The Future of the Society
What does the SBL need to do to advance biblical scholarship in Africa? Though, understandably, Africa appears only in the peripheral vision of SBL, I want to offer some reflections on how the SBL might make a significant contribution to our continent.
To its credit, the Society has made various attempts to bring Africa into the picture more fully. Few of us will forget the memorable International Meeting in Cape Town in 2000, and the collection of essays that was published out of this Meeting remains a reminder both of that event and of the concerns of African biblical scholarship (Ukpong 2002). Alongside this major event on the African continent have been a steady series of specific commitments by particular SBL groups to invite African scholars to the Annual Meeting. The presence of African scholars at the Annual Meeting has also been instrumental in the formation of at least two consultations, the Bible in Africa, Asia and Latin America (to which the Caribbean was later added) and, more recently, African Biblical Hermeneutics. These have become the home bases for those from the African continent who either lived in the USA or were visiting. Both have produced some excellent dialogue and a number of collaborative projects, and this continues in the latter consultation. In addition to these initiatives of the SBL, there has been a remarkable openness from the Society's Press to co-publish with African presses, and this cooperation has already borne fruit.
What this account of the Society's contribution to the African continent hides, however, is how much of the connection with Africa is with white South Africa. The history of the Society's links with Africa has a downside. While many progressive forces in the world were attempting to isolate South Africa during the apartheid regime, the SBL continued with business as usual. This meant that there was a steady stream of mainly white South Africans to SBL Meetings. When some of us suggested that the SBL allow only those who had been vetted by the then banned African National Congress to attend its Meetings (a policy used internally in South Africa to honour the boycott of South Africa while maintaining those international links that supported political change), we were politely ignored and our motion was not even considered. So, by "remaining neutral," the SBL gave legitimacy to academics who had not taken a clear stand against apartheid and thereby propped up their claims to being international scholars, on the basis of which they then claimed the lion's share of what resources were available for such travel and research.
Thankfully, those days are behind us, though some accounting may still need to be done. The situation in South Africa today is changing, though the contours of the changes in the academy are complex. What I wish to stress here, however, is that South Africa is in rather a strong position with respect to biblical scholarship. We have a number of active and reasonably well-resourced societies, though they are still predominantly white and male; our libraries are well stocked and fairly up-to-date, and we have an excellent interlibrary loan system; the government and our universities make funds available for research and travel; and most of our universities have adequate electronic access to the Internet. So we can ply our trade competently and connect with our colleagues around the world if we so desire.
The situation to the north of us is, however, vastly different. I am an active member of a number of South African academic journals; as I reviewer, I regularly receive from colleagues around the continent articles that have stunning insight but not the usual scholarly resources to pursue it. What does one do with an article that is breaking new ground with its instincts and analysis, but does not have access to what has been published in that area during the last 10-20 years? One way around this has been for African scholars to forge their own brand of biblical scholarship, what is generally referred to as the comparative approach (Ukpong 2000), but even this approach needs to draw on the incremental work of the scholarly guild.
On a recent visit to Nigeria, as the guest of the Nigerian Association for Biblical Studies, I was overwhelmed by the enormous gulf between the creativity and commitment of Nigerian biblical scholars, on the one hand, and the paucity of scholarly resources, on the other. I visited the library of a major university in the area and found that the entire holdings for all of religion and theology filled no more than one side of one library stack. I could not find one book that had been published within the last ten years. Even senior academics here and elsewhere in Africa north of South Africa often do not have computers in their offices, and access to electricity, never mind the Internet, is intermittent at best. And yet, their energy and determination to engage critically with the Bible and their context are unrelenting.
This is not the place to analyze what has happened to decimate once well-stocked libraries and renowned academic institutions. This analysis we must do, and we are. But in this FORUM I want to ask, What does the SBL need to do to advance biblical scholarship in Africa? First, we would want Africa to have a place on the Society's agenda, as a regular item. Second, we would want the SBL to prioritize Africa north of South Africa in its funding of travel and other initiatives, particularly targeting the next generation of African scholars, especially women. Third, we would want the SBL to waive registration costs for Africans north of South Africa who attend an SBL Meeting. Fourth, we would want the SBL to enter into co-publishing ventures with as many African presses as is possible. Fifth, we would want SBL-based publications to be sensitive to the constraints on African authors, assisting them to locate the resources necessary to improve an article for publication. Sixth, we would want the SBL to identify particular African libraries as the beneficiaries of all SBL-produced publications at no cost. Seventh, we would want the SBL to make its publications available on-line free of charge to African scholars living and working on the continent (north of South Africa). And eighth, we would want the SBL to continue drawing Africans into their structures where they might make a contribution beyond the usual boundaries of the Society's gaze.
Unlike much of American biblical scholarship, African biblical scholarship is deeply connected to local faith-based organizations and local communities. The resonance between the religio-cultural world of the Bible and the religio-cultural world of Africans gives the Bible a particularly significant place in African society. So the biblical scholar's contribution in Africa is an important one, providing as it does additional resources for engaging with, and additional perspectives on, the Bible. While our own context is our primary dialogue partner, we all recognize the importance of a responsible relationship with academic scholarship.
The human contact we have with one another in the Society is obviously a major resource, and this is why those of us who can afford it make the effort, often at great sacrifice, to attend an SBL Meeting. But most of us will never get to a Meeting and most of us will never visit a well-stocked library, so I have concentrated on ways in which the Society might make its vast resources available to those who will remain on the periphery. My suggestions are offered as catalysts for creative thinking. Colleagues here have some quite concrete recommendations with respect to the above, and we are certainly open to other suggestions.
Gerald West, School of Religion and Theology,University of KwaZulu-Natal,South Africa, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ukpong, Justin S. 2000. "Developments in biblical interpretation in Africa: historical and hermeneutical directions". In The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories and Trends, edited by G. O. West and M. Dube. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
——, ed. 2002. Reading the Bible in the Global Village: Cape Town. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
Citation: Gerald West, " The Future of the Society," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=355