Saturday, June 19, 2010

Danger Alert: Religious People Attend SBL

Jim Davilla points to an article by Ronald S. Hendel at BAR on "Biblical Views: Farewell to SBL". Hendel has failed to renew his membership at SBL due to the increasing presence of religious persons within SBL. Hendel's complaint is that SBL, by allowing the mix of faith and reason, is "falling into a confused domain of dissension and hypocrisy". Even worse, in a bid to bring up its numbers, SBL has reached out to evangelical and fundamentalist groups. He is particularly affronted by the presence of Pentecostals at SBL! He even makes the observation that some scholars appear to be influenced and even driven by religious perspectives in their academic pursuits. Hendel opines the removal of the words "critical investigation" from SBL's mission statement so that its mission is to "foster biblical scholarship" rather than to stimulate "critical investigation of the classical biblical literatures" and this broadening as to what counts as biblical scholarship is particularly disconcerting to him. He finished his piece with this provocative quote:

The battle royal between faith and reason is now in the center ring at the SBL circus. While the cultured despisers of reason may rejoice—including some postmodernists, feminists and eco-theologians—I find it dispiriting. I don’t want to belong to a professional society where people want to convert me, and where they hint in their book reviews that I’m going to hell. As a scholar of the humanities—and I might add, as a Jew—I do not feel at home in such a place. What to do? Well, I’ve let my membership in SBL lapse. Maybe that’s a cowardly response, but sometimes, as Shakespeare wrote, “The better part of valor is discretion.” Sometimes it’s reasonable to avoid conflict. And like Pascal and Spinoza, I’m partial to reason in matters of scholarship. But my heart, for reasons of its own, gently grieves.

1. Whose "reason" is he talking about and who established that it is inconsistent with "faith"? Evidently the postmodern critique of Enlightenment "reason" must have been something that just happened to other people besides Hendel. But indulge me if you will to deconstruct Hendel's "reason". One might think, on the surface at least, that by "reason" he means a correspondence theory of truth whereby the assured results of critical investigation of the Bible show a disparity between its findings and the content of religious beliefs derived from the Bible. Thus implying the intellectual illegitimacy of faith or calling for the quarantining of faith from rationally held beliefs. But in fact, what he means by "reason" is really the predisposed conviction of a certain sub-group that its reading of history and biblical literature is inconsistent with religious claims and is thus authoritative over religious claims. This is put in service of an ideological agenda to cleanse religious persons from the academic sphere, or in the very least, to force the hegemony of his own particular community over those religious communities. Could his appeal to "reason" function as little more than a sanction for the legitimacy of an ideological power play designed to ensure the unrivaled hegemony of his own judgments about the meaning of history, religion, and the academy? I'm being hypothetical. I'm just asking the question that arises with this appeal to "reason"! "Reason" is a freighted term, let us rationally inquire (irony alert) what freight is he carrying, why, and for what end?

2. "By the extremes ye shall judge them". Hendel's complaint about fundamentalists at SBL goes to show how uninformed he is about fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are defined by their separation from institution like SBL. A bona fide fundamentalist would not in good conscience and consistency with his position as a fundamentlist attend an event like ETS with women, open theists, charismatics, and even Anglicans lurking around, let alone SBL with secularists, gay hermeneutics groups, feminist scholars, Mormons, and satanic luminaries like N.T. Wright and Bart Ehrman. Hendel's voice of reason is surprisingly ignorant of the phenomenon that he seeks to confront. Thus, I surmise that his use of the term "fundamentalist" is largely a rhetorical device used to promote fear among his peers about persons whose conservative religious view points are being seen and heard at SBL. His fear mongering of "fundamentalists under the bed" is a form of deviant labeling designed to promote alarm about religious groups who are actually religious obtaining intellectual sanction in a learned society. Is this a reasonable thing to do? You decide!

3. Hendel draws attention to proselytizing groups at SBL and he mentions one particularly unpleasant experience he had. I imagine that this was probably an isolated incident, I've never experienced anything like it. SBL is not the most appropriate place to hold a "Jews for Jesus" or "Jews for Judaism" crusade. But rather than storm off in a huff, I would suggest that stuff like this can usually be solved with a polite email to a chair or head of any section about taking things a tad too far. But more importantly, the free exchange of ideas that goes with academic freedom (not to mention religious freedom), means that you can find yourself confronted with people saying stuff you may not actually like. There is alot of stuff that goes on at SBL that I find intellectually absurd, culturally offensive, and religiously insensitive. But in the words Salmon Rushdie: "Who told you that you have the right not to be offended?" But why do I put up with it? Well, because of those good old liberal values: academic freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. If ya don't like it, apply for a post at the University of Pyongyang.

4. Is SBL an inclusive society? Who decides what counts as genuine scholarship? Ultimately this will be a peer reviewed process that reflects the breadth of the society - and so it should be. What groups are allowed to run which seminars, symposia, and panels will go through the normal channels and likely reflect the needs and desires of the SBL constituency - and so it should. But rather than let the will of the majority reign as the basis of who is included, a small vociferous minority of usually secular fundamentalists (irony alert!) would like to purge the organisation of those who are actually religious. This is rather comical. There are actually people who are enraged and flabbergasted that a society dedicated to the study of religious texts is mostly populated by people who are actually religious! This somehow confusing and concerning for them. For my own parody of this issue see my amusing post about The Society of Baseball Literature that makes fun of them. I think one of the benefits of SBL is that you get to hear from a diversity of presenters: on textual criticism there is Michael Holmes and Bart Ehrman; on the historical Jesus there is Maurice Casey and Craig Evans; on the Gospel of Mark there is James Crossley and James Dunn; on Gospel traditions there A.Y. Collins and Richard Bauckham, etc. I don't know what religious or areligious disposition Hendel has. He claims the identity of a "Jew" but without unpacking it (orthodox, progressive, liberal, secular, high holidays). I won't try to guess nor do I wish to judge it negatively. I don't assume that he is a Jewish version of Gerd Ludemann. But his approach seems more conducive to a hyper-secular approach of excluding others, rather than a broad and inclusive approach as to who gets a guersey at the academic table in the study of religious texts.

Hendel's piece is written from annoyance rather than anger. He is frustrated with demographics rather than fuming with resentment. So I say, let's leave the porch light on for him. If he comes back then we'll kill a fattened calf, place a purple robe on him, and put a ring on his finger. But in leaving SBL I think it shows that he has a fundamental misunderstanding about what the society is. It's not about "me", it's about "us". The collective and collaborative effort of scholars from all walks of life and traditions who genuinely want to further the aggregate knowledge in our academic field.


G. Kyle Essary said...

Outstanding critique. I read this a couple weeks ago and was pretty amused by it. It's amusing that the same groups who abhor meetings like the ETS due to their exclusive membership get angered at the SBL when it is too inclusive.

Your deconstruction in point 1 is spot on.

John Lyons said...

There is a lot that could be said about the SBL is and isn't and perhaps what it should be (though not from me), but I am somewhat surprise that he singles out the Pentecostals. They have been present at the SBL as long as I've been going (twelve years). So I am puzzled as to why they are being seen as AAR replacements.

I am also a bit puzzled as to why the reunification of the AAR and the SBL isn't mentioned (I don't think). Maybe they've decided to keep apart again and I've missed it, but I was under the impression the decision to split was now seen as a big mistake, and we'd soon be back in one place again. Having two meetings in Atlanta three weeks apart this November is idiocy, no question. As is the conceit that the systematic theologians at AAR are somehow the natural relations the Religious Studies people.

I wonder if the feeling that religious scholars see you ending up in hell is the equivalent of the feeling that secular scholars think you are delusional. For myself I'd like to keep everyone on board because the secularists keep the religious honest about their differences and the religious give the secularists such great material to work on :)

Given the financial climate and the pending death of many church denominations though, I can't help feeling that perhaps we should stop biting big chunks out of each other before someone else realises we (biblical scholars) are a most digestible morsel and eats us up altogether.

Jim said...

well said mike. i agree.

Vinny said...

I take it that the SBL has decided that reason is inconsistent with faith since it decided to to make its mission statement more acceptable to confessional scholars by removing the phrase "critical investigation." I would think that any "religious" person who thought that reason supported their faith would be as upset by this change as Hendel was.

G. Kyle Essary said...

Honestly, I think there were plenty of other reasons behind the move, and that having an increased relationship with confessional scholars was way down the list. There are plenty who complain that some of the postmodern sections of SBL, which are definitely not confessional or conservative (queer readings for instance) are not critical investigation. They are scholarship, but they aren't critical investigation.

There are others who complained that the mission of the organization wasn't simply on critical study, but to promote discussions of biblical literature in the public square, to maintain the academic study of the Bible in all levels of education, etc.

Thus, a broader "to foster biblical scholarship" was needed.

RobKash said...

Underlying all the fancy rhetoric by Hendel is at least one good point, and a good one, though obvious, to be cautious with mixing faith and reason. This is not to say one should not integrate the two, and I indeed find your critique indeed accurate and appropriate. But as in relational arguments between, say, husband and wife, once all of the exaggerated rhetoric is cut out, there normally is something pointed out to assent to.

jeff miller said...


Vinny said...

G. Kyle,

I realize that the word "critical" gets used in different ways by different people, however, it is hard for me to think that anything can be deemed "scholarship" if it does not entail a healthy dose of critical thinking, regardless of whether it is coming from the left or the right.

Without actually knowing the politics of the SBL, my guess would be that the language of the mission statement would not have been changed solely to please one side or the other. Rather, purveyors of junk scholarship at both extremes wanted to see the standards relaxed.

Alan Lenzi said...

Agreed, the word "critical" should be in the statement or they should stop calling themselves a scholarly society.

Join the Facebook group:
"The SBL should put the word "critical" back into their purpose statement"

Danny Zacharias said...

great post

Denny Burk said...

Good word, Mike. Thanks!

Michael Barber said...

Mike: Thought I had already commented on this but I see that perhaps it did not register.

In a word: brilliant. This was an absolutely devastating critique and I agreed with every word of it. Thanks so much for this!