Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SBL – an increasingly confessional Christian scholarly society?

Upon reflection about this year’s SBL annual meeting, aside from my own pleasant experiences of meeting friends and going to intellectually stimulating panel sessions, there were also things that bothered me about the conference. Ron Hendel, earlier this year, wrote a cri de coeur against what he saw as the increasingly confessional (especially conservative evangelical Protestant) and less critical approach to biblical scholarship at the SBL. (It was published in Biblical Archaeology Review and is available at his website for download - http://sites.google.com/site/rshendel). I was skeptical of his critique, because that was not how I experienced the SBL. I spend most of my time attending sessions organized on midrash, or early Jewish and Christian mysticism, Bible and Qur’an, early Jewish and Christian relations, and the like – and in these sessions scholars approach their research from the relevant critical perspectives. This year I noticed a marked difference – the increased presence of explicitly confessional panel sessions at the SBL, usually organized by outside groups. In the program book I noticed sessions organized by the Society for Pentecostal Studies, the Society of Christian Ethics, the Institute for Biblical Research (six total sessions), the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, the GOCN Forum on Missional Hermeneutics, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, and the Academy of Homiletics. The Academy of Homiletics held nine panels on Friday and two on Saturday.

The first meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research, their annual lecture and reception, was held on Friday evening. N.T. Wright, of the University of St. Andrews, gave the annual lecture, on “The Kingdom and the Cross,” which was preceded by “scripture reading and prayer,” led by Helene Dallaire of Denver Seminary. The reception was sponsored by the InterVarsity Press. If I had been interested in hearing Wright’s lecture, I would have been made very uncomfortable by the explicitly confessional nature of the session.

The group’s website (http://www.ibr-bbr.org) describes its mission: “The Institute for Biblical Research, Incorporated (IBR) is an organization of evangelical Christian scholars with specialties in Old and New Testament and in ancillary disciplines. Its vision is to foster excellence in the pursuit of Biblical Studies within a faith environment. The achievement of this goal is sought primarily by organizing annual conferences, conducting seminars and workshops, and by sponsoring academic publications in the various fields of biblical research. IBR's conferences, seminars and workshops are open to the public and its publications are available for purchase.”

The Society for Pentecostal Studies sponsored four sessions. On Saturday, their 1:00 p.m. session was on “Charismatic perspectives on the Hebrew Bible.” Their 1:00 p.m. session on Sunday was a book review of “Filled with the Spirit” by John R. Levinson. Their Monday 9:00 am session was on “Pentecostal-Charismatic Hermeneutics.” The Monday 1:00 p.m. session was “Charismatic Perspectives on the New Testament.” Judging purely from the session titles, the point seemed to be to give an explicitly Pentecostal perspective on various biblical books – not from the perspective of one studying about Pentecostalism, but of people utilizing their own Pentecostal faith to interpret the Bible.

The group’s website (http://www.sps-usa.org/about/home.htm) describes its mission as follows: “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. The purpose of the society is to stimulate, encourage, recognize, and publicize the work of Pentecostal and charismatic scholars; to study the implications of Pentecostal theology in relation to other academic disciplines, seeking a Pentecostal world-and-life view; and to support fully, to the extent appropriate for an academic society, the statement of purposes of the World Pentecostal Fellowship.”

In addition to a number of sessions organized by confessional groups, the book display was dominated by presses presenting predominantly Christian perspectives, or university or trade publishers that sent only the books they appeared to think would appeal to people coming from a particular Christian perspective. There have always been a certain number of presses or other organization selling books and other materials from an explicitly confessional perspective, but the percentage (in my eyes) was higher than it had been before.

I am Jewish. Since I started going to AAR/SBL meetings as a graduate student in 1985, I have always felt welcomed at the SBL. My religious identity (or whether I had a religious identity at all) seemed irrelevant to the society of scholars who were interested in studying the Bible and other early Jewish and Christian religious texts together. I felt that I was joining a group of people who could speak and do critical research across differences of religious affiliation and practice. Perhaps I was na├»ve. The field of biblical studies has certainly been marred (and fatally damaged, some people might argue) by a wide variety of forms of prejudice and institutionalized discrimination. It has been used to foster even the most virulent forms of racism, as when Protestant biblical scholars in the Third Reich used the tools of scholarship to support the genocide of the Jews (see Susannah Heschel’s book, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany [http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8820.html]).

Nonetheless, my experience of the SBL has been very positive. In the years that I have gone to the annual meetings I have seen Jews, Christians, people of other religions, and people without any religious belief or practice cooperating in the study of texts in a way that once would have been impossible. It was not necessary to be a Christian, or pretend to be one, in order to be an active participant in discussions at the SBL. Will this continue to be true? In my view, it is essential to the mission of the SBL to be a scholarly society where the religious commitment of scholars is irrelevant to their participation in any panel discussion at the annual meeting. I would be just as opposed to separate tracks of programming organized by a Jewish group that required a commitment to traditional Judaism as I am to the tracks of programming that now exist that appear to be limited to evangelical Protestants or Pentecostals. I think it is time for the SBL to dissociate itself from such groups and reaffirm its commitment to scriptural study beyond confessional boundaries.

25 comments:

  1. These are interesting points, and very well put. I'm not sure that I agree, tho, because I was thinking about the alternative.

    Suppose that the SBL excludes Christian groups. That is not exactly value-neutral behaviour. It's hard to see how this would differ, in practice, from "study will be undertaken on the basis that Christianity is not true" (and, indeed, Judaism also).

    So I don't care for this. Whatever the theory, would it not in fact amount to creating a religious basis -- secularism -- for the SBL that a great many participants would not endorse?

    Actually I think you give the answer yourself. The SBL *should* welcome Jewish groups if they want to study and publish. The people who really use the bible have a very legitimate interest in it, and considerable resources to bring to the table.

    If a session involves prayer -- Jewish or Christian -- let it be indicated on the programme. Why shouldn't Jews get together at such a convention to discuss their particular perspective?

    One other thought ... imagine a classical convention. Imagine that, by some miracle, we could have a group sponsored by some obscure group that had a continuous tradition of worshipping Apollo. Imagine that they did a session, which began with offering incense to him according to their traditional ritual? Wouldn't that be marvellous, rather than awful? Wouldn't it be enlightening, scene-setting, rather than anything else? Wouldn't we make allowances?

    I remember while doing a Syriac course that we all went to a Syriac Orthodox mass held at Westminster cathedral. I'm not Syriac Orthodox. But it was fascinating to hear the language in actual use.

    We live in an age when people talk much about diversity, often rather cynically as an excuse to trash their own society. But there is a real diversity that must lie at the bottom of biblical studies. Biblical studies has been mocked for the way in which its scholars have bent over backwards to endorse anti-Christian (and anti-Jewish, longer ago) propositions, and give scholarly colour to religious invective. That was a very bad thing, just like the attempt to hijack the SBL to attack George Bush a few years back.

    Perhaps it is in how we see it?

    But I do agree; a sermon and a paper are not the same genre of literature. We want papers.

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  2. In response to Rebbecca's blog from 11-22-10: The Bible can certainly be studied from deep scholarly intent and methods, but the Bible makes demands of one's soul. Sooner or later, one must decide IF it is true and what they will do with Jesus. It is hard to remain STRICTLY a scholar while reading the Bible. Questions will naturally arise such as: who is Jesus? Is he really necessary? What does he want of me? Is he just a man? Many more questions will inevitably arise in even the most analytical of minds. How does one answers these questions brought up by the Bible and still remain neutral as you seem to desire?

    Clyde

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  3. Clyde -
    You're making the assumption that I must regard the Bible from a Christian perspective. I do not. I am Jewish. As a religious person, I read the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as separate from one another - I don't interpret the HB in light of the NT. (The same is true of my attitude towards the Bible as a scholar, but you're speaking of a personal, religious response, not a scholarly, academic one). When I read the Hebrew Scriptures, the questions "who is Jesus and what does he want of me" do not arise, since I don't read the HB as a Christian document. And when I read the NT, it's purely out of academic interest.

    You need to realize that not everyone is a Christian, and that it's not necessary to read either part of the Bible as a Christian.

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  4. Rebecca, you made it plain to me in your blog that you were not a Christian, so I held no such assumptions. I was just speaking from one human to another human. If you put 10 TOTALLY secular scholars in a room with the Bible--especially the NT--they will still be confronted with the questions I brought up--and many more.
    Even the Hebrew Bible would make any thinking person think--as well as fee--about a lot of things concerning life, love, God, etc...

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  5. Clyde, I think Rebecca made her view of your comment plain. I don't think just repeating it helps.

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  6. Roger, so you think I was being redundant, eh? I was trying to elaborate on my initial assertion. I guess we don't understand each other.

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  7. Clyde - even speaking as one human to another, you're still making the assumption that for a non-Christian the religious questions you raise would be the most salient ones.

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  8. I'm making no assumptions. I don't think those questions I cited would be the most salient, but I do think they would be hard to ignore. Its not my Christian bias that is showing. When people study other religions and even literature, the text is most certainly bound to provoke questions in our minds concerning the author's intent, etc.....

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  9. One of your statements was "one must decide IF it is true and what they will do with Jesus." Why? If I'm not starting with a religious assumption, why would I have to do these things? If I'm studying the Qur'an from a non-religious perspective, do I also have to "decide IF it is true what [I] will do with [Muhammad]?" The questions you're asking are theological ones, not historical ones (which is what I'm more interested in).

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  10. In your question about Muhammed, my answer is yes, yuo have to decide. If you ignore Mohammad's commands/teachings, you are saying "no" to them. Even IF you don't give it a second's thought--which I find hard to understand--you are still saying no.
    It's just like when we read a good book or see a movie that makes us think, certain moral, ethical or religious questions are bound to come up in our minds unless we are Vulcans. ;-)

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  11. Clyde - I agree with the other commentators that your initial list of questions had a definite Christian bias. You wrote: "Questions will naturally arise such as: who is Jesus? Is he really necessary? What does he want of me? Is he just a man?"

    Notice that you always used the word 'is' rather than 'was'. This in itself puts the questions in a way that a non-Christian wouldn't ask them. In addition, there's the peculiar question "What does he want of me?" Surely that would only be asked by a Christian. Maybe you can try again to come up with some questions that aren't so heavily biased?
    -Mike Grondin

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  12. I can quite imagine, Rebecca, that stuff like this is why you were worrying about the SBL. This sort of thing, I agree, is something it does NOT need.

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  13. Give me a break, y'all--my questions were merely a small set of examples. My point--which I thought was easy to understand--was no matter how scholarly one is (or was), that when studying religion of any kind, literature or even some films that certain questions will arise in the mind of the student of the existential and philosophical sort. Y'all seem to be too busy examining the trees and overlooking the forest (the overall meaning) when it comes to understanding my entries on here.

    Michael, you have me on the "was" and "is" of Jesus. I assume the present or STRICTLY past tense of the being of Jesus would arise as one studies the resurrection--okay, the ASSERTION of this "miracle". (I've never studied ANY religion without thinking and considering the validity and truthfulness of it, but I certainly presume this would be the case.)

    Sincerely,
    Clyde

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  14. I think the problem, Michael, is not so much that Clyde's comments presuppose the truth of Christianity -- why should they not? -- as that, true or false, that issue is quite irrelevant to the post. And by introducing this subject, he has rendered discussion on the real issue that Rebecca raised impossible.

    Clyde, would you stick a comment on my blog somewhere and I'll email you back?

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  15. Clyde - I'm interested in a historical approach to the NT, so I would study the accounts of the resurrection, not whether it actually happened or not, a subject upon which we have no information. I would ask such questions as - how did the early Christian communities tell stories about the resurrection? Why did they tell these stories? What relation do these stories have to other stories of resurrected human beings? In so doing, I would assume the past tense of the being of Jesus as a human being.

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  16. Roger- It's clear from Clyde's early post that he had intended to list questions which would occur to ANY scholar reading the bible. That's why his questions should not have presupposed Christian faith. I agree that it's not directly relevant to Rebecca's post, but I think Clyde sees it as kind of an indirect criticism of her position. As he put it: "How does one answer these questions brought up by the Bible and still remain neutral as you [Rebecca] seem to desire?" The answer, I think, is that Rebecca is/was talking about neutrality in public forums. This doesn't, of course, imply that the scholar has no private opinions about religious claims (contra Clyde), but that he/she doesn't impose them on others in forums where they would be inappropriate for the audience.
    -Mike Grondin

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  17. Thank you, Michael, that's a good way of putting it. I also, of course, do not mean to forbid scholars giving their own religious opinions in public forums - but in ones where they make sense, which in my opinion is not during scholarly presentations at the SBL.

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  18. There I would tend to agree with you, Rebecca; and indeed political opinions, and stuff like that.

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  19. Hi there,
    i am very interested in the matter, and i want to add my 2 pennies into the discussion:
    1. the main problem for me arises not with the sessions that are officially affiliated with Christian groups, as i can tell in advance that these are not for me. my own problem is with strictly theological session with innocent names such as "psychology and the Bible" (one example), always from a Christian point of view. as a chair of a unit at SBL, i am always fearing the day in which someone would give such a paper in one of my sessions, as many do not seem to distinguish between the two types.
    2. at the same time, i think that in many ways, being Christian about your scholarship is not that different than being feminist/gay/Asian or of any other hermeneutic tradition. and these get an honorary place in biblical studies today, including the Annual SBL. i guess that here too, i know what to expect, so i am not angry about it.

    finally - i think that the book stalls explain it all - money makes the world go round.

    Yael

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  20. Hi Rebeca,

    Have you thought that maybe your opinion is a kind of new racism...? o maybe believer-racism or something that?

    Regards

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  21. Yael - some interesting points there. My question is whether outside groups should be allowed to sponsor sessions in the official program, but I also share your concern. I haven't seen that problem (confessional papers - from any confessional perspective) in sessions I've attended or participated in, but my guess is that it happens.

    I have no argument with someone using a Christian hermeneutic - but shouldn't a paper be about how that hermeneutic works? I would like there to be a self-consciousness about using such a hermeneutic, and I think there often isn't.

    To Papias -
    Uh, no, it's not racism. Christian identity is not defined by one's race, but by one's religious beliefs and practices. And even if I were directly attacking Christianity as a religion, it still wouldn't be racism, because it's a religion, not a racial identity. I'm criticizing a tendency that I think is getting too strong in the SBL, not telling Christians that they shouldn't exist.

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  22. Ah, Rebecca, you're behind the times! Moslems aren't a race either, and wanted that kind of power. So they got themselves added to the list of favoured groups here in the UK. Yes, in the "modern" world, you CAN be imprisoned for "inciting racial **or religious** hatred" (i.e. saying something that one of the favoured groups decides to object to). But you're still right that our masters don't include Christianity in that list, whatever the law says. Attempts by Christians to use that legislation to protect themselves from discrimination have all failed here.

    I wish we lived in a free world. Let people do as they will.

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  23. Roger - fortunately here in the US we have the first amendment, so people can say whatever nasty things they want to about religion (or religious people), or atheists or atheism.

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  24. Cherish it. I wish we did. The list of things we're not allowed to say gets longer and changes every day, or so it seems.

    And I have heard rumours that the "chilling" of speech is affecting even the US. We live in evil times for free speech.

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