Post from Matthew Collins about Future of SBL

I asked Matthew Collins, the Director of Congresses and Professions of the Society of Biblical Literature, if he would be willing to respond to some of the AAR/SBL issues raised this week on my blog. He has been kind enough to allow me to post his response. This is not an "official" set of policy pronouncements, but represents his understanding of the current situation. Many thanks, Mr. Collins.

Matthew Collins writes:
"The concerns expressed in this blog about the departure of the AAR from the Annual Meeting with the SBL appear to express concerns in three areas: 1) the split of the meeting itself and the reasoning behind the split; 2) the nature of the two organizations, including disciplinary foci and receptiveness to various parts of the religiously oriented spectrum; 3) the perception of theological and religious studies approaches in academia. I do have some insight into the first two of these concerns.

Regarding the split of the Annual Meeting, the decision to hold separate Annual Meetings was made unilaterally by the AAR in the Spring of 2003. The rationale for this decision was initially articulated as a need for more program and meeting space because the meeting was so large. The rationale has shifted several times since the initial announcement, from the space issue to the desire to de-emphasize the Bible in light of the rest of religious studies. In reality the space issue is a non-issue. The combined meetings have never lacked meeting rooms to hold the sessions the two organizations wanted to hold at the times they wanted to hold them. As for the size of the meeting, having 5,000 or 10,000 participants at a meeting only reduces the number of hotels used. The hallways and meeting rooms will still appear as crowded (or not) as they do now. It will still be hard to find lunch in a timely manner. To illustrate this point, for those who attended the 2006 meeting - could you tell that we had 1,200 attendees more than the previous year? I have been attending meetings since 1990, when the meeting was half the size, and notice no appreciable difference in the hallways, exhibits, or restaurants near the hotels. As for the "real" reason for the separation, if such a reason exists, it is quite likely that it had more to do with the personalities involved and their particular interests, with the consequent need for political correctness and avoidance of confrontation in a board meeting, than any business or academic rationale. But I was not at the AAR board meeting and have only exegeted the public announcements to arrive at this conclusion.

As for the nature of the two organizations, any simple summary that divides them between theological studies and religious studies approaches is a caricature at best and completely wrong at worst. My understanding of the SBL, based on working on the Annual Meeting and International Meeting programs full-time for the last eight years, is that it is a diverse group without any generalized overall theological or religious orientation. The Society's members cover the broad spectrum from left to right, if you will, and from my perspective no one place on this spectrum has a majority. The SBL has programs units at both meetings where those using religious studies approaches and those using theological studies approaches can find acceptance and a place to present their work. From what I can tell, there are as many using one approach as the other. The composition of the various committees of the organization may appear at any given point to be dominated by one or another perspective, but over the course of time one finds a balance that favors neither. The Society also covers an incredibly broad range of topics, including a significant number working outside the canons of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. For example, I am currently re-reading Klauck's "Apocryphal Gospels" and I am struck by the fact that in all of the bibliographic references for the various texts, nearly all of the scholars Klauck cites are SBL members and most have participated in our meetings in the last eight years. The work on the Nag Hammadi texts, in particular, is carried out by scholars who are active SBL members.

The future of the Society and the Annual Meetings, for the time being, does not include meeting with the AAR. The Society has been preparing for this eventuality for the last four years. The SBL has added 60 new program units in the last three years in an effort to provide a place for all of our members to present their work, whether this work is currently represented on the AAR side of the program or not. The Society is working with many other organizations with overlapping members to encourage these organizations to join our program as affiliates. The SBL's mission, to foster biblical scholarship, is interpreted by the board, staff, and committees to mean that as a Society, we need to support the academic work of our members regardless of which field it belongs to at present. The SBL is pushing and challenging disciplinary boundaries with the result that the Annual Meeting will begin to look a bit different, cover a wider area, and become a more stimulating place to gather - regardless of whether one using a religious studies or theological studies approach. As a result, if any of the bloggers or respondents in this forum have ideas for programs or program units they want to pursue, I can assure you that the SBL is a welcoming place for those programs. Contact me and we can pursue your ideas."

If you wish to contact him directly, he can be reached through e-mail (