Letters in Response to Avalos(9)
These letters are in response to the article:The Ideology of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Demise of an Academic Profession by Hector Avalos.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will begin by saying that I would not mind if study of the Bible were left to those of us who are "religionists" — not because the Bible is irrelevant to the wider culture, or even to the world, but because in a secular university one is largely constrained from addressing questions of relevance. The pressure to copy the (misunderstood) methodologies of the hard sciences precludes almost any approach except those of an (anti-) historical or literary nature.
As of late I have wondered whether it would not be better to place the study of the Bible back within the larger context of theological or rabbinical studies. It has occurred to me that perhaps the Bible is to some degree falsified when abstracted from the larger questions of theology and practice that arise in communities for whom the Bible has authority and value.
The Bible, within those communities, does not function in isolation, but in interaction, through the lens of a particular hermeneutic. (For rabbinic Judaism Torah is central; for Christianity, Christ.) Within the Academy, however, the Bible is increasingly studied in isolation, due to the fact that the Academy has become dominated by secularist perspectives.
By this I do not mean to say that the Bible has no relevance to those outside of faith communities (nor are faith communities themselves irrelevant). At the very least, the Bible is part of a long history of people dealing with questions such as How shall we live? What is the greatest good? What is the nature of the universe? What does God ask of us? — all questions of value, like feeding the hungry or clothing the naked. These are questions that are just as relevant as ever, despite the attempt to marginalize and isolate from the public forum anything having to do with value from a religious perspective.
The reluctance of the secular university to consider questions of value-Pascal's third level of the heart, or Charity (in the old fashioned sense) means that materialistic and commercial concerns dominate, to the university's own impoverishment — witness the decline of all fields lumped together under "Humanities" — and the turn to vocational training as the purpose of education.
Avalos and others claim that the value of the Bible is merely a "social construct" and it has no intrinsic value. I am not terribly well-versed in post-modernist terminology or in ideological criticism, so I am not sure I understand what is meant by "social construct" or what, for Avalos, would have "intrinsic value." My guess is that behind this lies the view that if something — whether entity, belief, behavior, etc. — is not absolute, or if the evidence for it does not compel acceptance, then the only choice left is relativism. Thus, for many, the observation that literary canons, or the biblical canon, or religious practice, or philosophy, or morality, or even law, come into being within community, is taken to imply that those canons, or studies, or endeavors can be devalued or disposed of at will. I do not deny that all human concerns, endeavors, artifacts, originate in a particular time and place. It is the "therefore" that I reject. It is the crucial mistake made by post-modernism, and it arises out of its acceptance of the modernist rejection of all forms of knowledge except the scientific. In fact social constructs (not that I agree that the Bible is merely a social construct) are crucial ways of ordering experience that allow us to function as humans interacting with each other and the wider world. There may be "social constructs" that are ephemeral and therefore of limited value, like fashion in clothing, but there are works that have lasting value because they speak to something deeper that resonates with human community over time and across culture.
 I am a Christian who attends a Presbyterian Church.
Marilyn J. Lundberg, West Semitic Research
As a layman who accidentally stumbled on to Mr. Avalos' Forum article I must ask is this really a widely held view of the society? Mr. Avalos should be the head of some Humanistic Liberation Theology Group, and not a member of an organization seeking to grow the knowledge of Biblical material. If the writers objective is to destroy something because his own bias's are not being fed then I think a refund of his dues and a hardy God Speed are in order. Your publishing of the articles shows the willingness of the society to open itself to even the most twisted criticism, and I hope someone with greater knowledge than I will share thoughts on this article. One thing I want to share with Mr. Avalos is the fact that this morning I helped prepare and deliver meals to a soup kitchen in the name of Jesus Christ. I did it because He said if I did it for these people I was doing it for Him. Guess where I read this irrelevant information that drives my worldview? Keep up the good work Society of Biblical Literature even us laymen need you more than ever.
Jay Weemhoff II
If I understand Professor Avalos correctly, he is a secular scholar who charges his fellow SBL members to engage in social justice rather than devote effort to teaching critical approaches to Biblical literature, with an implicit accusation that we have engaged in a sort of idolatry of the Biblical text which is the focus of our misguided attention.
I do not wish to contest Professor Avalos's noble interest in improving the lives of the less fortunate. But I cannot help but find it a little ironic that a secular scholar with little regard for the usefulness of the Bible has adopted such a preachy tone (and one that borrows rather heavily from the critiques of Amos, Jeremiah, etc.). While social justice is a worthwhile concern, should it really be the mandate of the scholar? It seems to me that our job is to broaden objective understanding and not define and advance moral agendas.
This is a slippery slope, the mixing of personal predilection with professional obligation. If we, our colleagues, or our students are moved to benevolent action based on what we cover in the classroom, fantastic. But we should leave it up to the Clergy to deliver the sermons.
As for being part of a social elite because I chose to be a biblical scholar and not a corporate lawyer, a Wall Street shark or a fabulous fashion model ... well, I am grateful to Professor Avalos for giving me a good laugh!
Mark Leuchter, Hebrew College
Dr. Avalos' piece argues that those involved in the SBL are guilty of promoting the injustice of class distinctions, engaging in pitiful acts of "reappropriation and recontextualization" to salvage a text that has no "intrinsic meaning" (i.e. the Bible), and of "channeling" students like myself away from professions "more practical for humanity." Having had the pleasure of a quick debate with Dr. Avalos at this past Annual Meeting, I felt it necessary as a student to see if Dr. Avalos' arguments stood to reason. Since his critique is aimed at the SBL as a whole, I assume that he also intends his remarks to apply to individual SBL groups and scholars in particular. To this end I will put Ronald R. Clark's paper presentation at the 2005 Annual meeting entitled "Submit or Else!: Intimate Partner Violence, Aggression, Batterers, and the Bible" under the "scrutiny" of Dr. Avalos' ideas.
In his paper, Dr. Clark presents us with the problem of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), where a profound dilemma is being faced by victims of domestic violence and faith communities, namely, the use of biblical texts by abusers to subordinate and abuse women. Clark argues that the problem lies not in the use of biblical text, but its misuse. Abusers, it appears, have the tendency to read religious texts outside of their broader biblical and cultural context, transforming passages whose purpose is to foster hope and inspiration, into tools of coercion. One example Clark has noted often in his treatment and interaction with couples plagued by IPV, is abuser's use of Eph 5:22-24 (Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord...), in which they demand total submission from their spouses ... while completely ignoring the following verses speaking about the husbands' equality with and submission to their wives (Eph 5:25-33)!
Clark's most inspiring point is that biblical studies (which seek to find the original context and meaning of the text) can become a powerful tool in the hands of therapists and counselors. By giving women who are victims of IPV an alternative interpretation of the Scriptures which does not reduce them to nothing more than their partner's submissive slaves, there may be the opportunity for them to become empowered. If abusers can use biblical scripture to harm and oppress women, so can counselors and faith leaders use the same scriptures to uplift and heal them. In that sense, religion may be the problem, but also the solution.
Perhaps it would be at this juncture that Dr. Avalos would interject and bat aside the findings of Dr. Clark's study, calling it a "charade" of "reappropriation and recontextualization," arguing that the texts in question have no "intrinsic meaning" whatsoever. Whatever philosophical splitting of hairs Dr. Avalos would wish to engage in, the texts and the meanings derived from these texts are hardly "irrelevant." "Relevance" and "irrelevance" are relational terms. Something may be "irrelevant" to you but full of relevance for me and my life. In the case of the abusers who employ religious texts to maintain control over their partners, scripture and its various meanings are extremely relevant to their reign of familial terror. Likewise, an interpretation of scripture that gives a victim of IPV the understanding that God does not condone abuse is extremelyrelevant to their process of psychological and spiritual healing. Dr. Avalos may call such interpretations and understandings "subjective"; I would call them meaningful and therapeutic. Whether the Bible has any "intrinsic meaning" (in the way in which Dr. Avalos employs the phrase) is irrelevant. The Bible has relational meaning, to an abuser as a source of control or to an abuse victim as a source of healing and liberation.
Is the unearthing, creation, or recreation of meaning from religious scripture an impractical profession that diverts students from studying more practical careers? Well let us see; I am a Puerto Rican student who left his island home four years ago to come to the United States to study psychology. In the process I became involved with the Rutgers Department of Religion and subsequently became interested in the interface of psychology and biblical studies. Within that matrix of study I have come across research such as that of Ronald R. Clark's, which suggests that interpretations of the biblical text can prove useful in therapeutic interventions. From what I have seen so far—getting involved with such groups as the Psychology and Biblical Studies section of SBL—the profession of biblical interpretation is hardly impractical and unnecessary. If being able to provide resources for healing to religious patients in counseling/psychotherapy, or resources of growth for faith communities, or an understanding of the history of the biblical text and the ideals which form part of our society, is not "beneficial to humanity," then Dr. Avalos will have to elaborate on what he means by the phrase. If, by the phrase, he means that the efforts will aid only a particular community (i.e., Judeo-Christians) and not the human race as an entire species, then perhaps he needs to be reminded of this organization's name: The Society of Biblical Literature, not Amnesty International.
Lastly, although I am a Puerto Rican undergraduate drowning in student loans, I have found no "ethnocentric" or economic "class" related resistance of any kind to my presence or ideas from the large Caucasian Judeo-Christian population at the SBL Annual Meeting. Dr. Avalos wrote in his article, "Ideological criticism may be enjoyable when applied to others, but it is most sobering when applied to ourselves." Perhaps it is about time that he discontinued his generalizations, and took his own advice and explored the presuppositions behind his equally subjective and unqualified remarks. I've repeatedly enjoyed his writings ... until he begins to talk as if all but him have erred from the way of truth, and have become enthralled in their own subjective psychological fantasies and illusions.
Daniel J. Gaztambide, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick Campus
Hector Avalos dislikes the orientation of current Bible teaching and asserts that "If we were really doing a good job [ie., doing it his way; MVF], then less people might want to read the Bible, not more. That would mean the end of biblical studies and the SBL as we know them" (The Ideology of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Demise of an Academic Profession, SBL Forum May 2006). In an article on "Religion in the Academy," Paul J. Griffith tells us that "the future of the academic study of religion is unlikely to be long or rosy" and "[t]he future of nontheological academic study of religion is just what it should be: bleak" (JAAR 74.1 : 66-78, at 66 and 74).
Both scholars make their cases strictly on theoretical and ideological grounds. What puzzles me is why their expectations are so unrelated to the realities in the classroom. Religious Studies and Bible Studies are booming. At my university, Bible classes are constantly capped at high numbers, and the Religious Studies program is growing all the time. And no one is preaching. Maybe we should trust our students' judgment a bit more. Perhaps they know something the theoreticians are missing.
Michael V. Fox, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Alienation, Irrelevance, and Ideology: A Response to Hector Avalos
Professor Hector Avalos' SBL Forum article "The Ideology of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Demise of an Academic Profession" could be read and engaged on a variety of levels.
It could be seen as a simple power play, an effort to decenter something called "bibliolatry" or "religionism" and replace it with something else called "secular humanism" as the controlling ideology within the Society of Biblical Literature, to the benefit of secular humanists such as Avalos.
It could be seen as a claim to an objectively truer understanding of reality than that put forth by the "faith communities" that currently benefit from "biblical studies" and are, according to Avalos, the sole reason (and not an adequate one) for "biblical studies" as presently constituted to exist. The standards by which this truth claim would be adjudicated would apparently be found within a (non-ideological?) "modern world" and its "rationality."
Avalos' essay could also be seen as an attempt to shield a secularist group of scholars from the threatening difference of "faith communities" whose alienation from and irrelevance to the "modern world" has been fully demonstrated by rationalist and secularist criteria and yet which stubbornly and irrationally refuse to disappear, be silenced (as would be appropriate in view of their lack of anything relevant to say), or yield control of the interpretation of their supposed scriptures to those who obviously know much better than they what those scriptures are and mean. The fearful "'otherness' of the Bible," as Professor Avalos names it, must attach to those who give religious allegiance to it, and it is from this "otherness" that secularist academics must be protected.
Perhaps, indeed, the subduing of difference goes hand-in-hand with the power play: wresting control of the Society from the perverse and recalcitrant "religionists," perhaps even purifying the Society of them, would free the secularists from the embarrassment and annoyance of having to be in close contact with — worse yet, occasionally be identified with — these alien and irrelevant entities.
Or the essay could be seen (by those who in their innocence choose not to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to it) as a genuine plea to make "biblical studies" into "a discipline relevant to those outside of faith communities," something that "will benefit our broader world and not just faith communities," as Professor Avalos writes. Not being much good at ideological criticism myself, I will attempt to engage the essay briefly on these grounds.
Before I do, let me say that I hope Professor Avalos and his fellow secularists will not be offended by my injecting a little parodic levity into the discussion. It is not meant to be unkind. We tend to be a joyless lot, we biblical scholars, at least when we are discussing our work and ourselves, and I do sometimes wish we could loosen up just a bit.
Yet the question of relevance that Avalos raises is a serious one. Unfortunately, he leaves the key term "relevance" undefined. It seems (as suggested by the quotations I have juxtaposed above) to have to do with "benefit" for humankind, especially for those who are economically deprived. "Little of what we learn will feed the hungry or clothe the naked," Professor Avalos observes. Instead of steering young people into theological studies we ought "to encourage students to enter a profession more practical for humanity (e.g., food economists or lawyers for the poor)." Indeed, Avalos himself feels increasingly moved by conscience to abandon biblical studies in favor of "something more beneficial for humanity."
The problem with "biblical studies" as the SBL encourages it, then, is that it is not "relevant to those outside of faith communities," which apparently means much the same as not relevant at all. Perhaps if "faith communities" could be demonstrated to be relevant in the sense described above there might be some reason for them, and the "biblical studies" they prop up, to go on existing; but this question seems already to have been settled for Professor Avalos. "The alien and irrelevant nature of biblical worldviews" is shared ipso facto by the bibliolatrous faith communities and their scholarly retainers.
The biblical writers "believed that the world was formed and ruled by a god who is otherwise barely recognized in contemporary texts outside of ancient Israel," according to Avalos. He goes on to present a standard list of the wickednesses perpetrated or condoned by this deity, and to reject the "ethnocentric and religiocentric mythos" that asserts that the Bible has "'higher' ethical or religious lessons to teach us."
I can't help observing, as an aside, that Avalos can know that Israel's god was "otherwise barely recognized" and that the Bible lacks any "'higher' ethical or religious lessons ... as compared to those found in the texts of other ancient cultures" only because he is wrong to say that biblical scholars have focused only on the Bible and left "thousands of non-biblical texts untranslated." This is the one actually misleading claim made in the essay. Of course there are countless texts still to translate; but who is it who edited and translated the ones with which Avalos implicitly compares the biblical writings?
It seems to be not only the irredeemable depravity of the biblical god but the very minority status of those who conceived and promoted belief in this obscure deity that bothers Professor Avalos. Alien and irrelevant already in their own day, the biblical texts cannot possibly be meaningful now. And in fact this minority status—the difference of Israel and its god from other nations—is something highly significant for most of the biblical tradition. The biblical claim is, in part, that truth may be found in a very obscure corner of the world indeed and is not subject to majority vote. Some strands of biblical tradition, in fact, assert obnoxiously that truth will always be reduced to minority and marginal status and is never likely to be found in a dominant/majority/repressive piety.
I share the ideological critics' focus on human liberation, and their suspicion of religious institutions and establishments as prone to thwart that liberation. I have no idea how Jewish scholars might view this issue, but as a Christian I believe that my religion's most appalling transgression was its alliance with imperial power in the fourth century (and at other times as well, outside the Roman world). Ever since then, it has sought to shed its alien and irrelevant nature and to be relevant and intrinsic to the "secular world" (if a redundancy may be pardoned). In my opinion, alienation and irrelevance are qualities to be treasured, or at any rate to be respected as a possible guide to where any deeper or higher lessons are likely to be taught.
And how will that benefit the hungry and the naked? Strangely enough, in the West at least it has been precisely the bibliolatrous faith communities who have been highly active in exactly that sphere. Perhaps through some terrible misunderstanding of the nature of their supposedly sacred texts, they have believed it incumbent upon themselves not only to remediate the conditions of the poor, but sometimes even to reform or transform the structures that create those conditions. Indeed, I have a pretty strong hunch that the roots of Professor Avalos' own concern to "feed the hungry [and] clothe the naked" have something to do with the presence of the Bible in the Western culture in which he grew up.
But how can "biblical studies" as we know it have a role in this kind of relevance? Not as directly, perhaps, as economics or the law, but it does happen indirectly every day. I suspect some of it happens (perhaps sotto voce) even in university departments of religious studies, but I know it goes on in theological seminaries such as the one where I teach. Because I believe that liberation and justice for the poor are of central importance, I work to help the ministerial students whom I teach connect these themes with the biblically centered faith that most of them bring to their education. They will be the ones who will go on to lead their faith communities into the relevant and beneficial work that is so much needed. My peculiar talents and interests are not much suited to organizing and leadership. But I can and do put them at the service of those who will organize and lead movements, programs, and institutions that do a great deal that is "more beneficial for humanity."
This does not absolve me from being more directly involved in that work. But it does not make doing "what I love," as Professor Avalos also calls his work, irrelevant to the good of humankind. On the contrary, by educating the leaders of faith communities in their use of the Bible it is at least conceivable that I will end up doing more than I could working at poverty law.
I have to want to do this, though, a desire that does not come from the way "biblical studies" as a discipline is constructed but from within myself. Restructuring myself or my discipline along secular humanist lines would not strengthen that commitment, which in my case comes precisely from my alien and irrelevant religion. What the Society of Biblical Literature can do is redouble its efforts to make teaching biblical studies for the sake of the work for justice being done inside and outside faith communities seem as essential to its mission as archaeology and linguistics. Perhaps that is where Professor Avalos and I could find some measure of agreement. It is not the replacement of religiously oriented scholars by secularist ones but the creation of scholars with commitment beyond the academy that we need.
David Rensberger, Interdenominational Theological Center
Reply to Dr. Avalos
I could simply discredit this column by pointing out the obvious—that it does not show the irrelevance of the Society or of biblical studies, but only the utter disconnect and irrelevance of the author. It was so over the top that at first I thought it was itself a parody, like the "Reed M. N. Weep" column in the CSSR Bulletin. Perhaps that is all that needs to be said. Indeed, if this essay were just an entry in a blog, I would leave it alone. I would probably just laugh at it, forwarding the URL to my friends so they could laugh at it too. But to have it sent to me by the Society itself seems to imply that this is supposed to be part of our analysis and discussion of our own vocation, or that we are supposed to engage it and learn from it, when I believe that it really bears no relation to our callings as scholars and teachers, and we should candidly say so. While Dr. Avalos is free to insult and condemn us, his colleagues, I also think we should say when the insult is simply inaccurate, irrelevant, and misleading.
First, many of my colleagues will no doubt be as surprised as I was to learn that we are part of "an elite and privileged class." (That we live lives as wasteful and consumptive as other middle-class Americans is undeniable, but that was not Dr. Avalos' accusation.) I am as proud of my working-class background as Dr. Avalos is of his. My grandfather was the first person in his family to learn to read and write, as well as the first to speak English. My father was the first person in his family to go to college, and he did so by attending night school for eight years while working full-time during the day. That he did so meant that I did not have to live as difficult an experience, but I did work a second job for the first six years that I was a junior faculty member in order to pay the bills (including student loans, part of the entry fee to our supposedly "elite" class). Those jobs were hardly what I imagine the truly "privileged" in our country engage in — fry cook, pizza delivery driver, retail clerk, barista. To say that I and my fellow teachers are part of a "privileged class" goes beyond inaccurate to the truly absurd. To claim further that we are morally bankrupt hypocrites who mercilessly kick homeless people out of our way goes beyond that: it is just an insult hurled by someone who is as ignorant as he is self-righteous.
But such baiting I could easily enough overlook, stemming as it does from a depth of narcissism and sanctimony that borders on the pitiable. It is when Dr. Avalos accuses all of us of engaging in a vocation that is irrelevant and useless that we should take real umbrage. And more than just taking offense — though that is undeniably the first, visceral, human reaction — I think it is ultimately more important that we should note how different is our worldview, a worldview that, despite Dr. Avalos' attempts to mock and marginalize it as patriarchal and genocidal, is in reality as humane and noble as any other, and which has an arguably much better track record than the secularism that gave us the inhuman bloodbath that was the twentieth century. Unlike Dr. Avalos, most of us experience our vocation as a calling by God, and one for which, as I have already noted, most of us have made considerable sacrifices. We make these sacrifices and follow this calling not just for our "own enjoyment" — though that is a delightful and wholly proper collateral benefit — but because we believe this vocation benefits our students, our colleagues, our readers, and our communities. We should proclaim and celebrate our nobler motives and deny Dr. Avalos his crass, spiteful belittling of us.
Perhaps more importantly, we do what we do also because we believe that texts — the Bible and Shakespeare among them, but also including many others — have the kind of "intrinsic merit [and] value" that Dr. Avalos denies they have. That is the most essential difference between what Dr. Avalos describes in his essay and what we all practice, and from which our readers and students hopefully benefit. I know that it is a sacred rite of post-modernism that we are all supposed to furrow our brows and nod knowingly whenever someone solemnly and derisively intones that texts — all texts, but the Bible is most often singled out as the special bogeyman and villain — have "no intrinsic merit or value" and are just "social construct[s]" that "maintain class distinctions." But every time I hear such a statement, all I can think of is my favorite childhood story, "The Emperor's New Clothes," and point out the obvious: Who in their right mind believes such worn-out, useless garbage? Let us be honest: No one outside of a few of our colleagues would ever agree to this preposterous, dehumanizing proposition. Not just the supposedly homeless-kicking academics, but most students and readers are guilty of "religionism" (whatever in the world that is) and "bibliolatry," and it is for them that we teach and write. That such guilty parties are ninety percent of the human population of the Earth should make us much more secure and happy about our lives than Dr. Avalos will ever be about his.
As Dr. Avalos points out, perhaps it is time for him to move on to "do something more beneficial for humanity." That is the only sentence in his essay with which all of us should heartily agree.
Kim Paffenroth, Iona College
Response to Avalos
SBL began to change when the principal study of the Bible moved from the seminary to university and college religion departments in the 1960s, a move necessitated by the influx of baby-boomers into higher education. With that expansion came esotericism and studies unrelated to the needs of faith communities. And while it is true that the professional biblical scholar does not need the believing- or non-believing community to survive, the opposite is not true. Witness the Da Vinci Code phenomenon, or the Gospel of Judas hoopla, or the war over Creationism and Gay marriage, or Islamic fanaticism, etc., all of which call for a deeper understanding of religious traditions, not less.
Richard N. Soulen, Williamsburg, VA
Response to Avalos
As a humanist I would expect such; as a pastor member of SBL and ETS, I do not accept his premise that the Bible is merely a cultural artifact that can be disposed of, and probably should be unless a convincing rationale for him can be proposed.
I offer no convincing rationale to him. I wonder, however, if that is the case, and he is one of the privileged elite, and if the Bible has no value in any modern sense of the word, then why does he pay his dues to SBL or attend meetings?
James A. Glasscock, Fallsington, PA
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