Tag Archives: AAR/SBL

Books Anonymous

If you stick with something long enough, you’ll get onto all the mailing lists. These days even if you innocently click on an internet ad it will come back to haunt you for weeks on every web-page your visit. One kind of ad I don’t mind is the book catalogue. For those of you old enough to remember print catalogues, you’ll know what it was like, paging through. You’d see volumes you didn’t know about, but suddenly you couldn’t live without reading them. Around the time of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, your mailbox would fill up with these catalogues from anyone who publishes books on religion. Not a single year passed when I didn’t come up with a wishlist based on those catalogues.

The other day one arrived called simply “The Religion Flyer.” I flipped it over to see from whom it came. No indication. Inside the offerings were largely Catholic. But then some evangelical publishers appeared there too. And the Society of Biblical Literature. The only commonality I could find here was the Bible. These were biblical books. Again, as I taught Bible for nearly two decades, this was no surprise. Still, who was to benefit from these sales? I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that books aren’t produced if they aren’t projected to make money. Sad, but true. So who sends out a catalogue with no contact information? Who benefits? The backside has a list of bookstores, along with an order form. As in the catalogue itself, the stores are mainly Catholic, with a few Evangelicals thrown in. The Society of Biblical Literature, which sells its own books, didn’t make the cut.

Could this be truly altruistic book advertising? Not many people suppose that biblical study is good for the world, so I admire the conviction of these stalwarts, whomever they may be. Publishing is a business like any other. The powerful voices that say knowledge should be free don’t, I notice, office their classroom instruction without university tuition to pay their salaries. We’re all the victims of capitalism, I fear. Someone, or ones, took from the limited time that they have to produce a catalogue simply to promote the subject. They were likely hired to do so—I’m not really that naive—but they did so without drawing attention to their own efforts. There once was someone who said that acts of goodness should be done by one hand without the other hand knowing. Not many believe that any more. Even though it’s biblical. Who benefits? Those who have eyes to read.

Publishing Weakly

Those of you who aren’t professional religionists might not understand the cultural impact of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. Every November a largish city (New York and Los Angeles are too expensive, but many of the other biggies have hosted us) is inundated with religion scholars. Nearly a literal myriad of them. Church attendance spikes, that weekend, as do the takings in the local bars. Restaurants near convention centers are swamped and tips, I expect, aren’t that great. And publishers show up in spades. We tout our recent books, attractively displayed for the book-hungry, and hope the cash rolls in. It’s not a cheap conference to which to send your staff. Books, though, make you think and we have to get our ideas out there.

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The conference is big enough for the book industry that Publishers Weekly, a standard periodical for the biz, generally has a story about it. Even when people were worried about the election results, we had to get together and discuss what’s God got to do with it. Or so it would seem. In the story by Emma Koonse and Lynn Garrett, it is noted that InterVarsity Press, a stalwart of conservative Christian publishing, has generated its own Trump-like crisis. Owned by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the press has been instructed that anyone who disagrees with the parent company’s stance against gay marriage must resign. They hasten to add that this doesn’t apply to their authors. There is such a thing as a double-standard, you know. You need to bring in that money, otherwise you can’t afford to oppress your employees.

The idea behind publishing is that ideas should be—must be—shared. There is an educational imperative. Many IVP readers may be surprised to learn that the Bible says nothing about gay marriage. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mention Donald Trump either, although reading the account of Balaam I might have to admit being wrong about that. It’s funny what you can make the Bible say when your theology is merely thinly veiled prejudice. Perhaps we should put belief meters on our government houses. Of course, if we did that I’m not sure the national budget could cover the cost of all the lie detectors they’d need to install as well. Publishers, of all people, should be the ones with the most open minds. Unless they find the wallet more compelling than the truth. Let’s just ask Jesus’ wife about that.

Foundation Myths

Foundation myths are some of my favorite myths. If you’ve got to believe in something, it may as well be something fun, right? Usually before I travel to a place I do some research on it. For some reason November of this year has proven to be under a kind of shadow and I wasn’t thinking clearly in the run-up to this year’s AAR/SBL meeting in San Antonio. I’d traveled here once before, and when I raise that occasion with anyone the automatic response, like so many automatic sprinklers, is “that was the year it rained.” This may be the year of the flood, but at least the skies have been dry. I decided to make up for my lack of knowledge by taking in the markers along the River Walk. There’s quite a lot about saints and the founding of this city. I learned that it was named for Saint Anthony of Padua. The site of the first mass, in 1691 (just a year before hell broke loose in Salem) is marked with a granite slab along the green river with its endless supply of ducks.

We’re fond of naming cities after saints. San Francisco, Saint Louis, Saint Paul, San Diego, Saint Petersburg. Perhaps we’ll soon be adding Leningrad to that list. I suppose we like to compare our communities to our better angels. We’re all trying to be good, after all, aren’t we? With all these saints looking over us these ought to be very kind cities indeed. We have yet to name a major city after Jesus, but that doesn’t stop the saintly communities from trying to cash in on the big name.

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Conversion has become a somewhat problematic concept. In current doublespeak we would all be better off if we were the same. If what I’m hearing is correct that means Caucasian, male, pseudo-Protestant, and rich. Well, we don’t want too many to be rich—it’s hard to feel special if too many join the country club. Our saints are those that know how to shuffle the money and make it all look above board. Meanwhile we can sell our Jesus tee-shirts and have those admittedly Catholic saints stand guard over our walls and bless our rifles and condos. It’s pleasant to live in the new promised land. Too bad the good Lord made some kind of error the first time around, but to forgive is divine, after all. I think we can afford to be magnanimous when we’ve got the saints on our side. Myths are so much fun to believe.

Welcoming the Stranger

Profiling is alive and well. In our post-9/11 state, we are even more suspicious than those who are different than we were before. After the Ferguson decision, profiling once again led to unrest. If we didn’t do it so much, cases like this wouldn’t be necessary. If we didn’t shoot first and ask questions later, how much more would we understand? It happens, unfortunately, at all levels. I have no desire to trivialize the tragedy that continues to unfold over race relations, but divisions of those perceived potentially to cause trouble occur at even smaller, less significant levels. We tell ourselves that it is possible to gauge a person’s potential for violence based on a number of factors which happen to fall along lines of gender and race. Your typical airport screening is an example.

As my readers know, I object to the millimeter wave scanners in use in many airports. In general, I object to being treated as a criminal when I have been a pacifist since high school. (And likely before.) I am treated like a law-abiding citizen everywhere except the airport. Flying home from San Diego, I noticed that at check-in men traveling alone were separated out and sent through the scanner. The side on which I had to pull off my shoes and belt and coat, empty my laptop from my bag, and stand on the chilly floor awaiting an opt-out, was very masculine indeed. The woman in front of me, who looked far more frazzled than I did, was sent to the metal detector, along with her stroller. No threat there. Being male, however, is always a threat. Two priests stood before me in line. They didn’t go for the pat-down.

Potential terrorists, all.

Potential terrorists, all.

On the plane, many passengers began to talk about the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meeting. After all, about half the passengers had just come from the conference. For me, I was ready for some quiet. Some time to center myself after playing the extrovert and talking to people I don’t know for four long days. As debates about religion broke out on the Boeing 737, I began to understand why religious folk are often profiled as potential threats. Their convictions, public and firmly held, are more likely to remain constant in the face of contrary evidence than are most opinions. I wonder if airport security couldn’t save us all some time, money, and embarrassment. Couldn’t they just ask passengers to declare their faith? Of course, we’d need to find some other employment for government officials whose duties involving feeling strangers with latex gloves before wishing them a pleasant trip. While high above the planet riots are breaking out down below because we distrust those who are different.

Saint Diego

Didacus of Alcalá fortunately, I think we might all agree, was more commonly known as Diego. The city of San Diego is named for him, as his nickname was a diminutive of Santiago, or Saint James, patron saint of Spain. Ironically, the more recent Saint Diego is best known for his visions of St. Mary, or Our Lady of Guadalupe. To keep your saints straight you need a score card sometimes. To go by the names, California must be a most sacred place. 120 miles north is the City of Angels. Then the city on the bay named after Saint Francis. Then Saint Barbara. One of my favorites, however, is San Louis Obispo. Everywhere saints. What of Didacus? Born in Spain, he was a missionary to the Canary Islands. I don’t think he ever visited southern California. The Franciscan mission dedicated to him, however, is what grew into the presently eighth largest city in the United States.

Wandering the streets of the old part of San Diego, you might find evidence that a mission led to this sprawling city. Or perhaps not. Now it is famous for fun in the sun—beaches and clubs and the US Navy. I have to wonder what Didacus would have thought of his namesake. I wouldn’t presume to speak for a saint, but I can’t see him surfing or enjoying perpetual summer. Did he have any idea what he might have been starting by denying himself and helping others? He was known for his curing of the sick, although he himself died of an abscess some five-and-a-half centuries ago this month. Like most ascetics, it seems one thing he highly valued was being left alone to contemplate. Would he have even survived in modern San Diego?

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One of the observations I make quietly, from the sidelines, is how frantic religion scholars seem to be. Frantic to write that book, get that tenure, find that recognition. It is sometimes easy to forget that educating students is a reward in itself. Having attended large conferences like this for nearly a quarter century, I have watched carefully. Saints and sinners both wander these carpeted halls with motivations as widely diverse as those of Didacus and Daedalus. Although there are 10,000 people here, including, briefly, Jimmy Carter, the world will go on tomorrow as if none of this ever happened. The homeless will still sleep in the park across the tracks from this world-class convention center. We’ll send our sick to hospitals instead of to churches. And if it weren’t for this conference in this city, I would never even heard of Didacus of Alcalá.

Flight of Fantasy

Today marks the end of the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting. As the last attendees who have stayed through to the final half-day make their way through the dreaded Tuesday-slots for papers and wander the exhibit halls in search of last-minute bargains, I wonder what impact we will have made in San Diego. Many of my conversations this year included lamenting over the state of higher education, particularly in the study of religion. Religion, which led to the very concept of higher education, is now perceived mostly as little more than a somewhat unsophisticated intrusion into the cold, hard reality of business. And educating future entrepreneurs is, make no mistake about it, business. Wither the institutions go, publishers will follow. The life of the mind is a perk that we no longer can afford. And yet, as colleague after colleague attests, this is what students really find fascinating. Perhaps even important.

As we get ready to head back to the airport, I reflect how it is so much like being a passenger on a plane. We’ve purchased tickets to get us near where we want to be, but we aren’t directing this jet. The pilot, isolated from us by an unsurpassable barrier, will, we trust, get us to the designated airport. That, however, is not really where we want to go. We won’t happily loiter there. Impatiently we’ll await our baggage at the carousel so that we can wend our way back to our homes. Where is the business end in that? Isn’t it, however, what we live for? And what of the San Diego we’ve left behind? How many people will say that their lives will have been improved by having the lion’s share of religion scholars in their neighborhood for a long weekend? Will the number of homeless have decreased? Will they have found jobs?

While those of us “not from around here” ride elevators more nicely appointed that some people’s houses, the televisions meant to prevent us from growing bored from the twentieth floor to the first, show how the other half lives. It’s sunny and nearing eighty today and Buffalo has snow higher than our heads. Reporters flock to the snow-locked city and wonder at nature’s extremes. It doesn’t seem to play along with our business plans. There must be some way to make some money out of this. But I have an unconventional theory. Maybe I’ve watched Bruce Almighty too many times, but I wonder if all those prayers made by children for a snow day may have been stored up in, what scripture assures us, is a great divine warehouse awaiting release. Perhaps the doors of that storehouse have been thrown open to remind us that sometimes the business of living is simply the wonder of watching it snow. No matter how inconvenient it might be. And lives will have changed for the better.

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The Presence of Ideas

Attending the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting is a bittersweet experience. There is nothing as awe-inspiring as being in the presence of ideas. Whether it is meeting friends who have grown old with me over the years, or younger scholars who promise a fascinating future, or those newly discovered that feel like old friends, they all have ideas. Of course, it is not the editor’s job to produce content, no matter how long or deeply one has been trained to do so. Here is where the bitter of the flavorful metaphor comes in: the suppression of ideas is painful. Throughout my career I have had the benefit of being trained by maverick thinkers who, although I hadn’t realized it at the time, were showing me the way to a kind of enlightenment. Enlightenment, whether it be the absence of thought or the plenitude of it, will lead to places we can’t possibly expect.

When talking about ideas with others I realize how artificial our trite divisions are. For many years I was labeled as a “Hebrew Bible scholar.” “A seminary professor.” Or any number of other simplified categories. My interest, however, was always the finding of the truth. No other goal, it seems to me, is really worth all the energy we put into academic discourse. Sure, I may have studied obscure dead languages—the kind of work that is required to read what many call the word of God in the original (and even earlier than original) language(s). There I found deities battling monsters and chaos perpetually lurking in the background. Ideas in conflict. I somehow knew truth would always win. In fact, I more or less took it personally when AAR initiated its temporary separation from SBL. The two need each other, no matter how much they might argue in the night.

What's the idea?

What’s the idea?

After my first full day of the conference, my head was so swimming with ideas that I had a night full of frightful intellectual dreams. Although I may have trouble convincing the great institutions of this land, I do know that I have something to offer. Ideas crowd around me like a newly exorcized man, seeking entrance to a receptive mind. The more we claim we know, the more we have to learn. I face another day of greeting ideas and seeking their company. Of course, I’m a company man, and I should know what I’m here for. The bittersweet truth of the matter is, however, somewhat more complex than that. I can think of no better place to explore it in the company of friends I’ve known for years, or even only for the past few minutes. As long as they bring their ideas.