Blogging Roundup: It Is Critical That SBL Remain Critical

Professor Ronald S. Hendel posted a controversial article about why he allowed his Society of Biblical Literature membership to lapse. He is concerned that a certain religious outlook which allows faith to trump or circumvent scholarship is coming to predominate, and that this change in outlook in what is supposed to be a scholarly organization is reflected in a change made to its mission statement.

The Society of Biblical Literature has posted a response.

Among the bloggers that have responded, reflected, commented, or in some other way participated in discussing this topic are are Doug Mangum, Suzanne McCarthy, John Hobbins, Bob Cargill, Mike Bird, Chris Brady, Joseph KellyStephen Carlson, Ken Schenck, Joel Watts, Carl Sweatman, Jim Davila and Jim West.

What are your views on this? My own view is that an organization of this sort can only be what its members make it. To leave it is unlikely to help improve the Society of Biblical Literature, nor is it likely to result in the creation of a new organization that is more scholarly while also being diverse in precisely the way SBL is. SBL’s diversity is a strength (if at times it can also be a cause of frustration), since it exposes presenters’ claims to an audience that is likely to be skeptical rather than uncritically receptive – and skeptical for a range of different reasons. While some members might bristle at expressions of religious faith by other members, the feeling is bound to be mutual, and those of us who do not think that religious faith and serious scholarship have to be incompatible are thrilled that people of faith who are grad students and scholars continue to present at SBL to an audience that includes people who do not share their faith, and will not refrain from asking pointed questions about unexamined assumptions and unjustified claims.

This does not mean that Hendel is wrong in his criticisms. There seem to be scholars who still find themselves unable to consistently do what I struggle to teach my undergraduate students to do, namely express themselves in ways appropriate to a scholarly venue. In other settings, it may be appropriate to speak in terms of deep convictions that you are unable to justify by argument to everyone’s satisfaction. In a scholarly context, however, it is expected that you will deal with evidence and make a case for your conclusions. And since you cannot ever prove that God spoke to Moses, you always write something like “in the account in Exodus, God speaks to Moses.” This doesn’t exclude the possibility that someone could believe that God did indeed speak to Moses. It is an acknowledgment that you cannot prove that, and certainly not within the confines of a conference paper, article or review.

Topics like this one are not new. Back in 2006 there was an article which generated some discussion in the biblioblogosphere.

There are plenty of organizations that only allow people to be members who are willing to sign a credal statement of some sort. SBL can include both them and the people who cannot and/or would not sign such statements, because scholarship is not about signing statements of faith. It is about academic rigor and seeking to justify one’s conclusions. All that needs to happen for the Society of Biblical Literature to continue to provide an organizational home to a broad community of scholars is for those who engage in scholarly discourse in SBL-related venues to use appropriate academic discourse. But standing aside and allowing anyone who would dilute the scholarly character of the organization to muscle their way into power is not an appropriate response.

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  • Bill

    Great post, James.I'd think that to whatever extent 'noncritical scholarship' is an oxymoron, the SBL motto still has it covered.Would you agree?

  • James F. McGrath

    Bill, I would indeed agree, and you gotta admit, what the SBL mission statement lacks in specificity it makes up for in succinctness. Seriously, is there any organization that can beat SBL, having a mission statement with two words or less?! :)

  • Anonymous