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The SBL and Secular Biblical Criticism: Identity, Persons, or Method?

March 24, 2011

Earlier this week I posted some reflections of the SBL and secular biblical criticism, and it generated more discussion than I was anticipating. Several scholars weighed in on the subject, and in some instances quite passionately. The discussion has continued at several other sites, and I thought I would add some further thoughts to my original post.

Jim Linville posted earlier today concerning this issue and briefly made three important points:

1) Secularism does not equal atheism or anti-religion.

2) Secular scholarship represents the majority of work done under the SBL’s auspices at the meetings and certainly in terms of its publication efforts.

3) People who work for denominational colleges or are believers can be, and often are, very good scholars and do a lot of work fully in tune with what we mean by “secular”.

There is simply no need to argue these issues again in the comments. No one, as far as I can tell, is suggesting that to belong to a group of faith renders one incapable of rigorous scholarship. However, among the many insightful comments left on the last post there is one that sticks out for me, and clarifies the issue for me.

Dr. Rebecca Raphael wrote:

It’s a fallacy of false dilemma to claim that either one accepts the Bible (whichever canon) in faith commitment, or one is a “Bible-basher.”…So the further question is what anyone hopes to gain by using this particular fallacy.

There’s also a straw person argument lurking here. Why is it that these discussion so often get side-tracked into questions of membership and identity — when the real issue is is method? Method is an activity (feel free to pluralize these nouns), not a category of persons.

The SBL isn’t clear, and should be, about whether the core value of “inclusiveness” refers to inclusiveness of persons only, or also of viewpoints, methods, etc. At the business meeting in Atlanta, I raised this question, but so far, no further specification of what the core value means is forthcoming. For my own part, I don’t even care to try to influence the needed clarification in any direction; I just want to know what the organization stands for, so that I can then decide whether it’s an appropriate venue for my future work.

I believe Dr. Raphael highlights an important issue here: what’s at stake in this conversation? As far as I can tell it is not the intention of anyone involved in the SBC section to force people to eat swine flesh metaphorically à la the Maccabean period! So, what is at stake?

Is it inappropriate membership in a group? I don’t think so…

Is it identity outside of the SBL? I don’t think so?

Is it appropriate academic method? Yes, at least, I hope so. Now here is a very important question related to this: is it appropriate to discuss methodology in an academic setting? I’m trusting that I don’t have to answer that question for anybody involved in the academy if their experience of examining different methodologies; practicing their own preferred methodology; and refining the analysis, critique, and use of different methodologies under the watchful tutelage of more experienced practitioners has been anything like mine. I’m assuming that at some point in all of our academic experiences we have employed a method, or followed a line of reasoning that was graded as less than stellar and we were told and shown how to improve our methodology.

Or maybe I’m the only one that had to do this?

So within the discussion of methodology, I believe, is where this conversation must begin and where it should proceed (which is why I brought up issues such as normativity in my last post: is that an appropriate method and practice for secular biblical studies).

Dr. Linville further highlights the problem of making this an identity issue:

how odd do these disciplines sound: ”Humanist Shakespeare Studies. Non-Confessional African History. Analytical Homeric Criticism.” This is the essence of the problem we see see with the current academic landscape surrounding the study of the Bible, its producers, and consumers throughout the ages. It is an issue that does not arise in most of the humanities and social sciences too often and scholars working in these fields do not have to identify themselves over and against “confessional” perspectives.

Does making biblical studies ‘confessional’ obscure methodological practices from elsewhere in the humanities? Is identity an appropriate means of including or excluding elsewhere in the humanities? Probably not, but as I move forward with this question and in the methodology of my own work (for which I am repeatedly grilled by my extremely pleasant yet unrelenting task-master!) I think I would rather approach this and other biblical studies from the angle of methodology–which is totally appropriate to discuss and critique, and even discard if non-useful to the task at hand–rather than some obfuscating discussion of identity or membership in groups outside of the SBL.

So there’s my two cents, with a nickel from Dr. Linville, and  a dime from Dr. Raphael.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dr. Jim permalink
    March 25, 2011 9:20 am

    Well done again, Scott! To a certain point scholars working with different methodologies simply talk past each other, e.g., the “synchronic” vs. “diacrhonic” critics, but there is at least some common ground in with the two sides could make sense out of and to each other, this common ground is purely an intellectual matter. When “faith” provides the premises or key components of the approach guiding research project, then the common ground essentially evaporates for those who cannot buy into the existence of a deity or the particular deity the researcher believes in.

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