SBL: the root of all evil?

Hector Avalos has reflected recently on his membership in the Society of Biblical Literature and on biblical studies more generally. I cannot say that I am impressed with the maturity or the soundness of his views. In fact, I find myself disagreeing with him in just about everything he says. But it should be noted that this is not just because he is a secular humanist complaining (unjustly, I usually think) about the supposed dominance of faith-based scholarship in the academy. As a reflective Christian I welcome legitimate prophetic criticism which can help us believers remove the beam that is in our own eye when it comes to unwarranted assumptions, complacency or abuse of power. But I certainly don't think that Hector Avalos has given us such a critique.

Avalos charges that "The vast majority of SBL members are engaged in an elite leisure pursuit called "biblical studies," which is subsidized through churches, academic institutions, and taxpayers. Keeping biblical scholars employed, despite their irrelevance to anyone outside of faith communities, is the main mission of the SBL." Now it is certainly true that scholarship in any field can only thrive when the appropriate cultural mechanisms are in place, and this includes a substantial amount of leisure time on behalf of its practitioners. But Avalos seems to imply that this is something sinister, that it is both 'elitist' and 'leisurely', and this to me seems completely off base. Shall we bring the academic machine grinding to a halt because scholars don't move around as much as more 'manual' laborers? Avalos suggests that biblical scholars are irrelevant to anyone outside faith communities, as if to say that faith communities aren't worth sustaining or that the people who comprise these communities are second-rate people, or at any rate at least not very significant. Avalos seems to be ignoring that these 'faith communities' are not simply private groups of 25-30 people, but comprise hundreds of millions of believers all around the world. The suggestion that scholarship must be relevant only for those outside faith communities is ridiculous.

Avalos next outlines a bizarre theory of the social construction of value, according to which "Shakespeare's works, for example, have no intrinsic value, but they function as cultural capital insofar as 'knowing Shakespeare' helps provide entry into elite, educated society. The academic study of literature, in general, functions to maintain class distinctions rather than to help humanity in any practical manner."

Now it is certainly true that academia can be used to reinforce social hierarchies and that academic snobbery is a very bad thing. But I refuse to believe that Shakespeare only has value insofar as it provides entry into an elite academic club. Reading Shakespeare has been incredibly enriching for me personally. His language is a delight to read, especially out loud; he gives me a far greater range of expressiveness for romantic feelings, struggling with conscience, the perplexities of existence, etc. than I could ever come up with on my own. The suggestion that the great works of literature of the past only have value as it is culturally endowed for socio-political reasons is so far from the humanistic ideal of education that I can scarcely bring myself to speak civilly about it. Apparently Avalos' conception of helping humanity in a 'practical' manner excludes intellectual enrichment by way of acquaintance with great literature. We should all be working on the farms to produce more food and making more houses rather than studying literature and keeping humanistic culture alive.

But let's accept for the sake of argument that works of literature have no intrinsic value. This would make another of Avalos' objections completely meaningless. He complains that scholars and translators have focused their energies on the Bible as opposed to "thousands of other non-biblical texts of ancient cultures": "In archaeology, new inscriptions, even the most fragmentary and the barely comprehensible, are announced with great fanfare when there is a remote connection to the Bible. Meanwhile, thousands of more complete texts of other cultures still lie untranslated." But by his own admission there is nothing of intrinsic value in works of literature, so why should it matter that these other texts are ignored? If the Bible only retains its relevance and value becuase of the academic sanction of biblical scholars, how much more so would be the case with these other texts?

This leads into another bizarre complaint directed especially against the Society of Biblical Literature: that its members focus on the study of the Bible more than on other texts! He says that "Bibliolatry is what binds most members of the SBL together, be they conservative evangelicals or Marxist hermeneuticians." (see also his above comments on archeology) Aside from the dubious appropriation of the word 'bibliolatry' (which ironically was first used by biblical theologians who complained that inerrantists had substituted the Bible for the real, Living, Word of God), I can't believe he is levelling this protest against the Society of BIBLICAL Literature. Let's repeat again: BIBLICAL literature. You become a member of the SBL because you are interested in the BIBLE, not Mayan or Hindu or Afrikaans or other literature. How can he blame a professional society for focusing solely on its professed subject? That's like accusing the American Physical Society of 'physicolatry' because its members study physics and not some other subject!

Avalos has a slightly more nuanced discussion of the problem of the irrelevance of biblical worldviews. It must be admitted that when the Bible is studied in its proper cultural and historical context some of its imagery and ideas strike the modern reader as bizarre or even in some cases repulsive. Christian scholars have for the longest time used the principle of accomodation to account for the obvious fact that the Scriptures arose in a particular cultural and historical context, and we should not uncritically accept any and every cultural artifact from Biblical times as normative for faith today (i.e. Christians no longer abide by the regulations of the Temple cult). But the same if not more applies for the uncritical acceptance of modern cultural categories, as Peter Berger and others have stressed. C.S. Lewis had a great term for this phenomenon: chronological snobbery, the idea that newer is always better in the world of thought. Avalos apparently would dismiss out of hand the idea that the Bible should subject our own worldview to scrutiny rather than just the other way around. In so doing he submits to a radically timeless view of history in which we have nothing whatsoever to learn from the past. Put this way it is not surprising that he rejects the intrinsic value of Shakespeare, since the Bard is certainly very far away from us culturally, if perhaps not as far as the Bible.

There is certainly nothing wrong with his suggestion that more people should engage in 'practical' pursuits for the benefit of humanity. But the idea that this should happen at the EXPENSE of people entering academic work is completely off base. A modern civilization such as our own needs all kinds of specialists, including doctors, lawyers, scientists, businessmen, farmers and yes, academicians. I do not want to think about what would happen to civilization if people got the idea that only 'practical' pursuits are worth time and effort. A kind of Orwellian pragmatism would prevail, in which perhaps food and technology production would be at an all-time high and perhaps everyone would be fed and clothed, but there would be no intellectual culture to speak of, no free exchange of ideas, no enrichment through art, music or literature (they would have no intrinsic value anyway). I simply cannot bring myself to abandon the Renaissance ideal of education, which indeed involves learning 'for its own sake', not just what will make fields more productive or cars more efficient, although those pursuits definitely have their place.

In the end, I think that Avalos' commentary is a sad reminder of the state of disarray in the SECULAR academy, not the religious community. There is indeed a crisis of purpose in the modern academy, as academicians like George Marsden and C. John Sommerville have been arguing for a long time. But this is due to the postmodern rejection of truth and the suspicion of meta-narratives, not due to an excessive focus on faith-based perspectives. The Christian worldview has the 'cultural capital' to unite the pursuit of learning with real service to humanity, to say nothing of an immensely satisfying conception of "all truth as God's truth" which makes all fields of inquiry valid and significant. Compared to the great intellectual vision of the likes of Augustine and Aquinas of old, or more recently Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd, Hector Avalos' vision seems incredibly thin, excessively pragmatist and very uninspiring.


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