Readers might recall my unforgivable screed in The Chronicle Review back in 2006. It was entitled “What’s Wrong with the Society of Biblical Literature?” and my answer five years ago was: everything.
The Society is now under new management with newly appointed executive director John Kutsko. Word on the scriptural street is that the new guy “gets it.” I hope he does because the field is afflicted by a variety of crises.
I enumerated many of these crises at the annual meeting of the SBL which took place in San Francisco this past weekend. At a panel on Sunday entitled “The Future of Biblical Scholarship,” I argued that the future lies squarely in the hands of the SBL’s leadership.
Among many other challenges, headquarters needs to figure out if it truly wants to be a learned society—one that fosters critical, open-ended scholarship on the Bible and defends the principle of free academic inquiry.
Should the SBL fail to rise to that challenge, the discipline will remain mired in its current dilapidated state: ignored by the public at large, disrespected (and ignored) by humanists in other fields, rife with apologetics, fractured to the point of incomprehensibility, and incapable of assuring that the seminaries and div schools which constitute its bread and butter respect the principle of scholarly freedom.
It was with all of this in mind that on Monday afternoon I sauntered into session P21-291 sponsored by the Society for Pentecostal Studies.* It was the presence of the Pentecostal group in the SBL, by the way, that had previously raised the ire of one of my Sunday co-panelists, Professor Ronald Hendel of UC-Berkley.
Hendel had actually left the SBL last year, slamming the door on his way out. He penned his own screed (now behind a paywall) also lamenting the pervasively confessional, anti-rationalist, tilt of the Society. This should give you a sense of his concerns:
The battle royal between faith and reason is now in the center ring at the SBL circus. . . . 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.
In any case, it was with all of this in mind that I sat through the SPS’s Monday session. A dozen scholars were in attendance for the three presentations, each 25 minutes in length.
The moderator opened the session by asking for prayers on behalf of a colleague who had experienced a death in the family. There was, however, no formal moment of prayer and none of this struck me as inappropriate.
Another panelist finished a thoughtful paper by asking for “additional prayerful reflection on this text and this topic.” And yet another invoked the name of Jesus at least a 100 times in her discussion of the Book of Revelation.
Still, none of that astonished me as much as the way that the presenters reasoned through their subject matter. Their stated remarks were devoid of nearly any reference to biblical scholarship. The speakers each built their arguments almost exclusively by citing scriptural passages in an effort to figure out what the Bible was trying to say.
This is highly unusual—the typical exegete’s research leans heavily on the findings of modern biblical scholarship and those findings are prominently integrated into the substance of the analysis.
Making this more unusual was the fact that all of the presenters had considerable training as biblical scholars. All had professional familiarity with ancient Greek and probably biblical Hebrew. A glance at their footnotes (two of the presenters handed out copies) indicates that they were, in fact, acquainted with secondary scholarly literature, especially biblical commentaries.
But that secondary literature was relegated to the backmatter. It could not, for some reason, intrude upon the presenter’s interpretation of scriptural verses. These verses were assumed to link together into a larger pattern of meaning; a meaning which constituted the truth of the Scripture and the labor of the scholar.
This was, then, an approach predicated on not asking the types of troubling questions that exegetes have been asking for centuries if not millennia: Was the text I am studying written by the person who claims to have written it? Did the events recounted in the text actually happen? Can I trust that the text’s author (or authors) depicts events accurately? To what degree can we assume that the supernatural occurrences in these texts actually occurred?
None of these questions were asked, though the group did ask a lot of questions. Which leads me to note something quite endearing about the SPS folks: Their Q and A was unusually civil, cooperative, and good-natured.
A comment about John 20:22 from the floor led to an impromptu 20-minute conversation. One of the presenters was so intrigued by the back and forth that he asked the moderator to deduct time from his forthcoming presentation so he could address the problematic at greater length. The participants seemed earnestly interested in listening to one another.
That these Pentecostal scholars appeared like extraordinarily nice people—the types of folks that emerge from the darkness to help you fix a flat tire—shouldn’t obscure the complex questions that their affiliation with the SBL raises.
To what degree is this type of scholarship comparable with what the rest of the academy understands to be scholarship? If it is taken as a given that God exists, that the Bible is His word and His Truth, and that one’s job is to cooperatively identify that Truth, then what happens to the scholarly ideal of critical inquiry? To what degree does a professor in a Pentecostal seminary have the right to challenge these articles of faith? And what happens to her when she does that?
How do Berlinerblau or Hendel or anyone else who is not a member of this faith community fit into any of this? Is participation in an SPS session open to all members of the SBL?
It would be wrong to ask these questions solely of Pentecostals. What many of us in the SBL have been alleging for years is that the prevalence of organized religious blocs in the Society creates a state of affairs that is unhealthy for scholarship on the Bible and Bible scholars.
* The SPS is described as a “Program Affiliate” and as far as I can tell from the the SBL Web site the members of an affiliate must also be members of the SBL.
The papers presented were:
Roger Stronstad, Summit Pacific College, “The Prophethood of All Believers: Three Voices, One Message”
Melissa Archer, Pentecostal Theological Seminary, “Worship in the Apocalypse: A Narrative Pentecostal Reading”
John Christopher Thomas, Pentecostal Theological Seminary, “The Thousand-Year Reign (20.1-10)”