An interview with SBL Executive Director Steed Davidson
Steed Davidson is the new Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the largest and oldest academic society devoted to critical biblical studies. He previously served as Professor of Hebrew Bible, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Dean of the Faculty at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. BAR had a chance to talk with Davidson about his vision for the future of SBL—and biblical studies.
Davidson: Since SBL is a membership organization, the Executive Director’s role revolves around sustaining a community of scholars and interest in biblical knowledge. Therefore, I think of my responsibilities as visioning, collaborating, imagining, and administering—perhaps, in that order.
How do you hope to achieve SBL’s mission in the coming years?
Davidson: Simply, SBL’s mission is to “foster academic scholarship in biblical studies and cognate areas across global boundaries.” The current time presents many challenges for the relevance of biblical studies, but these challenges also provide opportunities to innovate the field to meet the present age. This is a time where we see diminished attendance in organized religious communities, as well as diminishing support for the humanities in higher education. Biblical studies must face these headwinds and adapt to reach audiences that still seek the knowledge and insights that it has produced over the years. The viable audiences for this knowledge increasingly exist outside of the traditional venues; scholars must search for them and package knowledge in ways those audiences now consume.
The field of biblical studies requires an inflow of new scholars, researchers, writers, and so on. The formation of those new entrants to work in a changed discipline means increasing conversations with graduate programs, resourcing career development to enhance innovation, and providing opportunities to design entrepreneurial ventures for adventurous thinkers. Almost a third of SBL members live outside of the United States, and a number who live in the U.S. were born outside of the country—myself included. This global membership presents opportunities to broaden the range of biblical knowledge that pays attention to voices long ignored, to recover practices around engagement with Bibles in different parts of the world, and to influence the direction of the field. Biblical methodology and its cognate areas have operated as an export from the Global North. In this way, biblical studies acquired several of the colonizing traits that we see in the histories of modern empires. Paying attention to a broad global membership provides the opportunity to reset those relationships but, more importantly, to expand the field and impact the direction of knowledge production in the field.
How will you empower young scholars and promote diversity?
Davidson: As one among many who contributes to the development of young scholars, I see my work as first ensuring that meaningful opportunities exist for scholars to develop their work. If young scholars enter into this field because they feel they have a compelling contribution to make, I prioritize creating an environment that supports their dreams and plans. The field needs dreamers, visionaries, and groundbreakers, even rule breakers. We would like to think that incremental scholarship is still innovative, but I am not so sure that this current environment will be kind to that view. Therefore, to create the environment for young scholars to envision a different landscape and to provide them the resources to pursue those dreams will require an integrated approach that involves many participants in the higher education ecosystem. I tend to think of diversity along these lines as well—beyond some of the limited binaries and categories. We must do more than simply include different people to do what has always been done. Expanding our minds about the field’s possibilities can provide an invitation to those not currently involved and, hopefully, a space of belonging that can sustain a meaningful career.
Why is it important to engage the public in biblical scholarship?
Davidson: The Bible has been critical for the development of Western civilization and, therefore, most parts of the world. Despite this reality, though, the Bible tends to have a negative perception, particularly among nonreligious people—and even some religious people. Engaging the public with innovative biblical scholarship is a form of good community education with many benefits. Quite often, without saying it, public figures use biblical knowledge to support their positions. Even more, artists creatively engage with biblical material to produce useful insights that support meaningful dialogue. The consumption of biblical material at various levels has always happened in public spaces, sometimes with biblical scholars and quite often without. As I mentioned, the venues for biblical scholarship continue to shift, and public spaces, both in-person and digital, serve as more generative locations where good scholarship can thrive.
How will you steer the society into the future, and do you think that AI will play a role?
Davidson: This is a hard question since the structure of SBL is collaborative. I am among others who engage in deliberative conversations to set goals. From my perspective, though, I see a future for SBL that pays attention to the prevailing conditions that require the nimbleness to reinvent the field as needed. The winds of change can be quite persistent, and therefore a member organization should engage in constant conversations to keep members aware of happenings and open avenues for innovative thinking to respond to those changes.
AI (artificial intelligence) is one of those current realities. The real question that we face with AI is how to influence its development regarding biblical studies. As I understand it, AI is constructed based upon material that is available to the system. That is, the system draws from available knowledge to answer questions, generate statements, and curate knowledge. This reality raises several ethical questions, as to what constitutes the best and most appropriate knowledge to feed into the system. The unfortunate thing is that AI might not be as nuanced to offer diverse perspectives on issues. You can see that what I am describing here points to opportunities for biblical scholars to participate in the debates and other activities around the development and use of AI. Whether we like it or not, AI already exists and will continue to expand.
How did your roles as professor and dean at McCormick Theological Seminary prepare you for your new role as Executive Director?
Davidson: Most of my time as an academic administrator at McCormick Theological Seminary occurred during the height of the lockdown caused by the COVID pandemic. From that vantage point, I witnessed the pressures upon higher education and performed the exciting work of innovation to meet the changes that came upon us. By the time I came to McCormick, I just started to recognize that I needed to teach the real students who were before me and not the selective group that my graduate formation convinced me would comprise most of my classes. The gap between the ideal of biblical studies and the realities of classrooms, serving on a faculty, creating learning opportunities, organizational change, and so on all shape how I think, lead, work, dream, imagine, write, read, and talk about biblical studies. Without a doubt, McCormick prepared me well for this next chapter of my professional career.
What are some of your personal research interests?
Davidson: The ordinary of the ancient world has always preoccupied my mind. For instance, I want to figure out how someone like me or any average person would have lived in ancient Israel and its surrounding neighbors. I am interested in the mechanics of power to understand what shapes texts. The ultimate power in the ancient world, empires, impacted the writers whose nations existed in their shadows. Postcolonial Studies has been a consistent companion in my scholarly career to peer into those spaces to critique dominant power. I don’t limit the interests in empire to simply the imperial leadership because, to sustain itself, empire relies upon an infrastructure of power that also includes power as expressed through gender, sexuality, ethnicity, physical ability, etc. I am interested in the entire biblical canon, but my work revolves around prophetic literature and other texts from the early postexilic period.
You are originally from Trinidad and Tobago. How does your background influence your scholarship?
Davidson: I grew up in the early stages of the end of the colonial period when the country was still trying to understand its place in the world. Political independence from a waning imperial power has been both a gift and burden. The British released many of its former colonies because it was advantageous to do so at the time, not because the British Empire had suddenly become generous. An independent nation in that context enters the world scene without the resources needed to develop itself and figure out how to exist in a world constructed in favor of larger powers.
When I speak in this way, I could easily be speaking of ancient Israel during the Persian period. If I go further into the histories of Trinidad and Tobago or other Caribbean territories, I could also be speaking of ancient Israel during the Assyrian or Babylonian period. Similarly, to speak of the independent Caribbean in the shadow of the United States resembles ancient Israel in the shadow of many ancient empires. I received a critical education in history in my early life that helped me to analyze these political realities, and their implications. This education inevitably influenced my faith and ultimately my scholarship around the Bible.
What do you miss most about the West Indies?
Davidson: Living in Chicago, it would be the food and the ocean. I drive along Lake Michigan or visit the lake and pretend that it is an ocean, and I am living on an island. Islandedness grounds me in a reality of the possible where I dream big through a small space. You would think that living on a continent would provide me with those capacious possibilities. Instead, limitlessness with the boundaries of the fluid provided by the ocean can be too divorced from reality. When I dream big in small spaces, like an island, my dreams are inherently adjusted for reality.
What are some of the similarities and differences you notice between biblical studies in the U.S. and other parts of the world?
Davidson: Unfortunately, there are too many similarities between the U.S. and other parts of the world. While this makes it easy to translate scholarship and engage in intelligent conversations without too much difficulty, the sameness is not generative. Fortunately, there are growing spaces and commitments that pay attention to local realities and to read through those realities. For instance, scholars in Oceania who pay attention to their context as more water than land pursue biblical studies attentive to storytelling and reading practices that are framed by that liquid existence. And there are scholars in Africa that use wisdom and other knowledge traditions to stand alongside biblical texts. Even more, some Asian scholars who recognize sacred texts that predate the Bible pursue a different pathway for biblical scholarship. The expansion of these possibilities provides exciting opportunities for the future.
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