Ideological Criticism Section. A second result is that a session of the Ideological Criticism Section for next year is scheduled to include one on our proposed topic mentioned above (“Secular Biblical Criticism and Introductions to the Bible” ). This will be an invited panel, and Randy Reed will soon be making the relevant announcement in the Call for Papers for next year’s Ideological Criticism Section meeting in Atlanta.


Papers for the invited session in the Ideological Criticism Section should probably be formulated within the next few weeks. We might envision one paper that would give a brief overview on Introductions to the Bible and/or 3-4 papers that would focus on individual themes in Introductions (e.g., historical, literary, theological biases, etc.). Respondents would be sought from authors of Introductions, and these might include Bart Ehrman, Michael Coogan, James Crossley, and Barry Bandstra.

All in all, I think we made some good progress, including a planned session for next year’s SBL meeting in Atlanta. Thanks again for your interest and support.


The Other War on Christmas: an academic perspective

No, this post isn’t about attempts to eliminate all references to religious ideas from public acknowledgement of the holidays. Its about something far more insidious than that. It is about being an academic at Christmas and all the university crap that needs to be done while family and friends with their own views on what needs to be done.

First of all, one must wrap up the fall semester. There are essays to grade, exams to make up, exams to grade, panicked students to counsel, paperwork to be shuffled and what not.  Then there is going through all the darn textbooks for next semester’s courses, planning the darn thing, making up the syllabus, changing it, changing it back, giving up and starting over. And then one must get some research done.

In addition to that, there are Christmas parties, Christmas shopping, Christmas travelling, and all the usual frustrations that brings. Of course, the big meal, the prezzies, the fun is, well, fun. And it is nice to see family and what not. But somewhere in all of this a hell of a lot of work has to get done and there isn’t a lot of time to get it done. The thing that gets me is that I’m usually pretty tired from the past semester and just need time to rest. If a lot of travelling is in the picture rest is something that is at a premium.

Compounding all of this is the totally aggravating schedule the U. of Lethbridge follows. We did not start our Fall semester until around the 9th of September! Don’t ask me why. They had New Student Orientation at the end of one week, and never started classes until the Wednesday or Thursday of the week following.  At the other end of the term, our last class is on Dec. 11 and the exam period goes to Dec. 21! The Admin offices will close at noon on the 24th, so that doesn’t give a lot of time to grade exams.

Fortunately for me, my two exams are on the 14th and 17th this year. The odd schedule does actually impact how some profs with a late exam actually assess their students. Fewer essay questions and more, easy to mark, multiple choice etc. Some classes scheduled for the last day have up to 65 students in them (and perhaps more, 65 is one that I know of). First day of classes in the New Year is January 6. Yeesh!

I know I’m not alone in thinking this way. For academics the Christmas “Holiday” is anything but.

Research in Religious Studies. The Conference to Begin All Conferences: Call for Papers

Finally, we have sorted out the Call for Papers for the conference that is the highlight of Dr. Jim’s academic year! Horray!


May 1-2 University of Lethbridge

Lethbridge AB 

I started the Research in Religious Studies Conference for R. S. Students at the U of L in 2003, and it has been a glorious success. Some years we can get as many as 40 papers presented by undergraduates and MA students from all across Western Canada, North West U.S.A. and beyond.We have had students from Vanderbilt Divinity School, University of Toronto and even further afield. It all takes place this time over the first Saturday and Sunday in May 2010.

It is an absolutely wonderful experience for the students and a wonder experience for me and my colleagues. Imagine ending the term listening to some of the best undergrad papers of the year presented with an often surprising level of professionalism. The students who come are usually the most engaged and interested, and it shows in their work. It is quite nice to see how good  student’s work can be one they take their professors’ comments to heart and rewrite their essays for presentation. It really builds their confidence, especially for the undergrads looking to start graduate study soon.

We will consider any paper from an undergraduate, Masters level or recent graduates that follows a secular academic approach towards understanding any aspect of any religious tradition, practice or belief. What kind of papers we actually get is determined to a large degree by which upper-level seminars are taught by professors willing to advertise the conference that year. We have had a lot of papers on modern Christianity, religion and the arts, Buddhism and many more that have been very hard to classify. I would like to see more on Islam, modern and medieval Judaism, and Hebrew Bible. Anyway, if anyone is interested or wants more information, just contact the organizing committee at rsresearch.conf@uleth.ca.

Accommodations are on campus, and two nights should be booked (last year I think it was about $45 per night). We try to keep the registration fee as low as possible and it includes a continental breakfast for the Saturday and Sunday and lunch Saturday. The last papers is usually around 11:30 or so on Sunday.

This year, our keynote speaker on the Saturday banquet will be Dr. Christine Mitchell of  St. Andrew’s College, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon SK.

Please feel free to post, repost, praise and advertise widely.

For a copy of the poster in PDF format, go here:

Call for Papers_2010

The conference website still needs some tweaking but it should be pretty much functional in a few days.

GO HERE for the submission forms, etc.

Here is some information on what the RRS meeting is all about:

How is conference organized?
The Research in Religious Studies Conference is modeled on those hosted by the premier professional learned societies in religious studies: the American Academy of Religion, Society of Biblical Literature, and Canadian Society for the Study of Religion, albeit with some important changes.
These conferences are typically organized into a set of “sessions” each featuring three or four presenters. Each presenter is given a specific amount of time to make her or his presentation and to allow for questions and discussions. Our conference follows the general tradition of 30 minutes per presentation, which means about 20 minutes for the actual paper and 10 for comments.
Sometimes, students suggest specific topics for a round table discussion, and we are always willing to hear ideas for those, too!
Each session has a presider, who introduces the speakers and oversees the discussion period. The presider is also the timekeeper, and may well cut a speaker off who goes over the time limit. The presider is also supposed to defuse any emotional showdowns, but having to do this is a very rare occurrence for us.
The sessions are organized on specific topics and 3 or 4 sessions may be going on at once. For most professional conferences, would-be presenters apply for the specific session, and only the 3 or 4 best ones are selected. This is not what we do, however. We referee the paper proposals first, and do the best we can to make relevant sessions out of the papers we have accepted. This means grouping the papers can be a very “creative” enterprise.

What are conference papers?
Academic conferences are not simply about sharing your views, but your hard work.
Conference papers present the results of formal research and generally have a lot of similarities to the kinds of papers you may have written for post-graduate or upper-level undergraduate courses. They differ in some ways as well, but if you’ve ever put together a good term paper, you are well on your way!
We do not expect you to write something new for our conference, but to rework a paper you have written or are writing for a class. In the very least, this involves getting the length right for the time allotted, and tweaking your wording so that the paper is easy to understand orally.

Why bother?
Many scholars use conference paper to “test-fly” the conclusions of their research and to open key elements of a larger project to public scrutiny so they can fix weaknesses in it before submitting their work for publication. The Research in Religious Studies Conference seems to work the other way around, with the conference presentation generally coming after the “real” test of submitting a paper to a professor for a grade. Looks are deceiving, however. Academic work is a process. There is a lot to learn by rewriting a good paper in view of professor’s comments to see just how good it can be. And who knows, you may still get the conference paper published!

What is the conference atmosphere like?
This can vary widely, but it is rather different from that of a class or seminar. On the one hand, our meeting has a certain formality to its organization and scheduling, and so you do not have the intimacy of a familiar class environment. On the other hand, on inter-personal levels, it is very laidback and mutually supportive.
In all likelihood you have never seen many of the folks in the audience before and have not had most of a semester to become familiar with your professor’s expectations. In a conference, it is between you and your peers. Although you are the expert in your particular topic, you are not there simply to teach but to convince others that what you have learned is academically credible while learning from your well-educated audience.
Still, there is ample opportunity for meeting people, making friends and so forth, so don’t be on edge the whole time. Remember, most of the people coming are doing a paper themselves, so they are just as self-conscious as you!

How do I suggest a paper?
Go to the conference website and follow the links there to submit the title and an abstract (short summary) of what your paper is about on the online form. You do NOT have to submit the whole paper!

How will my proposed paper be evaluated?
All of the paper proposals are evaluated for how well they convince the reader of the following:
1) The topic concerns something of interest concerning the academic study of religion, widely conceived. Papers from a wide array of academic disciplines are welcome, but the conference is not a suitable venue for papers expounding confessional or faith perspectives.
2) The author appears familiar with the most important scholarship regarding the subject area.
3) The paper appears to be based on solid and thorough research and follows an academically sound method of approaching its subject.
4) The abstract shows that the author can communicate ideas well.
We will take into account the level of the student proposing a paper. Many students will find we accept the proposal as submitted. Some, however, may be asked to rework the proposal in light of concerns we may have over clarity, approach, etc. typos and the like. Please note: not all papers will be accepted!

Sadly, we do not have the resources to provide financial assistance for travel or accommodations.

HERE for the submission forms, etc.