The joint annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) drew nearly 10,300 scholars to Boston from Nov. 18-21; an increase from 9,500 attendees in 2016. Jack Fitzmier, executive director of AAR, and John Kutsko, executive director of SBL, said they expected Boston, with its many colleges and universities, to be a more popular location for both American and international scholars. The number of exhibitors also was up to 152 from 139 last year in San Antonio.
SBL has enjoyed an uptick in membership this year, with 8,200 members compared to 2016’s 8,100. Alternately, AAR membership has dropped from 8,700 in 2016 to 8,300 this year. It was Fitzmier’s last AAR as director, though he will stay on as a consultant.
In recent years, AAR members have increasingly taken an activist stance on politics and social issues, and in his plenary address, outgoing AAR president, Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr., spoke on "the challenges facing religion under the Trump presidency," noting that Americans are “in a time of war and a time of lies… Look at the devastation that is happening in the name of what we study!”
A number of panels attacked Trump and his agenda, including one featuring incoming AAR president David Gushee (Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism) of Mercer University, who, referring to the 81% of white evangelicals reported to have voted for Trump, said, “This has shattered whatever survives of the witness of white evangelicals in American culture.” Gushee is among the contributors to Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump (Orbis, out now), which might have been the most talked-about book at the conference.
Also on the political front, an internecine controversy erupted over a panel on the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, which urges boycotts as an expression of religious values. When scholars opposing the BDS movement decided not to participate, AAR president Glaude said he was cancelling the discussion until both sides could be represented; that move stirred protest among attendees, some of whom went forward with the session anyway.
Less controversial was a Sunday session featuring Martin Scorsese, who received the AAR Religion and Arts Award for the elements of “faith, apostasy, and morality” in his films, according to the organization. On Saturday morning, Paraclete Press, the publishing arm of the Cape Cod-based Community of Jesus, hosted a session on “The Role of the Visual Arts in Ecumenical Exchange.” Using the arts and music for religious expression is central to the Community’s mission.
On Tuesday, November 21, SBL announced the launch on January 1 of a 30-year review of New Revised Standard Version of the Bible by 60-70 scholars; it is set to be completed by the end of 2020. (Rights to the NRSV are owned by the National Council of Churches, which licenses it to several publishers.) Also launching next year is SBL Central, an online platform for research and study that will be sponsored by nine publishers but open to all. In 2014, SBL debuted Bible Odyssey, a site designed to make scripture study more accessible to non-scholars; it now draws more than 5,000 visitors a day.
Teaching opportunities for all scholars have shrunk, as colleges, universities, and seminaries create fewer tenure track positions in all fields and make greater use of adjunct professors. That issue of “contingent faculty” was an even higher-profile concern at AAR/SBL this year, with panels on the subject and many attendees wearing badges to draw attention to the issue. According to Kutsko and Fitzmier, 70% of all instruction at colleges and universities is done by adjuncts, who are paid less and have no job security or benefits. Fitzmier said that, ethically, schools should limit enrollment, since newly minted PhDs will graduate into a decimated job market.
As everywhere else, sexual harassment was on the agenda, and Kutsko and Fitzmier said they are developing new professional conduct policies to deal with sexual harassment and discrimination, along with clear procedures for reporting and enforcement. Said Kutsko, “Victims need to know that AAR and SBL will support our members.”
AAR/SBL 2018 meets in Denver, Colo., Nov. 16-20.