Reception of the Berlineblau article: what should not be overlooked
Well the world of blogging has enjoyed this one and as the topic of secularism is one close to my heart, it is that issue that I would just want to emphasise because it is arguably the most important if biblical studies wants to function as an academic discipline.
People may say that the Bible is the book of believers and that is where its heart is. Well whatever, but why was I like, many undergraduates across the UK at least, taught Islam and the Quran by a non-Muslim and no one thought this unusual for one minute whereas an openly non-believing scholar of biblical studies tends to stick out? I'm now guessing, but I wonder if it would be fairly normal for an academic study of (say) Islam or any other non-Christian religion to to have so many confessional academics? But more to the point, to what extent should we care if the Bible is at the heart of Christian communities in academic biblical studies? Should we take on more anthropological or sociological models when discussing the Bible, or better treat it like other non-theological disciplines in the humanities treat their primary source material? That's my personal model (though getting involved with the issue of the resurrection shows that I do not or cannot in this context put this fully into practice).
My real problem is that biblical studies, or at least the historical study of Christian origins, will bypass tricky issues if it stays largely in the hands of the faithful and not be able to function fully as a serious academic subject. There are many examples of this and I have mentioned a few on this blog. Again, Marxism (and note this is not to say we should become Marxists) and the interdisciplinary history of the Annalists. In the mid-C20 when there were plenty of Marxist historians providing grand explanations of this, that or the other (think of Hill, Hobsbawm, Hilton, Thompson et al). Annales produced Braudel. Nothing like this was going on in the heavily studied area of Christian origins and it is not going too far to suggest that confessional dominance was the reason. Plenty of NT scholars want to do history but how far are they really prepared to go in historical explanation?
One e.g.: I keep running into trouble with believers for using conventional (in the humanities) approaches to conversion to explain recruitment to earliest Christianity and why it shifted toward a gentile religion. I don't get critiqued because of the pros and cons of the approach but because I don't discuss faith. But try using faith to explain historical change and you won't get far at all.
Such problems are embedded in the discipline and is difficult to avoid. The UK NT scene is packed full of these issues. Prayers have opened conferences, theological colleges have a significant say in the running of various affairs (could you imagine places reserved for secular types or non-believers?). Whatever the virtues or vices of such things, it only re-inforces what the discipline is about and what it is not about.
To the article:
First, the SBL desperately needs to know more about the identity of its own practitioners, and it needs to share that information with its members. I would like to see a census, if you will, of the rank and file. The questions of interest to me: What percentage of members practice in theological institutions? What percentage work in a university not affiliated with any denomination? Of the latter, how many did their graduate work in seminaries? What is the denominational breakdown of the society? Is the persistent rumor that the SBL is dominated — if not overrun — by conservative Christians true?
That is an interesting idea. This could extend to SNTS, BNTC etc. etc. I think it is pretty clear that most scholars are Christians (esp. in NT and Christian origins) but it really would be useful analysis of the discipline. It would sharpen the focus on how interest groups have shaped questions (and answers).
As a conversation starter, I would suggest that the SBL adopt the goal of creating 100 new positions in biblical scholarship in the next decade in secular universities. (Seminarians, naturally, are encouraged to apply, but universities should be mindful of the importance of having secular scholars on staff.) This would mean making the case to academe (and the public at large) about the Bible's central and enduring place in humanistic inquiry. I might also recommend that the society get a little nasty. It should aggressively caution secular universities against excessively outsourcing biblical instruction to either theological institutions or part-time clergymen. This is no slight on theology — it is simply a question of creating more job opportunities for beleaguered graduate students.
Now we are at the heart of what should be a very uncomfortable issue: what do we do with confessional imbalance? I pretty sure there are plenty of secular types who are potential for recruitment to biblical studies, if only they knew it so to speak. But how do we go about it? Positive discrimination? I really don't know the answer, and whatever it is it might not be fair, but something needs to be done. A Christian dominated discipline, for all the disinterested work of individuals, will bring a range of Christian results as the history of the historical study of Christian origins at least shows. I keep saying all this and it is a basic and obvious point. It is a convenient issue to ignore but there is plenty of rhetoric about acting like historians in my own field by good Christians who then invoke the supernatural in history, something most mainstream historians would not even come close to doing. This is a serious challenege for the credibility of an academic discipline.
Now, I'm all for the range of positions, no problem. But here I come up against an inevitable tension: if there are so many theological colleges, seminaries, confessional departments and so on simply as part of the structure of the discipline am I going to be a convenient secularist to wheel out because I'm not hostile to religion or belief? Again I emphasise, what can be done? And for believers, are your results (let's say in the history of Christian origins) ever going to be tested to the full if only intra-Christian dispute is going on? I don't think so but I'm starting to repeat.
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.
Anyway, don't you forget to see more of this fun at the secular session at AAR/SBL (I'll mention it again, don't worry) where I (James not John Crossley) will be on the panel with Berlinerblau.
Not wanting to get all partisan but in the UK there is of course one Biblical Studies department in a secular university...