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Is the SBL sick?

In the most recent Chronicle Review (November 10, 2006), Jacques Berlinerblau insists that the Society of Biblical Literature suffers from an allergy. He states that the SBL “is allergic to even thinking clearly and critically about itself, or listening to the concerns of its members.” Berlinerblau makes this diagnosis based on several presenting symptoms.

The most glaring symptom that Berlinerblau notices in his patient is that it is “unthreatening and placid”. This is striking to Berlinerblau since the Bible in America today is “soaring”. He wonders “why biblical scholarship isn’t sharing in all of this good fortune.” It is puzzling to Berlinerblau why the SBL does not have more “cultural cachet”. He believes his patient should be the one to whom the media and others turn when there is a question concerning the Bible. He goes so far as to state, “The SBL should be to the Bible what FIFA is to soccer.”

Berlinerblau lists other related issues to drive home the point that the SBL lacks relevance: no widely discussed books written by biblicists, biblical studies as a college major is in decline and usually housed in religious studies departments, many universities do not even have a biblical scholar on faculty, and there is no biblical scholar who has emerged as a public intellectual. Why, he asks, do so few in America listen to biblical scholars?

Berlinerblau recognizes that these symptoms are caused by several ills, but the one that stands out the most is the antipathy of the SBL to a vision. He claims the SBL “does not understand itself, or its membership, or its anomalous position in the comity of academic disciplines. It can’t have a vision until it sees itself for what it really is.”

For the sake of brevity, let me get right to Berlinerblau’s prognosis: too much confessional influence either by the context or the education of most SBL members. And so, “if nearly all biblical scholarship takes place within an explicit or implicit theological framework,” Berlenerblau claims, “then the discipline itself will flounder.” Given the variety of confessions within the SBL, it has done a commendable job of promoting interfaith dialogue. The problem with this, according to Berlinerblau, is that “[i]n a field whose operating principle is ecumenical banter, there is little place, or tolerance, for the heretic,” and “some of the very best thinking in the history of biblical scholarship has come forth precisely from heretics.”

Before giving his suggestion for treatment, Berlinerblau notes one last symptom of the allergy from which the SBL suffers. It encourages scholarly specialization, favoring “philology and archaeology, all the while avoiding the more capacious domain of hermeneutics.” Hermenutics, Berlinerblau rightly claims, “forces one to be a generalist. It is a diachronic enterprise through and through.” “So any attempt to study its continued interpretation must be interdisciplinary,” he writes, “and the scholar in question will have to step outside of well-defined fields of inquiry.” I have reserved commentary up to this point, and in fact I won’t offer much until tomorrow (or some other day) in a reflection on Berlinerblau’s comments, wherein I anticipate disagreeing with him at several points. However, on this last problem, I think Berlinerblau is spot on with regard to the nature of hermeneutics. I am just not sure the SBL’s umbrella is not big enough to fit both the specialists and the generalists, and I am not sure there is not a healthy dose of hermeneutical discussion already going on in the SBL. Of course, it may be of a more confessional nature and therefore ruled out on principle by Berlinerblau. I will say more later.

Berlinerblau’s plan for treatment: the SBL should 1) learn better its constituency; 2) learn better how to connect with lay audiences; 3) “devote thought and resources to the creation of a form of biblical scholarship that goes beyond theology and ecumenical dialogue.” He offers several specific suggestions about how the SBL might implement such treatment. These suggestions include 1) surveying the SBL membership, especially in order to find out how “evangelical” they are; 2) adopt a goal for creating 100 new positions in secular universities; 3) include more accessible titles in its publication series; 4) create a panel of SBL members to investigate disputes regarding alleged infringements of scholarly freedom; 5) suspend or abandon the ecumenical model.

Ultimately, it seems to me, what Berlinerblau wants is an SBL that is secular through and through. It’s an argument we’ve heard before. It’s just has not caught hold and I do not think it ever will. And I don’t think it’s because biblical scholars are a bunch of narrow-minded confessionalists.

Tomorrow I hope to comment on some of Berlinerblau’s thoughts. Initially, I am struck by the seeming opposite directions secularists and confessionalists are headed. On the one hand, we have people like Berlinerblau and Davies wanting to take the Bible out of the Church, at least for academic purposes. While on the other hand, we have a whole slew of very qualified and competent biblical scholars calling for better bridges between biblical scholarship and theology. The first group claims the second group does not understand academic scholarship, or if they do understand it they mistreat it. The second group claims the first group does not understand the nature of the texts to which their scholarship is directed, or if they do understand it they mistreat it. I am more inclined to throw my hat in with the second group. The first group seems more intent on preserving an ideal academician. The second group seems more intent on treating the subject matter for what it is.

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1 Comment»

  Pat McCullough wrote @

I like your last paragraph there about the two groups. Well said. Relates to Bockmuehl’s book too.


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