5 Questions: SBL Creates Space for New Voices
Steed Davidson is the new Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the largest and oldest academic society devoted to critical biblical studies. He previously served as Professor of Hebrew Bible, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Dean of the Faculty at McCormick Theological Seminary. BAR had a chance to talk with Davidson about his vision for SBL—and biblical studies.
As SBL’s new Executive Director, how will you navigate the current challenges in biblical studies?
DAVIDSON: The current time presents many challenges for the relevance of biblical studies, but these challenges also provide opportunities to innovate the field. This is a time where we see diminished attendance in organized religious communities as well as diminishing support for the humanities in higher education. Biblical studies must face these headwinds and adapt to reach audiences that still seek the knowledge and insights produced in them.
How do you hope to achieve SBL’s mission in the coming years?
DAVIDSON: SBL’s mission is to “foster academic scholarship in biblical studies and cognate areas across global boundaries.” Biblical studies requires an inflow of new scholars, researchers, and writers. The formation of those new entrants to work in a changed discipline means increasing conversations in graduate programs, resourcing career development, and providing opportunities to design entrepreneurial ventures for adventurous thinkers. Almost a third of SBL members live outside of the United States, and a number who live in the U.S. were born outside of the country—myself included. This global membership presents opportunities to broaden the range of biblical knowledge that pays attention to voices long ignored, to recover practices around engagement with Bibles in different parts of the world, and to influence the direction of the field.
Why is it important to engage the public in biblical scholarship?
DAVIDSON: The Bible has been critical for the development of Western civilization and, therefore, most parts of the world. Engaging the public with innovative biblical scholarship is a form of good community education with many benefits. Quite often, without saying it, public figures use biblical knowledge to support their positions. Even more, artists creatively engage with biblical material to produce useful insights that support meaningful dialogue. The consumption of biblical things at various levels has always happened in public spaces, sometimes with biblical scholars and quite often without. As the venues for biblical scholarship continue to shift, public spaces, both in person and digital, serve as generative locations where good scholarship can thrive.
You’re originally from Trinidad and Tobago. How does that background influence your scholarship?
DAVIDSON: I grew up in the early stages of the end of the colonial period when the country was still trying to understand its place in the world. Political independence from a waning imperial power has been both a gift and burden. The British released many of its former colonies because it was advantageous to do so, not because the British Empire had suddenly become generous. An independent nation in that context enters the world scene without the resources needed to develop itself and figure out how to exist in a world constructed in favor of larger powers.
When I speak in this way, I could easily be speaking of ancient Israel during the Persian period. If I go further into the histories of Trinidad and Tobago or other Caribbean territories, I could also be speaking of ancient Israel during the As-syrian or Babylonian period. Similarly, to speak of the independent Caribbean in the shadow of the United States resem-bles ancient Israel in the shadow of many ancient empires. I received a critical education in history that helped me to ana-lyze these political realities, and their implications inevitably influenced my faith and ultimately my scholarship around the Bible.
What are some of the similarities and differences you notice between biblical studies in the U.S. and other parts of the world?
DAVIDSON: Unfortunately, there are too many similarities between the U.S. and other parts of the world. While this makes it easy to translate scholarship and engage in intelligent conversations without too much difficulty, the sameness is not generative. Fortunately, there are growing spaces and commitments that pay attention to local realities and to read through those realities. For instance, scholars in Oceania who pay attention to their context as more water than land pur-sue biblical studies attentive to storytelling and reading practices that are framed by that liquid existence. And there are scholars in Africa that use wisdom and other knowledge traditions to stand alongside biblical texts. Even more, some Asian scholars who recognize sacred texts that predate the Bible pursue a different pathway for biblical scholarship. The expansion of these possibilities provides exciting opportunities for the future.
Steed Davidson is the new Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the largest and oldest academic society devoted to critical biblical studies. He previously served as Professor of Hebrew Bible, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Dean of the Faculty at McCormick Theological Seminary. BAR had a chance to talk with Davidson about his vision for SBL—and biblical studies. (1)2345 As SBL’s new Executive Director, how will you navigate the current challenges in biblical studies? DAVIDSON: The current time presents many challenges for the relevance of biblical studies, but these challenges also provide opportunities to innovate the […]