Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Multiculturalist's Rant against the Society of Biblical Literature

Hector Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, was formerly a Pentecostal child preacher and faith healer graduated from Harvard Divinity School and went to Iowa State as a biblical scholar. Since then, he has become an atheist and secularist. Throughout, he has retained membership in the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). As a secularist he has published an open letter to vent his leftist rant against SBL. Below are the first few paragraphs. As you read Avalos's rant against the Society of Biblical Literature, keep in mind that Avalos is also a member of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). Much of what he has to say to SBL members in these opening paragraphs could as easily be said to AAR members.

The Ideology of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Demise of an Academic Profession

Hector Avalos

Ideological criticism may be enjoyable when applied to others, but it is most sobering when applied to ourselves. After reflecting on the 125th anniversary of the Society of Biblical Literature and on my quarter century of membership, I have come to see the SBL as having a self-serving ideology that must be confronted if the SBL is to survive at all. Given the ever-growing irrelevance of biblical studies in academia, the SBL has increasingly become charged with stemming the death of a profession. 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.

My position is better understood in light of the work of, among others, John Guillory, author of Cultural Capital: the Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). He argues that canons are constructed mainly by academics (rather than by authors) to promote their own cultural capital. 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.

Similarly, the Bible has no intrinsic value or merit. Its value is a social construct, and the SBL is the agent of an elite class that wishes to retain its own value and employment by fostering the idea that biblical studies should matter.

The idea that the Bible should be studied because of its influence or because "it does matter" overlooks repeated statements, by scholars themselves, that the Bible's influence and relevance might cease if it were not for the intervention of biblical scholars and translators. Since the intervention, successful or not, is selectively applied to the Bible (rather than to thousands of other non-biblical texts of ancient cultures), such an intervention becomes an ethnocentric and religiocentric mechanism by which biblical scholars preserve their own relevance.

Lest we think we are not a relatively elite and privileged class, consider a typical SBL Annual Meeting. In Philadelphia, most of us stayed, ate, and drank at the Hilton, Marriott, and other nice hotels. Meanwhile, homeless people were all around us. On occasion, I saw scholars nearly trample homeless people while rushing to yet another appointment or session, perhaps one on the supposed prophetic call to help the poor. We read papers to each other, but little of what we learn will feed the hungry or clothe the naked. Much of what we study is to fulfill our own curiosity and for our own enjoyment.

In the interest of self-disclosure, I should say that I am a secular humanist and a Mexican immigrant. So, in some ways I am on the margins of the marginalized in the Society of Biblical Literature. Despite growing up in a relatively poor background, I cannot deny that I am now part of a privileged and elite educated class. I have experienced real poverty, and this is not it. I get paid to do what I love, though my conscience is increasingly telling me to do something more beneficial for humanity.

A number of SBL members have offered thoughtful responses to Hector Avalos's open letter. Read them here. Below is a sample of one thoughtful reply by Kim Paffenroth of Iona College.

Perhaps more importantly, we do what we do also because we believe that texts — the Bible and Shakespeare among them, but also including many others — have the kind of "intrinsic merit [and] value" that Dr. Avalos denies they have. That is the most essential difference between what Dr. Avalos describes in his essay and what we all practice, and from which our readers and students hopefully benefit. I know that it is a sacred rite of post-modernism that we are all supposed to furrow our brows and nod knowingly whenever someone solemnly and derisively intones that texts — all texts, but the Bible is most often singled out as the special bogeyman and villain — have "no intrinsic merit or value" and are just "social construct[s]" that "maintain class distinctions." But every time I hear such a statement, all I can think of is my favorite childhood story, "The Emperor's New Clothes," and point out the obvious: Who in their right mind believes such worn-out, useless garbage? Let us be honest: No one outside of a few of our colleagues would ever agree to this preposterous, dehumanizing proposition. Not just the supposedly homeless-kicking academics, but most students and readers are guilty of "religionism" (whatever in the world that is) and "bibliolatry," and it is for them that we teach and write. That such guilty parties are ninety percent of the human population of the Earth should make us much more secure and happy about our lives than Dr. Avalos will ever be about his.

As Dr. Avalos points out, perhaps it is time for him to move on to "do something more beneficial for humanity." That is the only sentence in his essay with which all of us should heartily agree.

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