Thanks to Kevin Wilson for calling attention to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “What’s Wrong with the Society of Biblical Literature?” by Jacques Berlinerblau. It’s a fine and lengthy article, dealing with the confessional underpinnings of the SBL, its pseudo-secular character, driven by the goal of interfaith dialogue more than anything else:
The SBL’s promotional literature doesn’t acknowledge a peculiarity about the society that strikes nearly every outside observer: Its membership is most decidedly not like that of any other academic society. The overwhelming majority of its practitioners work in the confessional contexts of seminaries and divinity schools…and through their work pursue ends relevant to those contexts…
The SBL cannot address the situation, because it cannot bring itself to acknowledge the confessional underpinnings of the enterprise… Strange as it might sound, the society’s governing ethos, as I have described it, amounts to a sort of reluctant pseudosecularism… This reluctant secularism is so soft that it degenerates into an ethos of ecumenicism. In fact, this is really what the society excels in: fostering interfaith dialogue… Isn’t this more properly the purview of the National Conference of Christians and Jews? What business does a putatively academic association have in the ecumenicism industry?…
An ecumenical vision has real drawbacks… In a field whose operating principle is ecumenical banter, there is little place, or tolerance, for the heretic… [But] some of the very best thinking in the history of biblical scholarship has come forth precisely from heretics…
The society needs to devote thought and resources to the creation of a form of biblical scholarship that goes beyond theology and ecumenical dialogue. That would require exploring ways to speak about the Bible that are not specifically Jewish or Episcopalian or Lutheran. In so doing, the SBL would be required to suspend or, ideally, abandon its ecumenical model. In its place, a harder secular model would be advocated. Its motto: “Criticize and be damned!”
I think this cuts to the heart of what we’ve discussed before on the blogs, particularly in James Crossley’s dangerous idea that biblical studies should become a genuinely secular discipline. There’s a part of me that wants to see that happen. Hey, if scholars of the crusades can do it, bible specialists can join the rest of the world too.
I’d like to comment on two things, first on a remark made in passing by Crossley:
“The idea of the unpapal conclave sometimes gets mentioned in these debates and is a great idea in the abstract but simply cannot be put into practice as things stand and we should not pretend otherwise.”
Actually, the unpapal conclave idea is useful — James should know, since he participated on one — though admittedly in a very limited way. It gets at common denominators, in the sense that any points of consensus reached among people so diverse stand a good chance of being objectively true. But that says nothing for all the areas of disagreement, and we know there are loads of those.
More importantly, a more general observation, particularly directed at those who were nonplussed by the article. Zacharias wrote:
“It is the society of BIBLICAL literature. The bible will never come out of the hands of the communities that hold it as scripture, nor should it… Confessional communities are our primary ‘consumers’ and will continue to be so.”
But not only is this irrelevant to the point being made — namely the problems that have come with this particular faith-dominated field — I don’t think anyone is asking believers to “stand aside” and not participate in the academic task, only to make more efforts in keeping apologetics and interfaith issues where they belong (elsewhere). To use an analogy with historians of the crusades: pious Catholics are naturally found here, though you’d have little reason to guess they were “pious Catholics”. There is simply no analogue of a Tom Wright, Ben Witherington, or William Lane Craig in crusade scholarship. Jonathan Riley-Smith is no apologist for the crusades, even if he can lend a sympthatetic ear to them. Outlandish claims like this —
“I regard [Jesus being raised from the dead] as coming in the same sort of category of historical probability so high as to be virtually certain, as the death of Augustus in AD 14 or the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.” (Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God, p 710).
— aren’t found in other fields of study. No one, however pious the scholar, claims the crusaders really found the Holy Lance (that pierced the side of Christ on the cross) after the siege of Antioch in 1098, nor that accompanying visions of Christ, Mary, Peter, and Andrew somehow contained an objective reality. Crusade academics don’t rhapsodize about their faith like a Ben Witherington.
This, I think, is what Berlinerblau is getting at in his article: the “peculiarity about the SBL that strikes nearly every outside observer”, “its membership most decidedly not like that of any other academic society”, that a large number of biblical scholars, through the academic task, “pursue ends relevant to confessional contexts”. And that’s more than a fair observation, even if the author’s rhetoric runs away with him at times, and even if he seems a bit paranoid about Christianity in general.