Professor Ron Hendel’s recent Biblical Views column, “Farewell to SBL: Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies ,” has elicited a thunderous and widespread response, both in support and in opposition, and among both the academic community to which it was largely addressed and among BAR‘s more scholarly readers.
In the Q&C section of our November/December 2010 issue , we printed only a small sample of the letters we received. We tried to make them representative.
We received no direct response from SBL, but the new SBL executive director, John F. Kutsko, did e-mail a lengthy personally addressed letter regarding Professor Hendel’s column to each of the thousands of SBL members. The full text of this email appears below.
In addition, a lengthy online discussion among SBL members  also followed the publication of Professor Hendel’s BAR column. Among the participants in this discussion are a number of major scholarly voices, including J. Harold Ellens, Adela Yarbro Collins, John Van Seters, William H.C. Propp, Mark S. Smith, Ed Greenstein, Michael V. Fox, Ernst Axel Knauf, Larry Hurtado, Philip Davies, Leo Perdue, Ralph W. Klein, William J. Fulco, S.J., and others.
The concerns raised by Professor Hendel will also be a major topic of discussion at SBL’s annual meeting in November 2010.
Join us below to read John Kutsko’s letter regarding Professor Hendel’s column.
August 12, 2010
Dear SBL members,
I am grateful for Ron Hendel’s column in Biblical Archaeology Review that framed a discussion on the SBL website. He offered honest comments and raised sincere concerns, widely shared in varying degrees, and we have seen that posting in turn raise the level of discourse and ownership of a field that is as diverse as its history is long. Moreover, the discussion bears witness to a shared interest in the intentional nurturing and direction of our scholarly discipline, which reflects a healthy condition and a good prognosis for the future.
I would hope we all agree that Ron raises issues that do not point toward a grand conspiracy to change or lower the standards of the Society. Perhaps the origin of some of these issues comes from the steady march of postmodernism and the development of manifold witnesses, social contexts, and reading methods. Sometimes those changes are as real, if imperceptible, as the growth of a tree. Several years ago, for a publishing project, I categorized the last ten years of job descriptions posted in the SBL/AAR Openings, looking for trends in the field, and it revealed dramatic changes in what departments (secular and religious) were doing. In this evolving and dynamic intellectual environment there has not been so much an intentional slippage of scholarly rigor as an uncertainty and perhaps even a sense of discomfort at the “fairness” of critique toward colleagues of diverse affiliations and methodologies. This issue may very well increase as SBL becomes more international.
In regard to personal faith commitments consciously or unconsciously trumping critical inquiry, that has been a historic challenge in our field (how could it not be?). This was or has been the case even in some of our most venerable departments and institutions, including the Ivy League. While this issue was a “presenting need,” so to speak, in Ron’s column, it requires not so much a dramatic fix as a quotidian responsibility of all members of the SBL community. The SBL’s standards are as well stated and defined as any ACLS member (check http://www.acls.org/  to find the mission statements of other humanities and social-science learned societies). The patrolling of those standards is the work of all of the members, including the Atlanta administrators for the Society. Membership in the SBL is like joining a neighborhood watch—we are all stakeholders in the shared ownership of our organization. Moreover, as full members we all bear the responsibility of mentoring the next generation of scholars—students—as well as nonparticipating members who want to learn about our conversations, discoveries, and conclusions.
I don’t want to end this discussion, in fact, but to make room for it to grow, to recognize the complexity of many if not all of the issues, and then to reach a consensus toward our shared commitment to what membership in the SBL asks of us.
First, I wanted to outline the issues raised in the website postings:
SBL mission statement
• A concern for identifying our work as “critical” scholarship
• The need to define the responsibilities of scholarly participation and membership in a learned society
• Levels of, and criteria for, participation
• Rules, standards, and explicit guidelines for participation at the Annual Meeting
• Defining those rules at each level of administration
– Program units and chairs (approval)
– Organizers (selection)
– Presenters (qualifications)
– Presiders (order)
• Affiliate participation guidelines at the Annual Meeting
RBL editorial policy
I would like to suggest that members submit motions prior to the Annual Meeting’s business meeting in Atlanta this year and that you make room, as owners of the SBL, to attend that meeting and participate in the discussion. Motions may address any of the above issues as well as others not listed here. To help inform your opinions, I would like to add several comments to clarify some of the directions we are (and have been) already taking.
First, a number of postings suggested adding “critical” back into the mission statement. Of course, being a minimalist and a Strunk and White disciple, I view “critical scholarship” as a redundancy. But that may be a matter for motion, and members might raise the question and vote on it at the Annual Meeting.
Second, nurturing student membership is crucial for the SBL. It is a sign of leadership that scholars mentor and raise up the next generation in the field. Any solution should embrace their participation and lead to their professional development. Ideally, too, we want a policy that is simple and enforceable. The simplest solution might be that student members have to submit complete papers, not simply abstracts, with a letter from a faculty mentor who is in full membership with the SBL. I think that is the optimal solution for the mentoring process and encourages a student’s relationship with her or his advisor. If that is not an option for a student, then all papers written prior to a degree might be submitted in complete form to the appropriate program committee for acceptance—and not just the first instance a student presents, but as long as she or he is a doctoral student. The responsibility would fall then to program units to evaluate each student’s submitted paper. This reiterates the principle that committee members and unit organizers police their work as a responsibility and as a service to each other. While leadership in the SBL offers its own rewards, it also requires a strong commitment to service, or to quote a well-known line: it is better to give than to receive.
Third, prior to Ron posting his column, the Program Committee undertook to rewrite the Program Unit guidelines. We will evaluate these closely, and that redrafting will include guidelines, responsibilities, and requirements for scholarly and critical engagement, in addition to the logistical instructions. We will want the program materials to reinforce that those participating in the sessions (as organizers, presenters, or presiders) will abide by the standards of critical scholarship, inquiry, and discussion. A draft will be available for the next Council meeting and for endorsement at the Annual Meeting. Once approved, we will post it on the website with the program instructions.
Mutatis mutandis, the groups labeled Affiliates will have a similar policy that outlines the standards and agreements for Affiliate status. The guidelines we develop for the Society’s member participation will serve to inform this policy. The requirements for an organization to participate as an Additional Meeting will have wider latitude. That should not be the case for Affiliates. Confession-based scholarship that also embraces the norms of humanities-based scholarship will be welcome. Under no condition will prejudicial speech be tolerated. Of course, these principles apply whether a paper is in an Affiliate session, in an SBL program unit, or in a proposal for a new SBL program unit. While this Affiliate policy won’t likely be in place prior to the 2010 Annual Meeting, we will address some immediate concerns by clearly labeling sessions as SBL sessions, Affiliate sessions, and Additional Meetings. The program book will also define these distinctions.
Last, RBL is a great gift to scholars and a brilliant invention. We have all benefitted (including publishers) by having our field’s books reviewed with efficiency, in many cases while the book is still a front list title. In contrast, many publishers have seen print reviews of their books only after they are out of print. The current RBL editorial policy is as follows: RBL has always been and will remain under SBL control. It is led by an editorial board appointed by the SBL’s Research and Publications Committee, and day-to-day operations are managed by SBL staff. RBL reviews are assigned by members of the editorial board; only rarely are unsolicited reviews published, and only then after carefully vetting the review. That is, the RBL policy is for editorial board members to offer an available review copy to two editor-identified scholars well-suited for reviewing a particular work; only after being declined by both potential reviewers are editors allowed to accept a volunteer’s offer to review, and even then only qualified volunteers are accepted and their submission evaluated. (See http://www.bookreviews.org/volunteer.asp .) Ron’s willingness to address the RBL editorial policy was greatly appreciated, and we have instituted a new policy that all reviews will be vetted and approved by RBL editors after submission and before publication.
We all should be aware of the legal truism that hard cases make bad law. What is certain, though, is that we all will benefit from an open discussion of guidelines and policies. Suggestions can easily be submitted through the website as recommendations to Council and as motions for the business meeting (or simply replying to firstname.lastname@example.org). Prior to the Annual Meeting a communication will go out regarding the issues members raised and the motions proposed that will be discussed at the business meeting.
The discussion of these issues has led us to reflect on ways that our commitment to biblical scholarship can be improved. It always can be improved. This is a relentless pursuit that has no end. I encourage you to attend the business meeting, and we can, as colleagues, join in a discussion of the mission, membership, and participation in a society whose history is venerable, whose contribution to culture is exceptional, and whose future is our responsibility to nurture for our sake and for the sake of the next generation of scholars.
John F. Kutsko