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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why I Left SBL

That's it, I'm done with the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL).  My involvement began in the late 1980's, when I visited the Dallas seminar.  I am grateful to my Greek professor, Dr. Paul Pollard of Harding University, for my introduction.  I have continued as a member over the years, lapsing only when career disruptions made even the membership fees prohibitive.  Two lectures from this first seminar still stand-out in my memory. 

First, there was Georg Strecker.  Speaking with a thick German accent, he declared, "Through my research I have determined that some of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount are authentic to Jesus."  To an undergraduate student who had always (and does always still) accept "red letter" text in the NT as the very words of Jesus, this was a somewhat shockingly unnecessary remark.  [I have come to see that the beginnings and ends of "red letter" quotations in the Fourth Gospel have not always been carefully delineated.  For example, is John 3:16 spoken by Jesus, or is it a declaration by the author of the Gospel?).  Strecker spoke at a time when the Jesus Seminar was first attracting notoriety.  He died just a few years later.

The second lecture was by Robert Sloan, who was lecturing on Paul and Romans, and was sorely taking James D. G. Dunn to task (I already knew Dunn from his book "Baptism in the Holy Spirit", which I did not find at all helpful).  I vividly remember the verve of his presentation, as he cajoled a room full of Pauline scholars, boasting cockily that his approach to Paul would render Dunn's then hot-off-the-press commentary on Romans useful for nothing more than a marker in the history of interpretation.  He was only half-joking.  His lecture featured Paul's discussion of the "στοιχεϊα" (rudiments, elementary principles, elemental spirits).

In one of these early years in Dallas, I encountered Bernard Brandon Scott, who first enlightened me on the significance of the presence of the women in Matthew's genealogy (this led me to purchase his excellent book on the parables of Jesus).  I was, however, disappointingly stunned when he declared that trouble untying some particular knot of interpretation drove him to a glass of scotch.

Over the years, I had many vivid and fond memories.  I remember in New England lectureships the keynote, presidential address by Katheryn Pfisterer Darr.  I tried to introduce fellow Christians with scholarly aptitude to the Society, and once had the pleasure of taking my wife, Becky.  On this occasion, she addressed Ezekiel, his use of crudely sexual language to express the apostasy of Israel against God, and the fatal notion of impending judgment.  At a critical moment in the lecture, this angelically beautiful woman and scholar declared:  "At this point I must say "No!" to the prophet and "No!" to his message."  There followed a rant of a particularly feminist flavor.  She had begun her lecture with discussion of her approach to teaching young, undergraduate Bible students, carefully separating an "academic approach" from a "faith approach" to the texts.  Being from quite a fundamentalist perspective that never makes such distinctions, my young friend-attendee shot his hand in the air when questions were solicited:  "Do you believe that Exekiel was inspired?"  She patiently walked back through the academic vs. faith dichotomy, but he unwilling to walk that walk, again shot back, "Do you believer Ezekiel was inspired?"  It was a classic moment that I shall never forget.

I came to greatly appreciate the scholarship of my favorite lecturer, Jerome Neyrey.  Once, after I expressed my appreciation for his lecture and my hope to find something in print on the subject, he sent me home with his lecture notes.  I returned them along with some devotional writings and poetry on the Cross of Jesus, and he responded to me with his appreciation and with a few offerings of his own.  I prefaced my gift with my trepidation that such devotional offerings might have been offered to a scholar who had no faith-response to the Bible.  He assured me, to the contrary, that as a Jesuit he took a passage in Ephesians as the motto for his own ministry.  I remember meeting him on the streets in Boston enroute to a seminar, where he encountered another Pauline scholar and entered and impromptu discussion of the social location of Paul and ancient Greco-Roman society.  Neyrey's work has benefitted me over and over, and I discovered him at SBL.

Besides the stripped-of-faith approach to the Scriptures that led quite a few scholars to (what seemed to me) to what appeared to be dishonoring readings of God's holy Word, there were other troubles.  Many of the lectureships featured different sections, primarily OT and NT.  I used to force myself to attend sections that were outside of my main preference in order to round-out my knowledge.  I was fairly offended and dismayed to see the Society offered sections to gay/lesbian perspectives (I never attended these).  I was not so averse to feminist sections, because I was/am sensitive to gender issues.  I also remember a bizarre lecture by Stephen D. Moore on postmodern readings of the Gospels.  His theory of literary deconstruction, when followed through, led to the destruction of any meaning in the text.
I learned a great deal that has enhanced my Bible understanding so as to benefit my personal spirituality and ministry.  I found my personal boundaries challenged.  Usually they stayed in place, but occasionally I was forced to admit having misplaced them and then re-setting them to a more God-honoring place.  SBL helped me to think critically, and to listen to careful scholars, some of whom enhanced my existing framework and others of whom presented an assault upon it.  I have always insisted that my faith should be able to engage such encounters, and that integrity demands that I hold only to what will truly stand scrutiny.  As such, I always understood and shared with those whom I brought to lectureships:
  • you will hear much with which you will disagree
  • you will hear much that you will not understand
  • but you will always be able to put in your pocket a few nuggets of pure gold
All that I've said of the lectureships applies as well to the generally very high quality of the offerings in the Society's quarterly, Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL).  Over the years I have often emailed authors of quality articles to thank and encourage them.  These articles were often gateways to other writings that deepened my Christianity.

Another trouble spot with SBL is the left-lean of its political perspective.  For example, when the Society arranges seminar accommodations with a hotel that is having a labor dispute, the Society always sides with labor.  I have no idea which side "justice" was on in these disputes, and my sense is that the Society did not either.  They chose sides only "to the left."  Similarly, Yale professor John J. Collins, in a 2002 presidential address at Toronto, used the "zeal of Phinehas" as a launching pad for leftist vitriol against Christianity and conservative politics.  When taking this tack, the Society was marching away from many of its members, such as myself.

The final straw that broke my involvement with SBL came with the
not believe what I was reading; I had thought that I belonged to a society of "Biblical" literature!  This announcement was followed by a troubling remark by the new General Editor, Adele Reinhartz, on October 12 of last year:

Scope. JBL has the reputation as a very high-quality vehicle for historical-critical and philological studies of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and certainly it is that. The consequence is that many scholars in our field whose research concerns materials outside of the Jewish or Christian canons (broadly defined) or who make use of approaches other than historical criticism and philology do not consider JBL when thinking about where to submit their best work. A closer look at the JBL table of contents, however, shows that articles on noncanonical literatures and topics, as well as those that use other kinds of methods, are in fact being published. The growing diversity of articles, in terms of subject matter and approach, is in my view to be encouraged, for as the “flagship journal” of the Society of Biblical Literature, JBL should reflect the range of sources (textual and material), perspectives, and methodologies that are in use in the field of biblical studies at our own moment in time, and it should continue to change along with the field itself. I would strongly encourage you to think about JBL as a journal to which to submit your best work in the broad and varied field of biblical studies, even if you might have thought that its subject matter and approach place it outside the journal’s usual purview. 
Reading between the lines, am I wrong to see that the welcome of  "materials outside of the Jewish or Christian canons (broadly defined)" essentially means that the "Society of Biblical Literature" was now to be infiltrated by Islamic perspectives?  My initial complaint received no response from the Society.

I let my membership lapse, and after two form-responses urging me to renew, I received a kind offer from Executive Director, John F. Kutsko, to hear any concerns that were perhaps hindering my renewal of membership.  When I shared the concerns in the terms stated above, he responded:

Thank you for your honest response. I am sorry you feel this way about the Qur’an initiative. I would remind you only this: that this initiative is not being funded by SBL, but by a grant to the SBL from the Luce Foundation. SBL will launch this independent organization, whose scholarship involves biblical traditions as a practice of reception history, an area our own members increasingly practice. The work of JBL, too, is not knew [sic]. It is trying to support, in addition to its current scope, work that our members do in reception history and history of interpretation.

Well, the response seems to me an attempt to justify the "prostitution" of the Society for the rather paltry amount of money offered by the Luce Foundation.  In this arrangement, this Foundation is positioned rather as a "pimp" that makes the Society available to Islam.  As I wrote to Mr. Kutsko, "I was very troubled by the decision of SBL to engage studies of non-Biblical literature from Islam.  I would see this as no more within the scope of our organization’s traditional intentions than would be a study of the literature of Mormon religion."  

I recognize the value of "reception history", of course.  But the value of noting the meanings of Biblical texts as they were apprehended by various recipients diminishes in value as the distance of reception is increased in time and in ideological deviation.  Thus, since both Islam and Mormonism have deviated from the Bible in both centuries of time and in additional textual base (e.g. the Koran, on the one hand, and the Book of Mormon, on the other), their perspectives have diminished in value for ever determining the original meanings of any Biblical text.  This is quite different than following the "history of interpretation" beginning with the earliest Christians in church history.  There may be some residual value even among somewhat later heretical groups, such as the Gnostics, but the value is negligible or even quite suspect when it winds through the very distant trails blazed by Islam and Mormon perspectives.  At this point, we seem to be on territory more appropriately occupied by AAR (American Academy of  Religion)--from which, as I understand it, the Society has recently broken longstanding ties.  SBL and AAR had traditionally coordinated seminars together.

So, it seems to me the Society of Biblical Literature has abandoned its traditional scope to embrace Islam.  This itself strikes me as another impulse in a leftist political agenda.  This severs our ties.  Rather than quitting, I have a real sense that the Society has abandoned me for a few dollars from the Henry Luce Foundation.  That's it; I am done.