Community Without Unity: A Response to the Recent SBL 2020 Report

If you are a member of SBL (Society of Biblical Literature), you received the 2020 Annual Report, some 35 pages. The report begins with an introductory letter by Executive Director, John Kutsko, who writes on the idea of community. This is apt given the state of the pandemic that we have been experiencing for almost a year now. Many if not all of us who are involved in SBL and the other societies greatly missed last year’s annual meetings. While I appreciate the conveners and organizers for their work in putting together the online conferences in 2020, we also realize that it is just not the same as traveling, gathering, and partaking together in the week’s festivities in the designated city. It really is the community that we have been missing for the last year.

But the second half of the letter surprised me, and pleasantly so. Kutsko writes:

Community does not depend upon unity. When we acknowledge this, the concept of community becomes our greatest strength that overcomes its fragility.

This can be taken in number of ways, some positive, some negative. There are some contexts in which unity is essential for community, but there may be contexts in which unity (depending on what unity means here) is counterproductive. So we read on!

SBL is a community that actually thrives best without unity. Our program units compete and our publications run a wide range of methods that are not always complementary. A fundamental purpose of a learned society is to discuss and debate difference—and to be different. We can be in community without being in agreement. Community is intentional in a way that empathy and even respect are not.

We live in a culture today where the individual’s right to freedom of speech, let alone freedom of thought, is becoming more and more threatened. Rather than respond to disagreements in civil discourse and constructive discussion, we see more people leading with emotions and responding with manipulation. While libel, slander, false accusations, and empty claims are irresponsible and could even be illegal, we have gone to the other extreme in becoming a culture in which we are not able to speak our opinions without fear of losing jobs, friends, or even our lives.

SBL is meant to be an academic community that fosters scholarly discussion, debate, and discourse about biblical literature and its impact on society and culture. It is meant to represent diversity. Its purpose is to create open and safe spaces to disagree, to dialogue, to learn from one another, and to grow by being challenged in our thinking. A wise person once told me that if everyone agrees with me, then I’m probably not doing something right. He was probably a bit hyperbolic, but there is much truth in this. Scholarly discourse does not progress when everyone simply agrees with one another without any critical thought and evaluation. And what we see in today’s society, as well as in the academy and the church, is this pressure to conform to whatever the consensus is. This does not foster biblical scholarship and intellectual thought, and in fact it deters individuals from thinking freely and openly. So I am grateful for Kutsko’s statement and his desire to see SBL to be that community: large, diverse, inclusive, and actively engaged, while maintaining the dignity, respect, and honor of all of its members. These are not mutually exclusive qualities. We can be all these. And if you disagree with me, I’m open to discussion.

— Dave

9 thoughts on “Community Without Unity: A Response to the Recent SBL 2020 Report

  1. Dave said, “reference to the non-existence of Q is scoffed at in some circles within SBL, without a fair hearing.”
    Who are these scoffers? What did they say? What have you experienced? I feel I need an example or two.

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  2. Deane,

    Thanks for your comment. I think it’s general knowledge that Q has had a long standing position within Gospel studies, if you’ve been around long enough, and proponents of Q are very strongly opinionated on this issue. However, I don’t feel comfortable naming specific names on this blog or telling any stories, as I don’t think either are appropriate. Sorry if this answer is not what you expected. Thanks for the interaction, regardless.

    — Dave

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    • Hi Dave, Thanks for your reply. Can you describe examples of scoffing you experienced, then, without naming names or giving particulars, then?
      Obviously Q had a hegemonic role in Gospel studies for a long while, but that doesn’t mean that all those who disagreed with the hypothesis were necessarily scoffed at. And contrary positions were certainly held by a minority of scholars in Gospel studies all along. So I’m just wondering what type of counters you or people you heard were giving, and what sorts of replies you or these others received? Without this, I can’t tell whether there is any substance to your claim. There may well be substance – but as it stands, it is a claim of a significant academic shortcoming, without the significant facts to back it up.
      Best wishes, Deane

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      • Thanks Deane. Well, Q may not be the most relevant example right now, as much discussion of Q has died down. But I know that decades earlier, Eta Linnemann (Bultmann’s former student) for example was disregarded for her views on independent Gospel origins. I’ve had personal conversations with some senior professors, who would laugh when I asked about the validity of Q, one name which would be well-known. I think that’s one reason why Dunn kept Q while still positing an oral tradition model, because of the hegemonic role (I like that phrase) Q had; but this is just my speculation.

        More recently, I presented a paper at a regional conference some years ago (while I was a PhD student), assuming Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, and one senior professor during the Q&A told me this was ridiculous and my whole paper was discredited because of this assumption. The argument of my paper was not dependent on Pauline authorship of the PE and was a minor point, but nevertheless it received an emotionally charged response.

        Does that help? Thanks for the response, Deane.

        — Dave

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  3. Hello Dave, I recognize that this post is fairly ‘old’ but I am thinking of using portions of it in a published work of mine. That being said, I wish to hear your response to the following first
    Do you think that the emphasis on diversity of opinion seems a bit funny for SBL given the ideological lockstep that the SBL leadership demonstrates with their endorsement of progressivist causes, etc.?

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  4. Hello Dave, although this post is relatively ‘old’ I am thinking about using it in some of my published work. That being said, I wish to hear your thoughts on some of the following before I choose to do so. Do you think that SBL’s emphasis here on diversity of opinion seemed a bit funny given the ideological lockstep that the SBL leadership demonstrates with their endorsement of progressivist causes, etc.?

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  5. Thanks for the comment and question, Dustin. I can see what you’re saying. There seems to be a level of pressure to conform to certain beliefs, especially regarding LGBTQ. However, my personal sense is that SBL requires every member to respect certain views but not necessarily to conform or adhere to those views. For example, a member can disagree with LGBTQ as a lifestyle but still respect people in the LGBTQ community and advocates by treating them with respect and dignity. In that sense probably, diversity is promoted. However, I can only speak from my own experiences, so I may not be the best person to comment on this.

    — Dave

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    • That is a fair and cogent response . . . thanks Dave . . . I am somewhat concerned about using SBL’s open letter in my work (but not your blog) in my work out of fear that X = Z, i.e., incrimination by association. I find it hard sometimes for people to understand what it means to ‘chew the meat and spit out the bones’ – thoughts?

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      • Yea Dustin, I think I know what you mean. I think that the guilt-by-association phenomenon isn’t helpful many times, as it can create tribalism and discourage critical thinking for oneself (just belong to a tribe and hold to every belief within that tribe without being able to question certain ideas/beliefs).

        — Dave

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