writing things down…

Is Jacques Berlinerblau sick?: Edginess and Relevance

Sorry, Jacques. I recognize that the title of the post is a little cheeky. [For links and my summary of Jacques Berlinerblau’s article in the November 10 issue of the Chronicle Review see yesterday’s post.]

In an attempt to follow Scot McKnight’s advice and work on shorter pieces, I have decided to take Berlinerblau’s article in pieces. Today’s question: “Does an academician or an academic society have to be edgy and controversial to be relevant?”

Berlinerblau, as you may recall, diagnosed the SBL as allergic to thinking critically about itself. One of the presenting symptoms was that it was not edgy, controversial or even relevant. Underneath this diagnosis is an image of what the SBL should be. I get the sense that Berlinerblau would like to see the SBL become a society for “a field of broad sociology or political theory” (thanks to an unnamed mentor for this phrase). Whether this is true or not, I wonder how an academic society with the sort of variety found in the SBL can, as a society, be edgy or controversial. I think by its very existence it promotes scholarship that can be and often is relevant. One need only watch the History channel long enough to see that the media does in fact turn to SBL members for “queries and concerns about Scripture”. One does not need to be on the NY Times bestsellers list to be relevant. I am not so sure the SBL can speak with a univocal voice on edgy and controversial issues. There are too many voices. Maybe that is the problem for Berlinerblau. If it is, then he really would like to see the SBL become something quite different than what it is. It is not clear to me how else the SBL could be edgy or controversial. And, it is not clear that it needs to be in order for it and its members to be relevant. I think it is better to talk about the members of the society being edgy, controversial and relevant. I have observed members that fit into all of these categories. I have also witnessed some who are “unthreatening and placid”. What is wrong with a society that makes space and gives forums for all sorts of scholars to get together and talk about all sorts of biblical issues? The society ought to encourage members to be edgy, controversial, unthreatening and placid, as long as they are relevant. And, on this issue of relevance, I think Berlinerblau’s observations are challenging. I just don’t think the society itself is the one responsible for being relevant. It is the responsibility of its members. Berlinerblau is an SBL member. Let him write and speak on relevant subjects. I am sure he has and will. But, he wonders if heretical appraisals are not given room to emerge frequently enough. Would they be heretical appraisals if they did emerge frequently? Isn’t it the nature of heresy to be over against the majority perspective? I do not see that heretical appraisals are failing to emerge in the SBL. Maybe they are not emerging enough for Berlinerblau. But how frequently can they emerge and still be heretical? Berlinerblau rightly reminds us “that some of the very best thinking in the history of biblical scholarship has come forth precisely from heretics.” I would want to remind Berlinerblau that an equal amount of the best thinking (if not more) has come from non-heretical scholars. Good scholarship does not have to “trespass upon dogmatic boundaries”. Furthermore, sometimes good scholarship comes from within those boundaries and challenges them to be moved. When Berlinerblau says “[trespassing on dogmatic boundaries is] what scholars do,” I think he is not being fair. It should be “what SOME scholars do.” And, he is right, trespassing on boundaries is “hard to do, or dangerous to do, down at the seminary.” But, isn’t it equally difficult for some scholars to purposefully stay within the boundaries down at the university? Won’t they be branded as naive, narrow-minded fundamentalists? Just a thought. Not completely sure if I have refuted Berlinerblau. I more wanted to raise questions about his observations. I’d like to hear what you have to say about edginess and relevance.

Future considerations:

  1. Is the SBL too confessional or even too evangelical? Are “non-believers” being shut out? Do graduates of theological seminaries have an advantage? [I wish!] And more broadly, is it fair to speak on the whole about evangelicals, fundamentalists, neo-evanglicals, and neo-fundamentalists as one group?
  2. Is the SBL too specialized? Does it thwart interdisciplinary interpretation? Are the specialized articles of the JBL a fair representation of the SBL membership?
  3. Is the SBL abandoning the issue of of the Bible “outside the temporal frame of antiquity”?

I’ve just realized that I have framed all of these questions in the yes/no mold. This is in direct opposition to what I try to get my students to do when they construct research questions. Yes/no questions cut conversation short. In my defense, I am taking observations made by Berlinerblau and asking if they are fair observations. In that sense I am asking yes/no questions. I just wish I would have framed them differently now. They are too leading and combative. I’ll have to work on that as I try to develop this habit of writing.



  Pat McCullough wrote @

Good thoughts, Chris. Thanks. It’s hard for me not to think of Bart Ehrman as a SBL member that fits the mold of edginess and popular relevance, with bestsellers and appearances on John Stewart and the Colbert Report (I wonder if that is the ultimate indication that one has “arrived” on the stage of popular relevance). I think it would be great if more SBL members could write at the popular level, getting prominent spots at Borders with Ehrman or Pagels. The problem, I think, is that in order to be a hot item in the popular sphere, it seems people want something that is edgy and heretical. Luke Timothy Johnson and Tom Wright have written some fantastic things that are accessible to popular culture, but they just aren’t as provocative as “Misquoting Jesus” or “Lost Christianities” (or the DaVinci Code for that matter… actually writing popular-level books responding to the DaVinci Code has become an industry in itself!).

“The society ought to encourage members to be edgy, controversial, unthreatening and placid, as long as they are relevant.” I’m wondering what relevant means. We can certainly find things that are meaningful and applicable in SBL writings, but does Berlinerblau mean simply this or more that the SBL should be culturally relevant for popular conversation? If it is the latter, I think it is absurd for an academic society to be guided by the whims of popular interest in biblical issues. Sure, SBL members can offer their point of view on those issues (e.g., DaVinci Code, Gospel of Judas, etc.), but that shouldn’t be their singular goal. FIFA is not an academic society. Do other academic societies have to be defined by their popular relevance? I’d like to know which ones.

“Would they be heretical appraisals if they did emerge frequently? Isn’t it the nature of heresy to be over against the majority perspective?” Just a side comment: my reading of Berlinerblau is that by “heresy” he meant something more like what has been defined as “heretical” by historic orthodox Christianity (I know that’s a fuzzy term), not just whatever might be a minority view of a group such as the SBL. So it sounds like the whole of the SBL could be defined as “heretics” under the rubric of historic orthodox Christianity, and he would still call them “heretics” (descriptively, not polemically) even though they are the dominant voice in the SBL.

  katagrapho » RBL 13 June 2007 wrote @

[…] of Jacques Berlinerblau (remember him?), The Secular Bible by Mark G. Brett […]

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