Monday, February 5, 2007

The Future of AAR and SBL?

This morning the future of the AAR and SBL is on my mind as I begin preparing the sessions for the New Testament Mysticism Project. Why AAR severed our joint meeting has been a topic of conversation between many of us, but one issue is always brought up when I talk to my AAR colleagues - that the American Academy of Religion wishes to distance itself from the bible-centered study of religion that dominates the Society of Biblical Literature. Many of my colleagues in AAR are glad to see the "theologians" (their word) go. Then I think of ASOR, who just voted not to join with us again. Why? Could it be that the archaeologists don't want to deal with the biblical scholars because they perceive us to be "theologians" too? I don't know the answer to this because I have not spoken with members of ASOR yet.

I think those of us who are historians in the Society of Biblical Literature, if we haven't already should be concerned about the perceptions of our colleagues in related societies. What does it mean that we are perceived as "theologians" and not historians? As an historian, I am particularly worried for us. Will we become increasingly isolated in the Society? What will it mean to the study of Religion that the AAR will have lost along with the "theologians," the historians of ancient Israel, the Second Temple Period, and early Christianity?

I have worked very hard in the Society of Biblical Literature to develop programming that takes a hard line on the historical method, one that does not favor canonical texts at the expense of non-canonical, nor modern Christian theology (the group membership contains people of all faiths). Ten years ago when I started the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism group, I did so largely because my historical interests in Second Temple Literature (across the canon and across Judaism and Christianity) was so marginal within the Society at the time that I felt isolated. Last year, some of the members of this group gathered to begin writing a commentary on New Testament Mysticism in order to bring the full range of ancient Jewish and Christian materials we have been studying together to bear on the New Testament texts and their mystical interests.

I have to say that these "across-canonical/across-faith" groups in the Society have been extremely successful. I encourage members in the Society of Biblical Literature to grow other similar groups so that we can create forums of exchange with people who are "other" than ourselves, working on texts "other" than those we are most familiar with. This type of group helps to safeguard the historical method from priviledging our own faith positions I think. And it is a way for us to continue learning.


James Crossley said...

I've experienced the same thing: AAR members wanting to distance themselves because of the faith/theological slant (perceived or otherwise). I've also experienced the problem outsideAAR/SBL here in the UK. When I was assoicated with a university theology department some people doing sociology were open in the fact that they thought theology should not be a university discipline. I remember surprise when I said that some of us do sociology/anthropology of religion, and historical approaches to (e.g.) Christian origins or Islam but the perception that it was a faith based theological discipline was a serious problem (not helped by the departmental name, granted).

My big worry about the AAR/SBL split is what will happen to those of us who aren't really into theological/confessional approaches. The mixture of AAR/SBL provided an important overlap not only for critical study of the Bible and its historical contexts but also for the religous studies people esp. given the role of the Bible in contemporary politics and culture. I worry that SBL could lose some very good people to AAR, esp. from outside the States where in most cases only one conference can be chosen. If this happens confessional approaches or theological approaches could dominate even more, esp. in terms of sheer numbers.

In case anyone wants to tell me off, let me qualify the above by saying that I am making no judgment like 'one approach is better or worse': just thinking about who will dominate the scene.

April DeConick said...


Can I move your remarks to the main blog? I think that they are very important and would like people to see them on the main blog.

BCLandau said...

I'm glad you posted this, April, and I also appreciated James' thoughtful response. As a graduate student, I often feel a bit "out of the loop" as to what the long-term plans of the AAR and SBL are. But, a couple thoughts/questions for my own clarification, if nothing else:
Is there any sense of how the AAR plans to account for the loss of the ancient Christianity/Judaism people? Common sense would seem to dictate that they don't intend this to be a permanent "doughnut-hole" in their sessions. Is there any talk of creating less theologically-oriented sessions for these areas of specialty in order to allow those scholars who see themselves as "religious studies" types to migrate from the SBL to the AAR? If so, what sorts of problems could arise from this approach? Being squeezed into a much smaller number of sections? Logistical difficulties in attending two annual meetings? Isolating those who resist an easy classification into either "confessional" or "historical"? Lots of other thoughts on my mind about this, but I'll leave it there for the moment.

April DeConick said...

These are all very serious questions. What I'd like to do is take some of these responses and questions and get them on to the main page of the blog to continue this conversation. Would that be okay?

Judy Redman said...
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Judy Redman said...

Both James and bclandau raise the issue of getting to conferences/meetings. As a graduate student who lives in Australia, I can assure you that this is a huge barrier. Any student discounts that might be offered on registration costs pale into insignificance when you pay $2,500 and up for a plane fare to the US, Canada or Europe. As James suggests, even salaried academics think twice about attending two conferences a year in the northern hemisphere unless they are more or less back to back. We will certainly make choices.

Having an SBL conference in the southern hemisphere every few years is a definite incentive to attend SBL rather than AAR. I find it somewhat ironic, though, that a number of my denominational colleagues wouldn't consider attending SBL conferences because they don't seem confessional enough!

James Crossley said...

April, yes, feel free to move the comments. I'll also flag up the discussion later.

Judy, from what I've heard from southern hemisphere friends, the whole travel and conference thing is a big, big problem.