Friday, January 14, 2005

Thoughts on the Survey from the Society of Biblical Literature

The Society of Biblical Literature is circulating a survey among its members. Here is its text:
The United States election of 2004 witnessed the emergence of values, often referred to as Christian values or biblical values, as key political issues. The values most commonly identified in public debates were the issues of gay marriage, abortion, and stem-cell research.

The Society of Biblical Literature, which is the largest international, professional association of teachers and scholars of the Bible, calls attention to the fact that the values so prominently and divisively raised in this 2004 U.S. election are not major concerns in the Bible, and in fact are not even directly addressed in the Bible. Rather, they tend to reflect the underlying problems of homophobia, misogyny, control of reproductive rights, and restraint of expression (including scientific research) in U.S. society today.

With over 7,000 members representing a broad range of political and religious leanings, the Society of Biblical Literature has fostered discussions of such fundamental problems against the background of biblical ethics and respect for all human beings. As many of our members have indicated in publications and lectures, the moral issues dominating the biblical texts focus instead on concerns such as the well-being of individuals, the integrity of community, care for the powerless and the vulnerable, economic justice, the establishment of peace, and the stewardship of the environment.

The Society of Biblical Literature urges citizens and political agencies to direct their energies toward securing these goals and values of well-being and responsibility.
I voted DISAGREE and submitted the following comment:
This survey is an effort to coopt what should be an apolitical organization for political purposes. It suggests that a particular angle or perspective on the biblical texts is or should be typical and that other views or uses of the Bible are problematic or illegitimate. I reject this kind of totalizing discourse, and I further suggest that the SBL should in the future resist any temptation to use its name as a symbol for what may or may not be said politically on the basis of biblical texts. Succumbing to such a temptation is the shortest way to making itself irrelevant in the public square by alienating many of its own.
This survey is the most depressing thing I have read for many days, especially since at the present moment, over 70% of the members voted AGREE.

I'm very much afraid this will fracture the SBL's membership at a key moment in its history.

[I deleted the illustrative comments I quoted from the other members. ]

UPDATE (1/14): Many thanks to all of you, for your comments below, and for the e-mails I've received. I'm particularly thankful to Christopher Brady (see his comment [UPDATE: regrettably now unavailable, see below]) for the information that this survey is an attempt to test the waters and will likely be discussed at the next annual meeting. I hope this resolution will meet there with the rejection it so richly deserves.

When I discussed this with my wife, a historian, she characteristically saw exactly what was at stake. "They're trying to commit the SBL to a particular interpretation of the Bible," she said. "Even if you agree with that interpretation, that's just wrong. It's not about politics, it's about academic freedom." Yep.

UPDATE (1/14, 1:50 pm): I have hidden all the comments on this post. I regret doing this, since most of the comments were thoughtful and worthwhile, but some anonymous commenters have been abusing the privilege. From now on, this weblog will accept comments only from those registered with Blogger; others who wish to comment must e-mail me.

ANOTHER UPDATE (1/14): I referred above to the comment of "Christopher Brady." Sorry, senior moment. I knew better: Chris Brady is Christian M. M. Brady, author of The Rabbinic Targum of Lamentations, published by Brill.

LAST UPDATE (1/16): Other discussions can be found at Apikorsus Online, Biblical Theology, The Coding Humanist (here, here, and here),, Hypotyposeis, Paleojudaica (here and here), and SansBlogue. If I missed linking anyone, please let me know. Thanks to all for a most interesting discussion!