I have been attending the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting which is being held this year in Atlanta. I look forward to attending every year, even though the American Academy of Religion had a Forrest Gump “stupid is as stupid does” moment a few years ago and broke away from the joint conference to do their own thing. (Fortunately, the two societies will be together next year in San Francisco.) It’s a great time to see old friends again and network and discuss the latest publishing possibilities and buy lots of books at discounted prices… and I even manage to attend a session here and there to hear a paper or two.
Having said that, I spend a fair chunk of time each year at SBL wondering and asking myself, “What’s the point?” I love Christian scholarship and I believe that the primary task of such scholarship is to serve the church. And while there is such scholarship here, I will be bold enough to say that not all of it is– indeed, I suspect that more than a small percentage of the scholarship at SBL is of little to no help in serving the church as it fulfills the mission Christ gave to it; and I suspect that more than a small percentage of scholars here could care less about the ecclesiological implications of their scholarly pursuits.
Please hear me! There are folks who do care about their scholarship as it relates to the church and they are here in Atlanta swarming the area. My wonderful colleagues at Ashland Theological Seminary are among them. But I dare say that the ecclesiological dimensions of the SBL enterprise are woefully lacking, and not only are they woefully lacking, there appears to be at times little interest in doing theology while standing in the wise and watchful gaze of the church.
If what I do as a scholar does not assist in the church’s fulfillment of the Great Commission our Lord and Savior gave it on behalf of the world, then my scholarly pursuits are a waste of time, and nothing I write on and reflect over should be taken seriously (not that anyone does, anyway). Christian scholarship should not be an exercise unto itself. As Karl Barth so astutely noted many years ago– the only good reason for the theologian to exist is to give the preacher something to say on Sunday morning. Before his Ascension, Jesus said to his disciples, “Go into the world and make disciples of all nations.” If my study and research and writing do not assist in the Great Commission endeavor, then all my work and toil and labor is a waste of time, and Jesus will not be able to say to me upon my entrance to the Kingdom, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” And those are words I want to hear someday above every other affirmation.
So, as I muddle my way each year through the SBL conundrum, I pledge to God each year that my scholarly endeavors will not be pursued for the affirmation of my earthly peers, but for Jesus Christ who makes it possible for me to be here in Atlanta among these important (though sometimes beside the point) deliberations.