A First-Hand Report from the 2008 International Society of Biblical Literature Meeting
By Robin Gallaher Branch, Professor, Biblical Studies Crichton College, Memphis
A Maori Welcome
The 2008 International Congress of the Society of Biblical Literature opened Sunday afternoon, 6 July, at the University of Auckland in Auckland, New Zealand. A traditional Maori welcome, a powhiri—a thoroughly new experience for most—greeted the congress members. We also witnessed a Maori haka, a traditional dance done in bare feet, performed outside a red, brown, and gold colored hut. Dancers chanted responsively, did elaborate hand motions, and invited the participants into the hut. This haka was a welcome and performed by men and women, but other hakas are war-like in their ferocity and intensity and are done by men.
After the haka, the participants, all in their winter coats, were asked to remain silent, remove their shoes, and come into the large rectangular hut elaborately decorated with Maori wood carvings. It is an integral part of the campus. Inside the hut, the participants listened to a lengthy greeting in Maori. A translation followed. Part of the welcome had Christian elements in the prayer, we were told. The welcome was to the land, to the people, and to the university. It included well-wishes for successful papers. A chuckle from the participants came when the translation of the welcome included this blessing: “And now you will not stutter when you give your papers!”
Part of the fun of the welcome was the hongi, another aspect of Maori culture. Simply put, it is nose touching nose—but no kissing! Participants were told how to do it. Keep your eyes open; keep your forehead back! Press your nose to another’s and move on. Geremy Hema, one of the facilitators, added that a traditional hongi includes a joint time of breathing. That’s called a mauri, a life essence. “As we inhale together, we exchange our life essence,” he said. I must say, it was fun to press noses. Those like me who tried it got a good chuckle.
After the powhiri, the participants walked up a hill (Auckland is very hilly) to a reception in the Faculty of Engineering, the main conference meeting facility. Prof. Dr. Elaine Wainwrighte of the School of Theology at the University of Auckland extended the greetings of the university to the participants. The SBL has some 8,000 members, and 2,000 of them are from outside the United States. According to the program, there are about 300 presenters; the congress lasts until noon on Friday, 11 July. Several other organizations join SBL at the International Congress. These include the American Academy of Religion; Women Scholars of Religion and Theology; Society of Asian Biblical Studies; Association for Technological Education in South East Asia; Australian Association of Jewish Studies; Australian Catholic Biblical Association; Aotearoa New Zealand Association for Biblical Studies; Bible and Critical Theory Journal; Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative; New Zealand Association of Theological Schools; Religious History Association of Aotearoa New Zealand; and Society of Asian Biblical Studies.
I am a first-timer to New Zealand. It is a beautiful country, full of wilderness, gorgeous beaches, and islands. Right now it is winter and that means it is rainy and cold. The camellias and hibiscus are in bloom, however. It is a surprise to me to see people without umbrellas or parkas walking in pouring rain. They seem to know the rain will stop as suddenly as it has started. Rain is my first impression.
Prices are my second impression. Gas/petrol is sold by the litre. It is $2.19 per litre. The exchange rate is about 80 cents US to $1 New Zealand. I’m told to think that a gallon of gas here is about $8 US. People spend that money and go places and go about their lives—and they don’t have a lot of discretionary cash. At least that is my first impression. Housing prices likewise are high; a medium price nationally is over NZ$350,000, so they tell me.
My taxi driver from the airport was a Pakistani immigrant from Johannesburg, South Africa. He left South Africa because he and his family were robbed twice at gunpoint in their home. He feels safe here, he says, but has a lower-paying job. He told me that three or four months ago he could take $5 to the grocery and get sweets, milk, and butter, and have some change. “Now it costs $20, and there’s no change,” he sighed.
My third impression is new words. Kiwi is a word, a complimentary one that New Zealanders use about themselves. A native New Zealander is a kiwi. The word kiwi is also associated with the national bird, a nocturnal animal that is almost extinct, and the popular green and black fruit. Evidently a female kiwi lays extra-large eggs and the male kiwi tends them! People, especially university students, use the words mate, matey, guy, and bro often in conversation. If something is really good it is sweet. A big fight is a ding dong barney (evidently that’s an Aussie term, too). Speed bumps are judder bars.
New Zealand, from the two cities I’ve seen so far (Auckland and Wellington), at least, is a clean and beautiful country. It must be lovely in the summer, and the people must virtually live outside. But for now, for me, being able to see the Southern Cross again in the cold winter sky, starkly faithful, is well worth the trip.
Day 3: 8 July 2008, Listening to the Waves
The 2008 International Congress of the Society of Biblical Literature has about 475 attending participants, according to Matthew Collins, SBL representative, and about 320 participants giving papers. A significant number of Pacific Islanders and Asians are represented at the congress, and the environment and ecology are prominent topics.
For example, in the ecology and spirituality section, the oceans and rural areas were discussed in two papers. Winston Halapua of the University of Auckland presented on Moana Methodology. Halapua, in a paper replete with poetic metaphors, explained that moana is one of the ancient Oceanic words for ocean and was used by his Polyneasian ancestors as they navigated their double-hulled canoes over what is now known as the Pacific Ocean some 4000 years ago.
Halapua emphasized a respect for the ocean and what it teaches. “Creation is a gift and not a commodity,” he said. He spoke of “waves of trust” and “winds of courage.” The ocean teaches space—“space for generosity, space for sharing, space for listening.” The ocean also inspires storytelling. “Storytelling is a deeply human activity. It involves listening to different voices. It empowers the marginalized,” he said. Modern culture often avoids listening, but the crash of the waves invites a listening to the language of God, and the rainbows above the waves point to his faithful promises in a new age.
In a question session afterward, Halapua was asked about what some islanders should do because of global warming; specifically, the questioner mentioned an island that is projected to be overtaken by water before the end of the century. Halapua paused and said that the islanders should be prepared to move on, for their ancestors had moved on from other locales centuries beforehand, “but they should be sure to take their culture with them.”
Another paper in the same section addressed rural New Zealand life and linked it to the rural emphasis found in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. Robyn McPhail of the Ecumenical Institute of Distance Theological Studies in Kerikeri, New Zealand, serves in a parish ministry; many farmers are her parishioners. Her paper explored how we as human beings “are to live and interact with the land in local communities so that life is sustainable socially and ecologically.” McPhail prayed publicly in Maori before beginning her talk.
McPhail as a pastor sees her parishioners living according to the cycle of seasons and the cycle of drought and rain. These cycles and life in a rural area offer rich opportunities for dialogue with the biblical text, she observed. “Jesus lived and breathed the rural life,” she said. Furthermore, the biblical text as it speaks in rural settings gives voice to the marginalized; it empowers them with confidence and gives them options to explore. Specifically in terms of the cycle of drought and hardship, the biblical text offers the example of public lament, of publicly grieving over the loss of crops, finances, opportunities. Taking the Book of Joel as an example, McPhail spoke of the cycle of shame and honor. Joel speaks of when locusts destroy the land. “In Joel, the land calls on all to weep with it,” McPhail said. She pointed out that rural people know the land as a daily companion. In a cycle of drought and famine, shame and honor, isolation is a choice, but a poor one. Instead, a communal lament and a communal coming together in worship are two options the biblical text consistently provides.
Throughout the biblical text, hope dominates. “The enemy will flee, the locusts will depart, the drought will end, the land will be restored,” McPhail said. “The Day of the Lord brings both devastation and hope.”
She pointed out that in Joel, the lament is that the people and the land grieve for what might have been, but within the lament are the seeds of opportunity to move on. “We can lament for as long as it takes, but the past does show openings to the future,” she said. As we lament with the land, we embrace the pain of its woundedness and our own woundedness, she continued. “But we look for honor, we look for confidence in the future, we look for a return to God.”
After McPhail’s talk, I asked a woman sitting behind me if she had indeed prayed in Maori before her talk. The woman introduced herself as a minister in a mainline denomination and said that yes, McPhail had prayed in Maori. Hers was the second prayer in a public setting I had heard at the conference. SBL meetings are not known for their public prayers, so I continued to ask more questions. My questions led to some observations about New Zealand’s public life from the woman.
“Prayer is one of the ironies of life in New Zealand,” the woman minister said. She asked not to be named in the blog. “New Zealand is an intensely secular society, but it is a public decision to honor the Maoris and their ways. Prayers are an important part of Maori culture and are said in the Maori language.”
Another irony of life in New Zealand is the difference between church attendance and what people check on the census report, the minister continued. “Church attendance in New Zealand is about 10 percent,” she said, “but the census reports I see say that well over 50 percent of the population claim a Christian background. When I do my hospital rounds, I often meet people who say they are members of my denomination and I invite them to come round to church!”
Another part of the secular/religious scene in New Zealand is that the heads of churches meet regularly with the prime minister and heads of cabinets, the minister continued. “They meet for conversation regularly about the country,” she said. “The meetings may not be reported in the newspapers but they are reported in the churches’ newsletters.”
Day 4: 10 July 2008, Cheaper than Psychiatry—A Roundup of Papers
The 2008 International Congress of the Society of Biblical Literature continues its week-long set of meetings at the University of Auckland amid a surprising respite of sunny weather in a winter season known for its coldness, wind, and driving rains. Congress members are getting over their jet lag and need of sleep and telling stories that now are humorous about their inconvenient 24-hour flights and about forgetting to read the small print in a "great air deal from Los Angeles that turned out to be a lay-over of a day in Tahiti!"
Here are some highlights from various papers. The congress offers sessions on topics such as ecology, Wisdom Literature, the Synoptic Gospels, the Historical Books, psychological hermeneutics, the Bible and visual culture, Paul and Pauline Literature, the Bible in the Pacific.
Donald R. Vance of Oral Roberts University, presenting in the Writings (including Psalms) section, looked at the words knowledge, experience, and understanding in Proverbs and argued that they show an intended progression in spiritual development. Knowledge of God is meant to be an ongoing pursuit throughout one’s life. But experiencing God and looking at life’s experiences in light of one’s knowledge of God only then leads to an understanding of God and an understanding of life, Vance said.
Kamran Mofid of Globalisation for the Common Good offered personal and professional insights in a talk about uniting the broken world. Mofid, who taught economics for decades and now heads the GCG, said he taught economics incompletely. He taught his students how to make money—-and they did and do make a lot of money—but many have come to him saying how empty their lives are. Facing a crisis of emptiness in his own life, Mofid quit teaching economics and enrolled in theology courses. He now has strong ties with Oxford University. He challenged the theology scholars to dialogue with other faculties on their campuses—economics, business, engineering, and the sciences. He pointed out that the major world business failures like Enron and World Com and the mortgage mess in the United States all have theological and ethical overtones. Mofid mentioned that Adam Smith, the great economist, first wrote on theology before he wrote on economics. Consequently, his theology was the foundation of his economics. “I didn’t teach that for 25 years. Now I do,” Mofid said.
Grace Sharon of Trinity College, University of Melbourne spoke on practical theology amid the displaced Karen people on the Thai-Burma border. The Burmese government is made up of generals who for years have turned the army on the people. Sharon estimated that in the 20th century, there were 121,765,000 deaths as a result of wars and their consequences throughout the world. Sharon elaborated on the story of Cain and Abel, the story of the first murder. God speaks and says to Cain, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). Sharon pointed out that in Hebrew the word for blood is in the plural; consequently, Jewish tradition holds a murderer responsible for all the life that might have been, all the children for generations that were not produced. Sharon said that in Burmese culture the priests, the male students, and the army are the three tiers of society. “There is no room for women,” she said. That is why the children, the women, and the old men are forced to go ahead of the army in a forest patrol; these three groups would trip a land mine before the soldiers and lose their lives. Ministry in a refugee camp amid a culture like that requires an emphasis on the food, shelter, clothing, safety needs of the refugees, she said.
Neil Darragh of the School of Theology of the University of Auckland spoke on the theological underpinnings of an urban transformation project in Auckland. He sees theological aspects of sin, mission and the reign of God in a project aimed at an area of low education and low home ownership. He pointed out that those with a theological emphasis who are cooperating with government and agency experts must have proper training. Darragh ventured that housing and economic opportunities and especially environmental stability are “close to the idea of the reign of God.”
Herb Hain, a retired newspaper editor and columnist in Santa Monica, spoke at the section called Biblical Characters in the Three Traditions. He said that what is factual may not be true. For example, he does not know for a fact that the Red Sea parted (“because I wasn’t there”), but he believes it is true (“because we say it year after year”). He pointed out that the miracles of Jesus—the healings and the feedings, for example—also took place in the Old Testament. He believes the most significant Old Testament parallel to Jesus is Jonah. Both Jesus and Jonah slept through violent storms, both experienced death, and "both preached to the infidels," he said.
Richard E. Sherwin of Bar-Ilan University, speaking after Hain in the same section, read his poetry. He spoke in an often humorous way to Jesus as one Jew to another. Sherwin noted that “Christianity has co-opted the language so that the first reading (of a text) is a Christian reading and not a Jewish take.” His poems treat Jesus as a Jew would see Jesus. “He’s a Jew trying to make it in the world, and he got screwed by the Romans,” Sherwin said. Commenting on religion in general, Sherwin said, “We’re all confused, we all need help, we’re all sinners, and religion is cheaper than psychiatry.”
To close this blog, here are two comments from participants whom I met at a morning breakfast for women religious scholars from throughout the world. Elizabeth Dowling, a lecturer in Biblical Studies at Australian Catholic University, noted the collegiality of the congress. “I’ve enjoyed the whole experience and the diverse range of the people” she commented. She also attended SBL in San Diego last November and compared the two conferences. SBL in San Diego was more rushed and there was much less time for reflection on the papers and much less time to get to know the people, she said.
Pat Lythe, another participant, is doing her doctoral thesis at the University of Auckland on why the Catholic Church pulled out of the Aotearoa New Zealand Council of Churches in 1998. Lythe said she’s enjoying the conference “because it offers a huge potpourri of all sorts of things!”
11 July 2008, The Grand Finale
Very often at a conference sponsored by the Society of Biblical Literature, a book launch is among the program entries and is guaranteed a good attendance because of the good will colleagues extend to one another—at least over published material. On the last night of the conference, three books were launched; one was published by the SBL itself and two were published by ATF Press, the Australian Theological Forum. All were written and/or edited by scholars residing in the Southern Hemisphere. About 200 conference participants attended the launch.
Carol Newsom of Emory University launched Exploring Ecological Hermeneutics, a collection of essays edited by Norman Habel and Peter Trudinger and published by SBL. Newsom described the book as “the lighting of the fuse” that needs “to rocket our consciousness” over the ecological problems the world faces and the theological responses to them. Newsom indicated the book is disturbing because of its subject matter and is “not easy to read.” However, she stressed that the subject matter needs to be addressed by theologians especially in light of poor leadership on ecological matters throughout the world. Habel added that the discussions on ecological hermeneutics started ten years ago at an environment and religion symposium.
Elaine Wainwright of the University of Auckland launched Alan H. Cadwallader’s book, Beyond the Word of a Woman: Recovering the Bodies of the Syrophoenician Women, which looks at Mark 7:24-30, the story of Jesus’ encounter with a persistent Syrohoenician woman who wanted Jesus to heal her daughter. Wainwright called the book “extraordinary” and noted in particular its methodological sophistication. Cadwallader, who lectures in New Testament studies in the School of Theology at Flinders University, explores the human characters in this story through animals. “So the dog gets quite a bit of attention,” Wainwright said with a laugh. In particular, however, Wainwright appreciated Cadwallader’s investigation of the daughter in the story; she added that so often society overlooks the voices of the children in the community.
Dorothy Lee of Melbourne College of Divinity launched Esther and the End of ’Final Solutions’ by Richard Treloar. Lee noted that the genre of the Book of Esther is a scholarly question and is never simple. The book contains and indeed combines both comedy and suffering and struggle. The Book of Esther has survived because it is about survival, Lee said. Treloar’s “eloquently written book” successfully brings together “a number of streams of hermeneutics and theology,” said Lee.
Epilogue: Chatting with the Incoming President
David J. A. Clines, vice president of the Society of Biblical Literature and a participant in this year’s 2008 International Congress of the Society of Biblical Literature in Auckland, New Zealand, chuckled as he considered the differences between the annual SBL meeting and the international one. Clines said that at the annual SBL meeting, held by tradition in the States in November the week before Thanksgiving, he normally is so rushed that his meeting schedule is blocked into tightly segmented 15-minute intervals. He dashes around to meetings. But at the international meeting, he has manned the book table for Sheffield Press and enjoyed conversing with the participants as they’ve come by. The more leisurely pace has allowed for collegial conversations and a chance to hear in full a number of papers, he said.
Clines, professor of biblical studies at the University of Sheffield, assumes the presidency of the SBL in January; his term lasts the calendar year. “My duties are minimal,” he smiled, “four board meetings and a presidential address at the end of my year.”
Clines recalled his first exposure to SBL. It was around 1968 (he wasn’t sure of the exact year), and James Robinson, the president at the time, had chartered an airplane and brought 250 European scholars to a November meeting. “He gave us a free ride to the U.S.,” Clines said. “It was a terrifically adventurous thing for him to do—but it paid off.” Clines added with the chuckle he’s well known for that what he remembers is how strong the dollar was at the time. “It was painful just to buy food in the U.S.!” he said.
Clines started coming regularly to the SBL November meetings in the 1970s.
He noted that what he appreciated most about the 2008 International meeting was its magnitude. “What impresses me most is the ever-increasing diversity [of biblical studies]. It’s a healthy thing,” Clines said.
In terms of his own research, he has just finished the third and final volume of his commentary on Job for the Word Commentary series published by Thomas Nelson. He likes to go to sessions at the international meeting on papers outside his specialty. “I like to hear papers on the New Testament while I am here and get a feel for what’s going on outside the field,” he said.
Norman Habel, another long-time SBL member, also reminisced about his first memories of SBL. He spoke at a celebration launching Exploring Ecological Hermeneutics, a book he co-edited with Peter Trudinger. “My association with SBL began 50 years ago when Walter Brueggemann, and I joined in New York,” Habel said. At that time, SBL was more like a New York book club where academics and others interested in biblical studies got together to discuss projects, Habel recalled. The SBL has grown phenomenally over the years; it now has about 8000 members, with 2000 of them from outside the United States, Clines said.
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