Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thoughts on SBL and the Present State of Biblical Studies

I had a good conference at SBL Atlanta this year. In fact, it was one of the better ones. I heard several good papers and enjoyed catching up with others in the field. The location was excellent since Atlanta is easy to get around and food, although more expensive than Ashland, was reasonable for a major city.

I must confess, however, to holding a certain level of disquiet when I think about my chosen field and what the future holds for it. This stems not from my regular work environment, my colleagues nor the students I teach. I admit that I am quite happy there and with what I do. I am still thrilled to think that someone actually pays me to do this. Some days I am afraid I will have to find a “real job”.

No, my anxiety level rises up each year when I attend the annual meeting. Somehow the meetings have had the same waning effect on me as Christmas. I remember the first one that I attended. I was overcome by the sheer number of papers. I scheduled my days so full that I was often unable to find time to eat lunch between sessions. I read name tags on the sly and began to put faces with the names on the articles and monographs I had read. And oh the books! I had never seen so many and at such good prices. Surely there was a God and his address was someplace in Grand Rapids Michigan.

But eventually, like a child who no longer believes in Santa Claus, the magic of the meeting wore off. Now, having attended the meetings for more than a decade, I no longer find that they provide the level of intellectual stimulation that I crave. The papers can, I am sorry to say, be somewhat underwhelming.

But more than the sessions the thing that bothers me most is the sheer volume of material that is being published each year. I am not talking about peer reviewed scholarship. Rather, I am thinking about all of the other books that appear each year and are usually out of print within five years. I walk around the stalls and wonder how many more commentaries we need on Matthew, Joshua or any other book of the Bible (says the man who signed a contract to write a commentary).

What are we doing? Our scholarship has become, in some ways, a celebrity sport. We stand in awe of speakers who are introduced as the author of twenty books, over one hundred articles and three video series. Bart Ehrman and NT Wright appear on the Colbert report, and while I admit I found their performance entertaining, I wonder why it is that these people are held up as the representatives of scholarship in our field?

Whatever happened to the individual who only wrote three to five books in his/her whole career and yet truly left a lasting impression on the field? The sheer volume of books put out each year makes me suspect that the tail is wagging the dog. Sometimes, I fear that we consider the volume of publications produced as an indicator of our importance and indispensability. Like squids, we squirt ink and conclude that the small cloud produced in the water is indicative of the influence we are having in the greater ocean in which we live.

I wonder if I am the only one who feels this way or if I am just way too tired having coming off of the SBL experience.

Anyone out there have any opinions?


  1. I think there is a lot of pressure in the whole "publish or perish" mentality of academia. I imagine this causes one to "produce," in order to maintain their position and gain tenure. I can understand this drive especially after the countless years and money spent to gain a tenure track position. There is also the desire for status and influence among academics, as was mentioned by Dr. Byron. Certain scholars are elevated to celebrity status within the field according to how creative, thought provoking, or controversial their scholarship appears. What I find most disturbing is that the tendency for "truth" can become lost in this desire to gain status and keep one's position. If there is a drive to be more creative, and more innovative than the other guy, then how easily does "truth" recede into the background? As academics, it is our primary job to be in the pursuit of finding out "the truth." However, it appears all too often that the primary job of the scholar becomes, “How can I gain respect among my peers and obtain a position or keep my position?” In other words, “self” and “self-glorification” overrides “truth.” This was demonstrated by Albert Schweitzer and his scathing indictment of the “historical Jesus” scholarship of the 19th and 20th century. He devastatingly proved that each sketch of the historical Jesus by each scholar was nothing but a self-portrait of each scholar. It seems all too often that in scholarship we elevate ourselves much higher than we should. Sometimes we turn ourselves into Jesus, and other times we elevate ourselves and our careers above the reason we are there…“the truth.”

  2. John, I think you have highlighted a significant problem. From a student's perspective, the amount of literature is incredibly overwhelming. In fact, it can be quite intimidating to aspiring scholars especially when it comes to application time. When looking at particular professor's CVs, it's easy to think to yourself, "How in the world has that individual had the time to research and write all of those papers and books?" And, "How will I ever compete?" As if competition is what we, as biblical scholars, should be striving toward. Although unpublished, and unable to attend this years SBL, my thoughts (from however limited a perspective) tend toward feeling that the pressure of the whole "publish or perish" attitude forces students and scholars alike to publish inadequately researched and argued papers and books. Where do we get off, as very often new students of the trade, with little worldly experience, thinking that we have the background or the expertise to truly contribute to scholarship at this stage in the game? I've read too many published articles that had very little to say. I, personally, would rather wait to publish until I really had something to contribute to the field.

  3. I just returned from Atlanta myself, and it was my fifth or sixth SBL, can't remember. I think you're a little workshop-fatigued like we all are, but you make good points. I'm not dismayed by the celebrity culture that has invaded academia, esp. biblical scholarship, I'm just grieved, but then I'm grieved about a lot of things. I thought this year's SBL was on the more exceptional side compared to others. I think it's because I spent time with younger, emerging scholars who have a contagious perspective about influencing a field. They bring fresh perspectives and an attitude of humility in learning. I need to learn from that, and we all can remember that instead of whining about how I feel (not that you are) maybe we should our time in not allowing my despondencies to others that will make a difference after I leave the scene.