a study in professionalism: the sbl responds to ronald hendel’s letter

Society of Biblical LiteratureThe Society of Biblical Literature responded today to an op-ed letter written by Cal Berkeley’s Dr. Ronald S. Hendel entitled “Farewell to SBL” published in the July/Aug 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. I commented on Dr. Hendel’s letter yesterday.

In their response, the SBL takes issue with and offers responses to four claims made by Dr. Hendel:

  1. Claim: The SBL has diluted its standards of critical scholarship, as evidenced in the 2004 change to the Society mission statement
  2. Claim: ASOR and AAR stopped meeting with the SBL “due to petty disputes among the leaders of these groups.”
  3. Claim: Since the AAR decision to discontinue joint meetings, the SBL has loosened its standards as to the types of organizations that can be included at the SBL Annual Meeting.
  4. Claim: The current SBL environment, which includes instances of proselytizing activity as well as veiled theological denunciations of certain individuals or groups, is hostile to a critical approach to biblical studies.

The SBL counters that each of these claims is in need of some clarification ranging from a correction of facts to an explanation of the manner in which the SBL arrived at some of its various positions. You can read the SBL’s responses here.

Ronald S. Hendel, Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of California, Berkeley

Dr. Ronald S. Hendel, Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of California, Berkeley

In a refreshing invitation to debate the opposing views, the SBL sent a letter to all its members inviting them to review its response to Dr. Hendel’s letter. The SBL provided a link to Dr. Hendel’s original letter in BAR and invited members to offer feedback to both Dr. Hendel’s letter and SBL’s response via email at feedback@sbl-site.org.

The SBL went a step further and asked members for their feedback concerning three areas:

  1. To what extent do you believe that the Society successfully balances its commitment to scholarly integrity while maintaining an atmosphere in which all voices may be heard (specific, first-hand examples are encouraged)?
  2. Should the Society establish a standards-based approach to membership? That is, should there be a set of minimum standards, qualifications, or achievements for SBL membership?
  3. If you favor a standards-based approach, what specific standards would you advocate for SBL membership?

And this is where I am proud to be a member of the SBL. Although I too feel that the SBL should seek to re-establish maintain its role as the top critical society for biblical studies, I am proud of the SBL’s professional and timely response. Rather than firing back unprofessionally and starting a cat fight (as many are wont to do online), or going the Golb route and employing an army of anonymous internet aliases to attack personally those involved in this difference of academic opinion, the SBL has used this as an opportunity to respond professionally to the complaint and (and this is important!) to poll its membership for their feedback regarding the issues raised by Dr. Hendel’s letter.

This is how to manage an organization properly. This is how to conduct academic business professionally. The SBL is using criticism – warranted or not – to improve the organization by asking its membership’s opinion. This not only demonstrates the SBL leadership’s willingness to listen to its members, but demonstrates the confidence SBL has in its various positions. If the positions are good, the members will state as much in their responses. If the positions are in need of improvement, the SBL will have the raw feedback it needs to open discussions on various changes to its mission.

This is how to make something positive from something negative. And this should be the purpose of true criticism: to provide grist for discussion for the purpose of bringing about needed change. The prophetic voice is about righting a wrong, not destroying the enemy. Likewise, the critic’s voice should not be about simply tearing down another scholar’s position (or the scholar personally), but about moving readers toward thinking about their world, offering an alternative rooted in fact, science, and logic, making changes for the better, and bringing about a better understanding of the topic under discussion. The same critical method used in doing literary criticism should be used to improve our society.

Both Dr. Hendel and the SBL have demonstrated class and professionalism in their stated positions. Now let’s see if this scholarly process brings about beneficial change.

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4 Responses

  1. [...] (read Dr. Cargill’s response to this as well) [...]

  2. Thank you for covering this interchange. Since I am not SBL, I will take advantage of your comment page to offer a suggestion that might even bring back Dr. Hendel.

    SBL should I think return to the mission statement the wording which included ‘critical,’ but add an equally strongly worded category of the ‘homiletical’. All studies which imply such uncritical views as scriptural inerrancy (including any critical study that returned a value of ‘true’ for any bit of scripture) should be treated under the homiletical category only. Because the students who feel they are simply parsing the ‘truth’ are actually doing homily or midrash rather than critical scholarship.

    Well I still see problems, but if inerrancy views are tolerated there must be a dividing line to keep the honest believers on the critical side from becoming a laughing-stock.

  3. [...] (read Dr. Cargill’s response to this as well) [...]

  4. I agree with just about everything you said, but your suggestion for “an alternative rooted in fact, science, and logic” might be tough to define, & tougher to police. Example: For many SBL members, God’s existence is a fact. For some SBL members, scientific discoveries complement God’s existence. Probably all SBL members use logic in determining, not just God’s existence, but how to interpret Biblical literature.

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