SBL/AAR 2015: A Retrospective

Today is my first full day home from the 2015 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion. As is typically the case, I find myself in the aftermath experiencing a combination of exhaustion and exhilaration and, incidentally, in the mood to write a blog post (more on why at the end).

I gave two papers this year. One was on reading the death of Moses through first-century eyes and in light of the Synoptic transfiguration narratives (available here). The other was an intertextual analysis of some central themes in the Gospel of John and The Polar Express (available here). Both went well. I IMG_0698encountered some pushback on the Synoptic paper, but it was the kind of pushback that you want; several in the audience questioned parts of my analysis and offered some helpful avenues for further explanation that I’d not considered. Both of these papers happened on Saturday, more or less back to back, which made for a long day. But in retrospect, it was nice to not have them hanging over my head for the rest of the conference.
I also chaired a Christian Apocrypha session on Monday afternoon, where I got to hear phenomenal papers by Alexander Kocar (Princeton), Meghan Henning (University of Dayton), Andrew Mark Henry (Boston University), and Mark Bilby (Claremont). Tony Burke (York University) gave a response, and we closed with some discussion. I very much enjoy the Christian Apocrypha group at SBL, and not just because of my research interests. I like it because it’s relatively small, so you have a chance to get to know those who attend. And in the sea of humanity that is the annual meeting, a bit of familiarity here and there never hurts.

The book room is always a highlight, of course. This year there were actually two book rooms, on two separate floors, which was far from ideal. The “main” room upstairs housed the big publishers (Oxford, Eerdmans, Baker, Wipf and Stock, etc.), and the other room downstairs had the software people (Logos, Accordance, etc.) as well as a few other publishers (Notre Dame, etc.). I actually had no idea that the downstairs room even existed until late Saturday afternoon. I can’t remember ever seeing a divided exhibit hall like this, and I hope whoever organizes that aspect of the meeting will avoid similar situations in the future.

My goal this year was to avoid purchasing books that were not directly relevant to my teaching or research. I was actually able to avoid purchasing anything at all, but not because I didn’t find anything worth purchasing. Several publishers that I visited were interested in sending me on my way with gratis examination copies. From Oxford University Press I received a copy of Mark Noll’s In the Beginning was the Word, and from Baker I received Introducing World Religions: A Christian Engagement. And Fortress Press provided me with a new desk copy of a text I’m using next semester: Rhoads, et al., Mark as Story (3rd edition).

I also quite by chance ended up dining with Markus Vinzent on Sunday evening. We chatted for over an hour about his intriguing hypothesis on the origin of the canonical gospels, namely, that they are all in some form drawing from Marcion’s Gospel. He very graciously tracked me down the next day and gave me two of his books: Christ’s Resurrection in Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament (Ashgate), and Marcion and the Dating of the Synoptic Gospels (Peeters). I will look forward to reading through those and then, hopefully, posting some sort of review/engagement in this space.

One of the best parts of the annual meeting, of course, is reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones. This year I was fortunate to be able to spend time with colleagues from graduate school, many of whom were giving papers or interviewing for jobs. I also got to meet in person several colleagues who were, until this weekend, only digital colleagues. Over the past two years or so Facebook and Twitter have clearly emerged as accepted and effective means of networking.

This leads to a question that I’d like to respond to briefly right now, but hopefully address further in a dedicated post at some point in the next few weeks. The question is that of blogging and other social media and the degree to which young scholars (graduate students, untenured faculty, etc.) should be involved, if at all. I attended the final twenty minutes or so of a session on blogging (James McGrath’s summary is here) in which several panelists argued that young scholars should not be blogging. Two reasons were cited: 1) it’s a time suck, and 2) it can attract controversy.

I agree wholeheartedly that social media can be an enormous waste of energy. Blogging in particular can demand long stretches of time that could be better spent working on other, more meaningful writing (journal articles, conference presentations, etc.). And I’ve also watched graduate students come close to committing career suicide with tweets, blog posts, etc. that aren’t particularly well thought out. Simply put: social media can be dangerous.

Yet at several points this weekend, even after attending the blogging session, I found myself advising younger colleagues to build up their social media presence. Because at least to some extent, many of the dangers of social media are avoidable ones. I say “to some extent” because there’s always some risk involved in putting yourself out there. And really, that is the case regardless of the medium: one could say the same thing about a book review, conference presentation, or journal article, and we nevertheless encourage these.

It is both possible and wise to limit the amount of time you spend engaging in social media, as academia requires that you commit a substantial portion of your energy to other, more scholarly pursuits. But I do think that social media can be a valuable tool for the young scholar, if used carefully and with an acknowledgment of its limitations. More on that in a future post, I hope (the previous four paragraphs are little more than a knee-jerk reaction to the question, so please read as such and mind the gaps).

For now, time to enjoy another cup of coffee. See you next year in San Antonio!

SBL/AAR 2014: A Retrospective

The SBL/AAR annual meeting is always exhausting. A combination of too little sleep, too much walking, possibly forgetting about a meal or two, schmoozing, and thinking too hard all day is enough to wear anyone out.

Yet we press on, because for many of us the annual meeting is a highlight. It is a time to get together with old friends and to meet some new ones. It is a time to browse (mostly) beautiful books, dreaming that you may one day be able to afford some of them (I’m looking at you, Brill and Mohr Siebeck), and purchasing others because you’ve forgotten that they are always cheaper on Amazon. It is a time to sometimes catch a glimpse of a scholar whose work essentially changed everything about how you understand your field.

This year my beloved spouse Tweeted and Facebooked about my adventures in San Diego using the hashtag, #BibleNerdConference2014. I love it, because in my view, it captures the spirit of what the annual meeting is all about.

Conferences are where nerds go to feel normal. Those of us who spend the majority of our teaching workload in general education courses sometimes need a reminder that there are others out there who are ridiculously interested in what we do, or at the very least, that there are people out there who understand why we do what we do.

We need to spend time in an environment where you can overhear casual conversations on textual criticism, ancient material culture, or the newest trends in research on the Apocalypse. We need to be in a room that erupts in laughter alongside us when someone cracks a clever joke about Rudolf Bultmann or the Synoptic Problem (especially if it involves Q — let the reader understand). We need to spend time in a giant bookstore that is filled with books that don’t make us angry (looking at you now, Barnes and Noble).

So now that NerdFest 2014 has come to a close, we look forward already to next year in Atlanta. See you there.

Recapping SBL 2013

This post is tardy, as I returned home from the SBL meeting in Baltimore a week ago. But with the Thanksgiving holiday beginning right after I got back, this is the first time I’ve had a chance to sit and organize my thoughts!

As usual, the conference was a healthy combination of exhilarating and exhausting: papers to see, a paper to give, friends to catch up with, crab cakes to eat (we were in Baltimore, after all), and books to buy. And speaking of books…

The book room is always one of the highlights of SBL. My approach to the spread has changed over the years. When I first started attending, I would buy anything that looked interesting to me. Then, as I began to approach the dissertation stage, I restricted myself to books that were only directly related to my dissertation research. Now, as I troll the aisles, I’m on the lookout for books that might inspire future research projects as well as resources that may be valuable in the classroom. This year I found myself talking with several publishers about their products, sharing with them what I liked and what I wished they did better. All of them, I think, were happy to listen to feedback.

Last year I left with five books and a pamphlet. This year I came away with the following:

  1. From the Accordance booth, I picked up the Charlesworth Old Testament Pseudepigrapha module. It was a total splurge, and slightly superfluous; the OTP aren’t really on my current research radar, but I do hope that they will be in the future. I have been really impressed with the collection so far. Like all Accordance modules, it is well done.
  2. From InterVarsity Press, I picked up Andrew Louth’s Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. Definitely not related to my research, at least not directly. This was a purchase for the classroom. I have realized lately that I have an inadequate understanding of nearly all things Orthodox, so this past weekend I was in search of a resource that would help me fix this.
  3. From Wipf & Stock, whose products I am drawn to more and more every year, I picked up two books: Margaret Ramey’s The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and Steven Walker’s Illuminating Humor of the BibleThe first is intended to inform one of my assignments for next semester, a book review of a fictional “Jesus novel.” And the second is meant to feed my interest in biblical humor, an interest that I attribute to a paper of Bruce Longenecker’s at SBL a few years ago.
  4. The award for the publisher who drew the majority of my attention goes to Eerdmans. Seriously, I spent an hour at their booth and I left wanting more. I ended up picking up Tony Burke’s Secret Scriptures Revealeda new introduction to Christian Apocrypha; Vernon Robbins’s Who Do People Say I Am?another book on Christian apocrypha that is somewhat similar in aim to my own research; Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective, because I’ve heard good things; and Andrew T. Lincoln’s Born of a Virgin?because I just can’t help myself.

One of my biggest regrets is that my list of purchases from Eerdmans does not include Richard Bauckham’s much-anticipated Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical ScripturesI have been looking at pre-publication proofs of this book for what seems like two years. For some reason, it has taken a long time to complete. And for what seems like the past two years, every time I’ve seen a copy of the proofs I’ve said to myself, “The minute I can buy this book, I will.” Well, that didn’t happen, but not because it’s a bad book. To the contrary, seeing the completed product makes me want one even more. No, the problem last weekend was the size of the book — I had a terrible backache for the bulk of the conference, and I simply could not imagine adding this massive tome to my bag and trucking it through the airport. Amazon to the rescue, I suppose.

Next year in San Diego!

Books at SBL

The book room at the SBL is always a highlight of the conference. For the past couple of years, I have attempted to restrict my purchases to those books that are directly related to my dissertation. Last year, I failed miserably. This year, I was more successful. Here’s what I came home with:

From the Wipf & Stock booth:

Reidar Aasgaard’s The Childhood of Jesus: Decoding the Apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas — As I am writing about an infancy gospel (arguably the best infancy gospel), this one was a must have. I had encountered it a few times in the early stages of my research, and after I heard it referenced a few times in the course of a single session, I decided I should pick up my own copy.

John H. Hayes’ If You Don’t Like the Possum, Enjoy the Sweet Potatoes: Some Principles for Travel Along the Road of Life — John Hayes was an OT professor at Emory while I was in seminary there. He has since retired (I believe). This, in short, is a sort of memoir: a collection of short essays covering a variety of topics. It offers, as the subtitle implies, “some principles for travel along the road of life.” One of the chapters is entitled, “Give People Enough Rope and They Will Hang You.” Obviously, not dissertation related.

D. Mark Davis’ Left Behind and Loving It: A Cheeky Look at the End Times — I have absolutely no idea what to expect from this book. It was an impulse buy. But, it was situated right next to what is perhaps my favorite work of theological humor, Tripp York’s The Devil Wears Nada. We shall see if Davis measures up. Also, not dissertation related.

From Baker Academic:

François Bovon’s New Testament and Christian Apocrypha — I have used this book countless times, but I have never been able to own it, as it was published previously by Mohr Siebeck. Now that it is available through Baker, I have my own copy!

From Baylor University Press:

Richard B. Hays and Stefan Alkier’s Revelation and the Politics of Apocalyptic Interpretation — I walked by this book at the Baylor Press booth probably 15 times before I pulled the trigger. I had seen an announcement about its release somewhere, and it certainly seemed interesting. I was hesitant to purchase it, however, because although I find Revelation interesting, I have never had any real impulse to do any work in it. Then, I attended a session on Monday afternoon during which this book was reviewed. The conversation that ensued in the session brought up many points that are related to the methodology I’m developing in my dissertation, so I was convinced to add this little tome to my stash. I read pieces of it on the train ride home, and I’m now very thankful that I decided to pick it up.

From Mohr Siebeck:

A small pamphlet with details about Christoph Markschies and Jens Schröter’s Antike christliche Apokryphen in deutscher Übersetzung — An exciting revision and expansion of the long-acclaimed Hennecke-Schneemelcher Neutestamentliche Apokryphen. I had a chance to peruse one of the volumes, and it looks fantastic. Unfortunately, because it is a Mohr Siebeck publication, the pamphlet is all I can afford (it was free). Hoping that the Marquette Library will be quick to add this to its collection.

Constitutional Law and Theological Exegesis

This morning when I was raking leaves (a task unrelated to that which I am now writing), I recalled a conversation I had with a friend this past summer. He is a lawyer, and he was asking me about my research on the topic of theological exegesis (I was at the time enveloped in my preparation for qualifying exams, and he was curious as to what could possibly be so interesting). My understanding of theological exegesis, I explained to him, is as follows:

Theological exegesis attempts to affirm the notion that the biblical texts, as Christian Scripture, have enduring value that may at times transcend the intention of the original authors. Moreover, I told him that theological exegesis is not opposed to the reading of the biblical texts in light of developments that arise after them (the Nicene Creed, e.g.), and that such reading does not necessarily hinder the task of interpretation, but may in fact clarify it (this is of course not a direct quote…I have removed the “ums” and upgraded my vocabulary).

He said, “That’s interesting…it sounds a lot like constitutional law debates.” My response: “Say what?” He explained to me that there are in fact several “schools” of thought related to the interpretation of the United States Constitution, and there is an ongoing debate regarding location of meaning and the task of interpretation.

On the one hand, there are those who will say that the Constitution has a meaning, that which was intended by the founding fathers. This “school” of constitutional law, called “Originalism,” holds that discernment of the original meaning of the constitution is the task of constitutional law. One may rightly place Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in this “camp.” Originalists will not claim that every precept of the Constitution needs to be followed exactly…there is a certain flexibility insofar as later generations may pass laws to override that which was said earlier. The 13th amendment, for example, in outlawing slavery, would supersede that which was said in Article 4 Section 2 of the Constitution, that “no Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

On the other hand, there are those who will say that the Constitution has an original meaning, but that its significance is precisely in its ability to transcend generations and speak to contemporary situations. In this vein, called “Living Constitution,” discernment of the original meaning is important, but equally important is interpretation of the document alongside developments that have transpired since its institution. Al Gore, for example, once said that “there are liberties found in the Constitution such as the right to privacy that spring from the document itself, even though the Founders didn’t write specific words saying this, this, and this…” The late William Rehnquist once wrote, in contrast, that contemporary leaning toward the idea of living constitution is “genuinely corrosive of the fundamental values of our democratic society.”

In short, the debate concerns whether or not the meaning in the Constitution is static or dynamic: may the “meaning” of this document be something different from what the original authors intended? At its root, the debate centers around the location of meaning and the task of interpretation. Is meaning to be found in text alone, or is meaning to be found within the tradition, which includes the text alongside other factors?

I find the debate interesting given the climate surrounding theological exegesis…I just returned yesterday from the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, where I was reminded yet again that the conversation is far from over. Regarding the biblical texts, there are, broadly speaking, two schools that parallel to a certain degree those present in constitutional law debates. On the one hand, the “Originalists” will say that the biblical texts have a meaning and that this meaning is located in the text or, better yet, in the mind of the original author. On the other hand, proponents of a “living” text will not deny that there is an “original” meaning, either in the text or in the mind of the author, but they will claim that meaning may in fact transcend this original meaning and that the text may rightly be considered (and may in fact only be rightly understood) in light of its effective history.

Two caveats:

1) I’m fairly certain that anyone with a legal background will take issue with the way I’ve framed things here, and I would welcome clarification from anyone with more knowledge on the topic (please do leave comments).

2) The analogy drawn here between constitutional law and theological exegesis is imperfect, as I would claim that the biblical texts are of a different vintage than the Constitution. I include this caveat to appease some who may fear that I am making the Constitution out to be somehow corresponding to Christian Scripture…that said, I suppose the analogy could through some gasoline on discussions pertaining to American Civil Religion (Dr. Michael Gorman has a wonderful ongoing series on the topic).

Upper Midwest Regional SBL/AAR Program Posted

For those interested, the Upper Midwest Regional SBL/AAR recently posted a tentative program for the April 1-2 meeting at Luther Seminary.

You may find it here.

A quick search of the program revealed that 19 —  count ’em, 19 — papers will be delivered by people from Marquette! Perhaps they need to think about holding the meeting in Milwaukee next year?

SBL Student Membership Update

In November of last year, the SBL decided to implement some changes to limit student participation at the annual meetings. Those changes included requiring students (or persons without a Ph.D.) to submit the full text of their papers at the time of submission, as well as limiting their appearances at the annual meetings to one (as opposed to two for all other members). You can view the statement here.

The decisions were met with quite a bit of resistance from student members, and after a couple of months of dialogue, it was announced today that the SBL Council will postpone these policies until further discussion can take place at the Spring 2011 Council meeting.

The e-mail I received, if you’re interested, is posted below:

Dear Student Member:

The Executive Committee of Council met on 12 January 2011 to discuss concerns over the recent policies regarding student participation in the Society’s Annual Meeting.  The policies that were announced in November 2010 required all students without a doctoral degree to submit to the Program Unit Chair the full text of the paper they intended to read and limited the number of sessions student can participate in (as panelist, presenter, and respondent) to one.

The action taken by the Executive Committee of Council, effective immediately , is to postpone the implementation of these policies and to undertake additional discussion of these matters at the Spring 2011 Council meeting. This action thereby sets aside these requirements and restrictions until 2012, pending further review.

I want personally to thank the members of the Student Advisory Board and the network of OSRs for the conversations we have had concerning these matters. They are active advocates for student interests. Please do continue these conversations with me or with representatives on SAB. SAB will provide a report directly to Council in April.

On behalf of Council, we look forward to receiving your suggestions and proposals for discussion and review, and we are especially grateful for your active participation.


John F. Kutsko

Executive Director

Society of Biblical Literature

Its not quite a victory yet, but it’s something!

SBL 2010

One of the great things about flying around the holidays (at least over the past couple of years) is that sometimes airlines will find a sponsor for their in-flight wireless internet. This year, Delta teamed up with Google, and as a result I’m typing this from inside the plane…for free!

SBL this year was nice. It was great to be back in Atlanta for a weekend (where I lived for four years), and it was nice to catch up with some friends who have been scattered across the country to study and work. The papers I went to were all quite good. Some stick out in my head more than others. Sunday night, there was a book discussion/review of Kavin Rowe’s World Upside Down, which included great responses from Beverley Gaventa, Doug Harink, Stephen Fowl, and Rob Wall (whose paper was given by a colleague). I have not yet read the book, but I’m looking forward to doing so over Christmas break!

This morning, I attended a session sponsored by the Society of Christian Ethics entitled “What Biblical Scholars Wish Ethicist Would Start/Stop Doing With Scripture” or something along those lines. Stanley Hauerwas was scheduled to be there, although he had to cancel for some reason. Stephen Fowl and Terrance Fretheim made some great points, and although Hauerwas was not able to make it, there was some good discussion afterward.

As usual, the book room was greatly tempting, although a limited budget provides one with the means to resist much temptation. I picked up Michael Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly as well as the new Fundamentals of Biblical Greek from Eerdman’s…I’m planning on working up an informal review of it in the near future. I resisted the urge to add more modules to my already stellar Accordance Bible Software…I told the representative there that I might be more inclined to buy something if I could use it on my iPhone…they’ve been promising an app now for about a year and it is still not out. Hopefully by Christmas, or so I’m told.

SBL at this time of year is not without its drawbacks, of course. As a student who is still in the thick of classes (although thankfully nearing the end!), this time of year is exceptionally busy. I currently have two sizable papers on my plate, and for one of them I’m having to wade through Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae in some depth. To my dismay, I found myself needing to go off by myself a few times this weekend to get some reading done. I’m looking forward to next year, when I will be done with my qualifying exams and able to focus more on the conference.

In short, another year, another SBL!