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These letters refer to the SBL Forum article:
Bible Scholar on an Airplane by Samuel Thomas

I was fascinated to read this article and the dilemma faced by our  colleague on each flight. I am a Translations Consultant of the United  Bible Societies and regularly find myself on airplanes. This has been  the case for a good number of years and, while it usually takes place  in the Americas, it has also taken me to other parts of the world. I  have found that the interests of my fellow travellers have been wide  and varied and conversations, often related to what I or the person  seated beside me does for a living, have been similarly wide-ranging  and enriching.

When I travel through the USA, which I do often, I am inevitably asked  by immigration officials what my work is and what I am going to do on  the trip. At times this too leads to conversations, and since the  official holds my passport, I cannot move on until he or she realizes  that the line of travellers behind me is growing and that they are all  anxious to get to a flight! In the last couple of years there has been  a decrease in conversations as people come plugged into iPods,  equipped with DVD players, flip open their laptops or begin poking away at their Blackberries... it all becomes less human and we are the poorer for it.

So, pull out your scripts, work with your texts, don't worry about Mr.  Sweatshirt, the canon or Jeremiah. If invited, welcome the challenge  to share in understandable terms with a fellow human being what your  work is... and be enriched by the dialogue.

Happy flying!

Bill Mitchell,United Bible Societies,Calgary, AB, Canada

I am also a Bible scholar who frequently travels on airplanes. I teach at a theologically conservative university that offers theological training in Spanish by distance education at a very low cost.

N. T. Wright has observed in one of his books that discourse and debate on the Bible is public rather than private in a way that such discourse and debate on (for example) Shakespeare or the latest Bush speech is not. The reason is that many people are convinced that in some way or another, the Bible is normative for them. That conviction enormously complicates debate and discourse, because such people believe that the stakes are high, both for themselves and for their conversation partner. I am painfully aware that some people who hold such convictions are tragically insensitive, blindly over-zealous, and sometimes just dead wrong in the way that they approach others who do not share such convictions. I ask my colleagues' patience and forgiveness for those people who may have vexed them in the past and who almost surely will do so in the future. Please understand that those of us who hold such convictions believe we have been charged with the responsibility of sharing God's love and truth as we understand and believe it to be. Sometimes that belief has brought great good to this suffering world, and sometimes it has only increased the pain, hatred, and distress that the world already has in abundance. This latter truth causes me great sadness.

Returning to the article, "Bible Scholar on an Airplane:" I, too, am convinced that "it is profoundly important that we continue to find ways to translate for the broader world just what it is we do and why it is important that we do it." While I recognize that the most appropriate time to engage in that translation may not always be in a metal tube hurtling through space, I encourage those Bible scholars who travel to overcome the trepidation, the profound tensions, and the lingering distrust of that stranger who occupies the seat next to them. Become a "Bible Scholar on an Airplane."

Robert Simons, Universidad FLET (Facultad Latino-Americana de Estudios Teológicos)


I was blessed (really, cursed) with commuting weekly by airplane from  home to my job for the last two years.  In the  process, I felt like I was   becoming a flying theologian.  I had numerous two-hour conversations  with people, never initiated by me, as I graded, read, translated or  prepared for class.  At the end of one of my job interviews, I was  even held captive by a very interested and enthused Assemblies of God    layman who engaged me in a very long conversation on the two-hour  shuttle trip to the airport from campus.  Luckily, or not, the two of  us were alone for the whole trip. However tired and exasperated I was  during some of these conversations, I got to the point where I enjoyed  many of them.  I enjoyed the process of learning their perspective and  learning to come up with answers to thoughtful but different questions   than I would encounter in a classroom setting.  Some of these   conversations actually helped me think through and articulate some   basic issues that you do not get a chance to discuss in a PhD program   concerned mainly with the history and historical development of Early   Christianity and Judaism.  I think I actually learned to become a   better teacher as a result of some of these conversations.

I did learn to shield my papers and book titles from people when I was   tired or did not feel like talking, but rarely was I stuck talking to   someone who was not open to my ideas and perspective.  Most were   curious and wanted to have an honest dialogue.  More often than not, I   actually enjoyed the conversations, even if they delayed my   preparation or grading.

Besides, there is something exotic about the thought of hurtling   through the skies talking about the ultimate questions facing   humankind.  This is definitely something that mathematicians or   chemists, accountants or lawyers, or even members of the Popcorn Board   (I kid you not) rarely get to do, and, I suspect, it is something they   would love to do on a more frequent basis.

Postscript: The man from the Popcorn Board had never heard of my   favorite way of having popcorn--popped in olive oil and sprinkled with   sea salt.  Who would have thought that a flying biblical scholar would   have something new to teach the Popcorn Board about eating popcorn?

Stephen P. Ahearne-Kroll, PhD,  Assistant Professor of New Testament, Methodist Theological School in Ohio


It was with great pleasure and even greater empathy that I read Samuel Thomas's article "Bible Scholar on an Airplane." I share his concerns and, as he points out, many of you probably do as well. I live in a "red state" so I am constantly aware of my surroundings whenever I pull out a volume by Ehrman, Pagels, Meyer, or White, just to name a few. I know that certain assumptions will be made, mostly negative and often wrong, concerning my faith and values when I am seen reading one of these works. And I have on a few occasions been confronted and informed in no uncertain terms that I will burn in Hell for eternity for reading such trash. My vocal response is, "I'm sorry you feel that way." My internal response is, "I’ll save you a seat." I avoid debates or conversations on the subject with most lay persons as it just leads to frustration and unnecessary stress.

There have been a few delightful exceptions, and those have been among the most rewarding experiences of my entire academic life. The Moroccan taxi driver in Philadelphia at last year's Annual Meeting is one of the most recent. He seemed just as surprised and pleased that I understood and was sympathetic to his situation as a former French émigré trying to escape the post-Colonial attitude, only to find himself as a Muslim immigrant in a post-9/11 America. It was with trepidation that I answered his question, "in town on business?" by stating I was there for a conference of theologians and biblical scholars, trying desperately to control myself from shouting an apologetic, "but there will be Muslim scholars there, too!" After the first exhale, we talked non-stop until arriving at the hotel, and then continued curb-side for another 15 minutes.

But generally I put on the "don’t bother me" face and stuff in the iPod earbuds (Thank God Beethoven, Bono, and Billie never question my motives); especially in the captivity of an airplane. If I'm reading papers, abstracts, or thumbing through a recent acquisition from the Exhibit Hall on an airplane it is usually because I am either on my way to or home from the Annual Meeting. And as I have either just spent the last four days discussing theology and biblical studies, or will spend the next four days doing so, discussing that (or arguing/defending) on a plane is the last thing I want to do.

I recently attended the annual meeting of the National Collegiate Honors Council in Philadelphia (strange sense of déjà vu) where I hosted a display in their Ideas Exchange for the SBL Student Advisory Group. Hung across the front of the table was one of our giant banners. Watching the reactions of the passersby was priceless. Upon seeing the word "Biblical" the ones who did not approach pulled a face as though they had smelled rotting garbage, and gave the table a wide berth. Those brave souls who approached and asked about the Society gave one of two responses. Upon hearing "we're not a religious organization, we're a learned society" either relief or disappointment crossed their faces. Nothing in between.

And this has unfortunately become an increasingly black and white issue as our social politics have become more and more polarized. To quote our (here in the U.S.) fearless leader, "you're either with us or you're against us." Where this particular issue is concerned, it has now become our duty as biblical scholars and educators to reintroduce the shades of grey. Because the study of the bible, whether it be for scholarly or spiritual concerns, is wonderfully rich and layered. And as difficult as it often is, this is in fact the life we have chosen. It is...I'm sorry, but I cannot resist...our cross to bear. So go forth, my intrepid colleagues. Fly the friendly skies and don't be afraid to reveal, apologize, educate, inform, and perhaps even inspire. The person who benefits the most from the experience might just be you.

Diane E. Curtis, Student Advisory Group Coordinator, Society of Biblical Literature








Citation: , " "Bible Scholar on an Airplane" Letters," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2007]. Online:


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