Open Letter to SBL concerning their Proposed Ban of IVP from the Annual Convention (Updated)

I’ve just heard word that Dr. John Kutsko, Executive Director of SBL, has written to InterVarsity Press, informing them that there is a proposal to temporarily suspended IVP from hosting a book stall at the annual convention in Boston in 2017 pending advisement from the executive committee and AAR (who can ratify or reject the proposal). The objection of SBL is that IVCF’s employee policy requires subscription to a document called “Theological Summary of Human Sexuality,” which in SBL’s mind severely restricts free inquiry.

Can I urge all SBL members who read this blog to avail themselves to the facts, like how Time Magazine misrepresented IVCF’s policy and practice about staff expectations, find out what SBL has told IVP, and then write an assertive and yet irenic letter to Dr. Kutsko saying how wrong this is. This is not safeguarding academic freedom, it is censorship, and turning SBL into a confessional organization.

Update: There have been positive and constructive conversations taking place. IVP is an evangelical publisher with good people, who are more than willing to respect SBL’s standards for open enquiry and professional standards of equality, while SBL has good will towards its publishing partners and their authors. Given the joint statement put out by IVP and SBL concerning IVP’s “right to exhibit,” the matter is being treated as a conversation about the protocols and expectations of exhibitors. I remain hopeful for a fair and equitable resolution. At this point, we can cease writing emails to the SBL head office, our voice and concerns have been heard.

—–

Dear Dr. John Kutsko,

Mate, I’m writing from Australia to say that I’m deeply concerned and confused about SBL’s proposal to suspend IVP from having a stall at the annual convention.

I read your letter to IVP and I understand the gravity and nature of your concerns. Be that as it may, I think these can be assuaged or at least several other factors need to weigh into your consideration.

First, as an SBL member and an IVP author, I have to say that I’ve found IVP to be professional and irenic. They publish a variety of perspectives, not just evangelical, and are committed to rigorous scholarship, interacting with diverse perspectives, with equality and fairness to other views, and are a brilliant publisher to work with – in fact, I intend to honor all future contracts with them for that very reason. I will then be most disappointed if one of my favourite publishers will not be able to showcase, sell, and promote my books at the annual convention.

Second, I think we need to distinguish the IVF campus ministry from the IVP publishing arm, while the two belong within the same umbrella, it would be unfair to impute the activities of every IVF chapter to the publisher. And let me add that no author of IVP books is required to affirm any statement of faith, as a result, there is no restriction on the freedom of expression of IVP authors in this regard. Our academic freedom within IVP is rock solid, in fact, probably better than some other publishers I know of. So, if you disagree with the IVF, fine, put out a press release; but I humbly ask that you don’t penalize IVP and its authors because of it.

Third, much of the response made to IVP is based on the article that appeared in Time Magazine, which was woefully inaccurate, as the good people at IVP will make you aware.

Fourth, the decision leads to several problems. Does a potential ban apply just to IVP-USA or also to IVP-UK. The two publishers are umbilically linked but independent. Yet I am positive that IVP-UK will support IVP-USA in its decisions and ethos in this matter. And to complicate things more, IVP-UK is now embedded as part of SPCK. So, does the IVP-USA ban extend to IVP-UK and to SPCK? This might be messier than you realize (Sorry to IVP-UK and SPCK for dragging you into this, but, such is the nature of the subject).

Fifth, and somewhat baffling, is what you wrote to IVP. You said that SBL was committed to: “a variety of critical perspectives …  diversity of participation and unhindered critical discourse …  free inquiry and expression.” John, mate, I don’t want to be confrontational, but can you explain to me how does banning a publisher from the annual conference increase the diversity, free inquiry and expression of SBL? It does the opposite, it cabines diversity, it censures certain elements of belief, and inhibits free expression. Let me be clear, to ban IVP from the annual convention does not safeguard the academic freedom of SBL members, it amounts to censorship, which many of us are very, very sensitive about.

Sixth, I think it is worth remembering that some publishing houses are confessional, whether that is IVP, Prometheus, Liturgical Press, or Jewish Publishing Society, and they are within their rights to publish books in accordance with their beliefs and guidelines. I’ve been turned down by publishers for being too conservative and by others for being too liberal. What you are proposing creates a very dangerous precedent for confessional publishers whose views do not accord with the ideology and predilections of the executive committee. I joined SBL to be part of a professional society where a variety of perspectives are exhibited in seminars and at the bookstalls. I’m not interested in being part of a professional society that is a shill for social progressives or a proxy for conservatives. SBL is a society that deals with the study of religious texts by people of all faiths and none, where there is no doctrinal Taliban at the door checking which publishers I’ve bought books from. I think I speak for many when I say that I rather we kept it that way.

I wish you all wisdom and grace as you and the executive committee contemplate these things.

Rev. Dr. Michael F. Bird
Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia.

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