By James F. McGrath
Clarence L. Goodwin, Chair of New Testament Language and Literature
At first, the rumor was that they were splitting up, or at least separating. Those of us who knew them couldn’t believe it – their lives were too intertwined for it to seem feasible. Eventually we learned that they weren’t separating, just cancelling the annual rendezvous that had been a key element in their relationship.
Those of us who loved them both were left puzzled as to what exactly had transpired and why. They say that opposites attract, but in this case was the problem irreconcilable differences or excessive similarity?
We had lots of questions. But some couples keep their squabbles to themselves, and these two certainly did.
Yet they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. It didn’t take too long until they were missing one another. This November, they will resume their annual rendezvous.
As the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion reunites its annual meetings this year in San Francisco, after four years of meeting separately, different parties will presumably feel different about it.
I know that publishers are relieved. Those who carry books that appeal to both AAR and SBL members could not always afford to attend both conferences when they were separate.
Faculty who are responsible for covering biblical studies and other areas of religion are likewise relieved. Sessions will be available, and books that relate to the full sweep of our interests with respect to teaching and scholarship will be for sale.
As is so often the case, I have known one member of this “on again, off again” couple for longer than the other. I joined the Society of Biblical Literature back in 1998, but AAR only in 2010. At this year’s meeting, I will be involved in both SBL and AAR sessions – the latter for the first time.
I know that many others are as glad as I am that the conferences have reunited. Yet I suspect that there are plenty of scholars in both organizations for whom the reunion will only be noticeable in terms of a much larger sea of unfamiliar faces in the book exhibit hall.
Looking over the two program books this year, I found myself struck by the degree to which many of the same issues are bound to arise in both organizations. Religious studies and theology are approaches that have an established presence in both. And so as issues such as the critical character of biblical scholarship continue to be discussed in SBL, I hope that the conversation will expand to encompass colleagues whose principle connection is with AAR. Both organizations have historically fostered critical scholarship and have served the needs of those engaging with religion and/or the Bible both from within and outside of religious communities. Just as separating the two organizations ultimately separated domains that intersect for many of us, so too a complete separation of those with completely secular interest in the Bible from those with a connection to a faith tradition or community would impoverish both.
While most scholars in the fields covered by AAR and SBL approach their subject one way or the other, at least as far as their professional life is concerned, I doubt that there are many on either side of this methodological divide who would not admit to having learned something valuable from a scholar whose approach and perspective was different from their own.
Relationships between and within organizations, like all relationships involving human beings, face challenges and difficulties. When it comes to the divides between religious studies and theology, and between AAR and SBL, I’m persuaded that we are dealing with instances where we are better together that we ever could be apart.
Or as Journey famously put it, “The fighting is worth the love they save.”1
1 Journey, “Who’s Crying Now” from the album Escape.