that awkward moment (surreal actually) when Christians dismiss the scholarship of non-Christians

That awkward moment when you ask,

So it turns out that there has been a discussion online regarding my personal religious views (or lack thereof). Ironically, the subject made its way into the public realm when Dr. Jim West introduced the topic as a red herring distraction from a lengthy discussion we had been having about why he continues to support the denial of rights and privileges to same-sex couples when it comes to having their marriages legally recognized by various secular state governments. The discussion where I challenged Dr. West on his fallacious logic regarding what he insists must necessarily follow if same-sex marriage is legalized can be found in the comments here.

In response to our exchange, Dr. West posted this post, in which he introduces yet another logical fallacy (a red herring) which he has used in the past, namely, that only Christians can critique Christianity, and that critiques made by those who are not Christians can be dismissed because they have no vested interest in the preservation of the faith. Or, to use Dr. West’s words,

“…we have different perspectives PRECISELY because I see life through the lens of Christian faith and he does not. It is for this reason that our views on several issues differ…I simply recognize that, at the end of the day, we approach problems and issues from differing starting points.”

Of course, once anyone reads the original disagreement, one quickly notices the inherent logical fallacy is Dr. West’s line of reasoning: my critique was regarding Dr. West’s selective hermeneutic depending on the particular social issue he’s addressing. While discussing slavery, despite the fact that the Bible clearly establishes divinely ordained slavery (Lev. 25:44; Exod. 21:4-6; Deut. 15:16-17) and endorses this previously established slavery (Titus 2:9; 1 Peter 2:18; Col. 3:22; Eph. 6:5), Dr. West opposes it. Similarly, despite the fact that the Bible clearly sees women as secondary in status to men, and that the New Testament commands women to remain silent (1 Cor. 14:34; Col. 3:18; Eph. 5:22-23) and not to have authority over a man (1 Tim. 2:12), Dr. West does not preach the continued suppression of women’s rights in our secular government. And yet, when I asked him why he continues to support the suppression of the rights and privileges of same-sex couples, he responded with a different, more fundamentalist, literalistic hermeneutic, stating:

“…i’m a christian and we don’t have the luxury of dispensing with things just because our culture thinks we should. culture isn’t the final arbiter of truth. revelation is.”

Of course, the blatant hypocrisy and inconsistency of this highly selective hermeneutic is glaring. Are not the passages condoning slavery and the suppression of women also “revealed Scripture”? Why is it that when the biblical revelation orders women to remain silent, Dr. West uses one hermeneutic to work around the passage so as to allow some women to have authority over men in the secular state government, but when homosexuality is condemned in the Bible, all of a sudden this sacred revelation is binding for all time, even for our secular government?

The question I posed to Dr. West was why he inconsistently employed one hermeneutic to read passages he was OK with dismissing, and a different hermeneutic to retain prohibitions against things he didn’t like (like homosexuality). And yet, Dr. West’s response deflected from his own inconsistency, and he proceeded to attack the accreditation of the one pointing out the hypocrisy, namely, me. I wasn’t a Christian, so we simply have to agree to disagree. However, that wasn’t the point of contention! The issue was Dr. West’s inconsistency, not my accreditation.

I based my critique on logic and facts (what the text actually says), and because he had no answer to his inconsistency, he simply ignored the critique, and invoked a rhetorical red herring to deflect from the critique: I wasn’t a Christian, so we’re going to disagree on this.

The only problem is, ignoring a critique does not invalidate the critique. Or, to quote Aldous Huxley, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

Or put another way, exposure of genuine logical fallacies and hermeneutical inconsistencies are valid regardless of who is pointing it out. The fact that one is not part of a particular group does not negate said person’s critiques of said group. To argue that one must first be a devout, believing Muslim in order to truly understand and therefore critique Islam is just as fallacious when it is applied to Christianity. (And qal w’homer, it is all the more fallacious when the one doing the critiquing has, in fact, been formally trained in both a graduate Christian seminary and at the doctoral level in one of the top state universities in the nation.) And, Dr. West would be among the first to affirm the notion that a person need not be properly accredited or affiliated in order to convey truth, be it an unaccredited college or an unaffiliated congregant. Dr. West knows that one’s lack of affiliation and accreditation does not limit one’s ability to speak truth.

And yet, rather than answer the question, Dr. West dismissed the critique arguing that since I was an agnostic, my point of view was not binding upon Christians (again, a non sequitur).

So, Dr. James McGrath called Dr. West on his dodge and non sequitur, describing Dr. West’s comments regarding same-sex marriage to be “so ridiculously illogical as to be bizarre”.

In response to this, Dr. West, rather than acknowledge that he had dodged the issue at hand, doubled down on my agnosticism, claiming,

“I didn’t say Bob wasn’t a Christian. BOB SAYS Bob isn’t a Christian. Bob calls himself an agnostic.”

And while the statement is true (although I would ask whether one can question the unprovable faith claims made by a group and still retain affiliation with said group), it continues to miss the point: Dr. West’s entire critique of whatever my personal religious beliefs may or may not be was a diversionary tactic designed to avoid addressing his inconsistent interpretation of passages, as well as his selective invoking of the “revelation” of the Bible. Dr. McGrath went so far as to remind Dr. West that the Israelite Exodus from Egypt is also “revealed” – (in fact, they named an entire book after it!) – and yet, Dr. West has elected to follow the interpretative conclusions of the so-called biblical “minimalists” and deny the biblical accounts of the Exodus as they are presented in the Bible. Dr. West has even written in defense of “minimalism”, and has argued that those who insist upon the historicity of the very “revealed” biblical accounts of the Exodus “are the true distorters of Scripture.”

Once again, Dr. West rejects slavery and the suppression of women, and rejects the historical biblical Exodus, but when it comes to marriage equality for same-sex couples before the law, he suddenly remembers that Scripture is “revelation” that must be codified into secular state law for all time. The selective inconsistency is obvious.

Joel Watts also chimed in with a thoughtful piece asking whether the religious preference of an individual actually matters in a scholarly discussion about the Bible. Mr. Watts rightly challenges Dr. West’s fallacy that “acceptable facts can only generate from acceptable quarters,” and rightly concludes:

“…who the hell cares what religion someone is if their statements are supported by the philosopher’s trinity — facts, logic, and reasoning? Further, the religion of the person, or the lack thereof, does not in anyway limit them from contributing to a discussion on said religion.”

But meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice, an interesting thing began to occur on James McGrath’s blog; a conversation broke out regarding whether or not I was actually a Christian. I watched as different individuals chimed in with evidence for and against my religious affiliation. The conversation got so bogged down in claims and counterclaims that James suggested that someone take the time to just ask me. So one of the individuals making comments (named “pithom”) did just that: invited me to answer the question once and for all.

And so I did. Here’s the text of my response on Dr. McGrath’s blog:

“that’s not a bad idea. and thanx to pithom for the invitation.

so tell me: where in matthew 25, when the king is separating the sheep from the goats, does it list church attendance, proper position on same-sex marriage, or even belief in the existence of god in the list of reasons given by the king for admission into the kingdom.

where in this passage (matt 25:31-46) does it even mention doing these deeds in the name of jesus?

what is more important: proper action or proper belief?

i say action. lived life is superior to believed life, and i’m not even from missouri.

kind and just deeds are not means to an end; they are ends in themselves. we should not do kind things so we can get something in return (like a hypothetical star in a hypothetical crown in a hypothetical heaven). rather, we should do what is right because it is the right thing to do, understanding ‘right’ as that which builds up self and neighbor and community, and makes others’ lives a little brighter.

if we take care of each other, the afterlife will take care of itself. and if there is none, then we still lived a great life, and our children will speak highly of us at the city gates. and if there is, then all the better.

stop arguing about life after death and start living the one before it. live it well. be merciful. be fair. and love one another.

however you define that, that’s what i am.”

Of course, anyone who has ever read my “about me” page on this blog or my Wikipedia user page should be able to ascertain the answer. But still, my personal beliefs (or lack thereof) are not the point!

Rather, the points are twofold:

  1. One’s personal religious or nonreligious affiliation should not matter in a professional, scholarly debate about the subject matter. Unless one appeals to one’s own faith as evidence in support of an argument, one’s personal religious beliefs, or lack thereof, should be moot. As long as the argument is rooted in facts, evidence, logic, and reason, then it doesn’t matter if the scholar is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, capitalist, communist, or Martian: sound arguments are sound regardless of who makes them.
  2. The entire discussion over the fate of my eternal soul and my status as a Christian was, from the outset, a diversion from the issue at hand: Jim West’s inconsistent hermeneutic, and his selective appeal to the “revealed” status of Christian Scripture when the condemnation of homosexuality was under discussion. The entire discussion of my agnosticism is moot.

So, Joel Watts decided to have some fun with the situation, and after asking me if he could, posted an online poll asking whether or not I am “saved”. But the poll was designed to highlight the above two points: that in scholarship, one’s religious affiliation or non-affiliation is moot as long as the arguments are sound.

Interestingly, Joel informs me that at last count, with 29 votes cast, over half of those casting votes apparently understand the fallacy of Jim West’s diversionary tactic, and 55% have voted that my religious affiliation “doesn’t matter because facts are facts.” However, I was also intrigued to discover that 34% went ahead and voted “no”, that I’m not saved, and that only a paltry 10% (3 votes) voted that I am, in fact, “saved”.

Thus, from this data we can conclude two things:

  1. that I had better stock up on otherworldly fire retardant, and more importantly,
  2. we can see why fallacious appeals to an opponent’s lack of faith (like screaming “ATHEIST!”) are so effective: nearly half of those casting votes cast judgment on the fate of my soul rather than notice that the poll was designed to test whether voters could recognize the logical fallacy of appealing to my moot religious affiliation. (But I do offer my thanks to those three brave souls who consider me saved. ;-)

I want my friend to change his opinion on same-sex marriage. I want him to see the beam in his own eye – the inconsistency of his hermeneutic – that everyone else so clearly sees. I want him to see that using an appeal to the revelatory nature of the Bible to suppress the civil (not religious, but civil) rights and privileges of LGBTQ individuals is just as wrong as when it was done to slaves in the 1860s and to women in the early 1900s. I want him to stop posting embarrassing (and to many, offensive) comparisons between homosexuality and criminal activities like polygamy and pedophilia, and lumping them all together by arguing, “insofar as they are deviations, they are similar.” Such comments are not worthy of scholars and professionals, but are instead what we have come to expect from many fundamentalist preachers and politicians. I want my friend to change his scholarly opinion, and I want him to stop attacking the beliefs (or non-beliefs) of other scholars making valid points. Again, such sloppy rhetoric is not worthy of scholars.

Rather than make my personal beliefs the topic of conversation, I simply ask my friend to apply a consistent hermeneutic to his reading of the Bible, and to stop singling out gays for special condemnation.


for the back story:

on incompetent vs. intelligent design

Dr. James McGrath has an excellent post on the importance of accepting the basic scientific principle of human evolution through natural selection, especially for Christians.

If one allows that one may argue from evidence of design to a designer, then one opens up the possibility of arguing from shortcomings in design to an incompetent designer.

If you are a religious believer, and you refuse to accept evolution, then you have little choice but to blame God for the shortcomings seen in nature. You have little choice but to conclude that God wanted to leave us open to death by choking, when he made the routes for food and air converge on the same passage. And that is but one more of a very long list of examples of things that make good sense when considered the result of the slow adaptive processes of evolution, but which look ridiculous or even malevolent if considered the direct design of a divine Engineer.

Essentially, there are anatomical and physiological elements in every species that demonstrate vestigial anatomy and functionality. That is, there are things in our bodies that would never be a part of any “from scratch” blueprint of an intelligent designer. I’ve mentioned fingernails and the appendix and the optic disc (blind spot) before. Richard Dawkins discusses the laryngeal nerve as evidence of historical legacy in human anatomy.

Dawkins sums up:

A designer, an engineer, can go back to the drawing board, throw away the old design and start afresh with what looks more sensible. A designer has foresight. Evolution can’t go back to the drawing board; evolution has no foresight.

Thus, if a part of our anatomy appears vestigial and inefficient (like our appendix or blind spot or our laryngeal nerve), it probably is. It is the result of small changes over time. It cannot “go back to the drawing board” and start over like a designer. The fact that our laryngeal nerves descend into our thorax and then back up to our larynx is evidence that it was not designed (at least not intelligently) that way, but evolved that way (however inefficient it may be).

McGrath continues:

So don’t be surprised if other fellow religious believers, better informed about both science and theology, insist that you are demeaning rather than glorifying God through your refusal to accept evolution.

You are making God out to be an incompetent, not an intelligent, Designer.

how to tick off james mcgrath four times at once

How to piss off James McGrath four times at once

How to tick off James McGrath four times at once

This is how to tick off Butler University’s Dr. James McGrath (and sci-fi nerds everywhere) four times all at once. All the picture needs is a reference to taking the TARDIS to visit HAL on the Lost Island and his head would implode like red matter does to Vulcan.

Enjoy.

james mcgrath on our shifting view of literalism and reality in the bible

Dr. James McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University

Dr. James McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University

Dr. James McGrath had an interesting post on his Exploring Our Matrix blog recently. In it, he argues that no one (if they’re honest) really believes that the God of the Bible exists anymore.

I’ll repost the argument at length here:

The title of this post is not a complaint; it is merely an observation. No one confronts the representatives of another tradition with a contest to see which one’s deity will send fire from heaven as Elijah did. No Christian blogger claims that those who comment negatively will be struck with blindness for doing so, as apostles did. God is depicted in many parts of the Bible as knocking down city walls, parting seas and so on. Yet no Christian dominionists are likely to march around Washington D.C. and see it fall into their hands.

Those who claim they “believe the whole Bible” and “take it literally” are being dishonest. Their pastor may have preached recently on the story of the fall of Jericho, but it was applied to God “making the strongholds of sin in your come life crumbling down”, not to a battle plan to take a city.

To be fair, not all Biblical authors view God in the same way. And so there is no single “Biblical view of God”. But certainly God as depicted in some parts of the Bible is not the concept of the deity served by Christians today.

The question a Christian needs to ask is whether they have the courage to admit that their view of God is not the same as that of many depictions in the Bible. Do you have the courage to take the Bible’s actual words completely seriously, even when the result is that you are forced to acknowledge that you do not accept their literal truthfulness?

Let me end with a couple of thought-provoking quotes from Don Cupitt’s book, which I just finished reading:

“The Virgin Mary may cure many people in Portugal but she is much less active in Libya, whereas vaccination and inoculation are observably beneficial – and equally beneficial – in both cultures, the local religion in the end making no difference at all” (Don Cupitt, Taking Leave of God, p.123).

“To put it bluntly, classical Christianity is itself now our Old Testament…We have to use traditional Christianity in the same way as Christianity itself has always used the Old Testament. In both cases there is a great gulf but there is also continuity of spirit and religious values…When a Christian sings a psalm he knows there is a religion-gap and a culture-gap, but it does not worry him because he believes his faith to be the legitimate successor of the faith of the psalmist. Similarly, since the Enlightenment there has developed a religion-gap and a culture-gap between us and traditional Christianity, but we may still be justified in using the old words if we can plausibly argue that our present faith and spiritual values are the legitimate heirs of the old” (Don Cupitt, Taking Leave of God, p.135).

I agree. The truth is that any Christians who claim to interpret the Bible literally would be no different from the very sharia law fundamentalists they so vehemently criticize in Islam. Likewise, few actually believe that God actually works in those same ‘mysterious’ (read: literal, vindictive, destructive, directly miraculous, genocidal) ways anymore. Yet, if you ask Christians today how many of them believe in a ‘literal, inerrant, infallible’ Bible, that percentage would be quite high, especially among Evangelicals.

All of this is to say that anyone being halfway honest must admit that 1) we can’t read the Bible literally, and 2) our views of God are significantly different today than in the first Christian century, in spite of any myth among particular religious denominations that we believe and practice exactly what and how the early church believed and practiced.

god’s power over time

This cracked me up. So, based upon a tip from James McGrath, here it is:

Power of God over Time

the magnetic poles are shifting: watch for falling nut jobs

MSNBC and Fox have reported a phenomenon that takes place every couple hundred thousand years or so: the shifting of the magnetic poles. Fluctuations in the molten iron core of the earth cause the magnetic field around the earth to shift, causing the magnetic polarity of the earth to gradually wander about and even at times flip flop. We seem to be in the midst of a magnetic pole shift. Gizmodo ran a story on this phenomenon late last year. In fact, some airports like Tampa International have had to renumber their runways to account for resulting shifts in the compasses on planes.

This is a simple enough natural phenomenon. I am just counting the days hours until some fundamentalist nut job attempts to tie this to the Mayan 2012 calendar nonsense or some biblical prophecy like Isaiah 40:4. Just sit back and watch the blogs wander…

I must also ask a serious scientific question, however, one which perhaps my esteemed colleague, Butler’s Dr. James McGrath, can assist: how does this affect the island?

enough of this! we need a bcs (blog championship series) to determine the best biblioblogs

College Football Bowl Championship Series

College Football Bowl Championship Series

I despise the Bowl Championship Series. Hate it! Why aren’t #4 Stanford (PAC-10) and #5 Wisconsin (Big Ten) playing in the Rose Bowl where a PAC-10 representative traditionally plays a Big Ten team? What is Stanford doing playing AP #12 Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl? If a PAC-10 team, Oregon, is playing in the national championship game, why wouldn’t the Rose Bowl folks choose the next best PAC-10 (and coincidentally, the #4 team in the nation) team for the Rose Bowl? Why isn’t #3 TCU playing BCS #6 Ohio State or BCS #7 Oklahoma? In fact, why doesn’t undefeated TCU have a shot at the title game like undefeated Oregon and Auburn? And why must I watch Oklahoma destroy play unranked Connecticut? (Yes, I know about the guaranteed BCS bowl games for certain conference champions, but that’s another problem entirely.)

Here’s my idea. The top four teams should play in a playoff using existing bowl games. This keeps the existing bowl boards happy because they each get their local advertising and revenue bowl, yet it allows for a playoff that could eliminate problems like we have this year with 3 undefeated teams.

For instance, the Fiesta Bowl could pit BCS #1 Auburn vs. BCS #4 Wisconsin, and the Orange Bowl could pit BCS #2 Oregon vs. BCS #3 TCU. Then, and only then, would the two winners of the two BCS bowl games play in a real BCS championship game. The other bowls could continue to do their own thing and make their money. This simple addition of a mini-playoff to the existing BCS system would at least allow us to clear up things like TCU being undefeated, but not playing in the championship game, while adding a minimum of extra games (precisely one!).

Biblioblogger Championship Series

Biblioblogger Championship Series (Mashup by Robert R. Cargill)

But all of this got me thinking about the recent barrage of polls attempting to rank the top biblioblogs on the web. There’s the Biblioblogger 10, the Biblioblog Top 20, the Biblioblog Top 50, the Jouissance-meter, the West Poll, the Linville Method, the Rhythm Method, and so on. I got to thinking that we have the same problem that college football had before the creation of the BCS. Then it struck me: we should create our own BCS (Blogger or Biblioblogger Championship Series).

I mean, if we’re going to have a number of completely arbitrary polls and rankings with different criteria and methodologies to produce a dozen different top blogger rankings, we might as well have a BCS (Blogger Championship Series) of our own to blame it on. That way, we can at least have an argument over how to determine the top blogs instead of arguing which blog is better. Like the BCS, we’ll be no closer to determining an actual number one, but we’ll at least have something to blame for it.

The BCS computation is based upon the Harris Poll, the USA Today Coaches’ Poll, and a number of other polls. Therefore, we’d, of course, need all of the polls listed above. Some polls can be rankings as voted by other bloggers. Other polls can be the results of readers and critics. Additionally, we’ll need a metric to measure best W-L record (number of blog posts), strength of schedule (quality of blog posts), and some magic constant multiplier to make everything come out just right. (My vote is for 42.)

Blog Championship Series

Blog Championship Series (Mashup by Robert R. Cargill)

I believe if we do this right, we can have the same amount of disagreement and confusion we have now, but we could blame it on the system and not on each other.

I need help, however, putting together the proper formula for determining the best blog. Any ideas can be left in the comments below.

james mcgrath on agnostic christianity

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

James McGrath has written an excellent post on “Agnostic Christianity.” Dr. McGrath concludes:

For me, the answer to the question someone asked recently about Christian agnosticism is that there not only can be Christian agnosticism, but that in fact that is all we have. There are no people who have actual historical certainty about every historic Christian claim about Jesus. There are only people who have managed to attain a feeling of certainty. But being honest about the uncertainty, even though it can be unsettling to feel it, is not at all something to be ashamed of. Instead of describing it as “agnosticism” we could also call it “honesty.”

Dr. McGrath has written about this subject in the past, and I referenced him in an article I wrote for my friend, Jason Boyett, entitled, “On the Virtue of Doubt: A Brief Autobiography of the Skeptic in the Sanctuary.”

I recommend Dr. McGrath’s thoughts to anyone wrestling with issues stemming from a critical study of the biblical text.

Introductory Remarks for the Inaugural Blogger and Online Publication Session at the 2010 Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting

Introductory Remarks for the Inaugural Blogger and Online Publication Session at the 2010 Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting
Robert R. Cargill, Presiding
November 22, 2010, 1:00-3:30 PM
Room: A702 – Marriott Marquis

Society of Biblical LiteratureI’d like to welcome each of you to this inaugural “Blogger and Online Publication” section at the 2010 SBL annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

Each of our presenters today represents a specific look at the history, present state, and future of blogging and online publication.

We shall also be passing around a plate to take up a collection for the use of this projector, which apparently sets the SBL back about $400 a day.

Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge two people who are largely responsible for this new session. The first is the SBL Manager of Programs, Charlie Haws, who worked diligently to make this session possible. His foresight and recognition that the academy must embrace the reality and power of blogging and online publication was not only courageous within the established academy, but an acknowledgment of the reality that this new medium brings an interactive, scholarly discussion about biblical literature, religion, theology, and archaeology directly to the public from each of our own unique points of view. So to Charlie Haws I offer my heartfelt thanks.

The other individual I’d like to acknowledge was here for ASOR last week, but had to return home. He was the driving force behind guiding this Blogging and Online Publication session from concept to reality. That man is Jim West. Jim’s persistence and hard work behind the scenes made this session possible. Whether you love him or hate him, you read him, (whether you admit it or not), and Dr. West has easily become the most widely read Bible-related blog online (as he regularly reminds us). I’d like to offer my heartfelt thanks to the ever vigilant, ever present commentator of all things Zwingli and totally depraved, and if I may proudly add, my friend, Jim West. Thank you Jim.

We’ll have time for a few questions at the end of each presentation, but there will be an additional few minutes for discussion at the end of the session where you may direct additional questions to any of the presenters.

With that, our first paper will be presented by Dr. James Davila of University of St. Andrews in Scotland entitled, “What Just Happened:  The Rise of “Biblioblogging” in the First Decade of the Twenty-first Century.”

Our second paper will be presented by Dr. Christian Brady, Dean of Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania entitled, “Online Biblical Studies: Past, Present, Promise, and Peril.”

Our third paper will be presented by Dr. Michael Barber of John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, California entitled, “Weblogs and the Academy: The Benefits and Challenges of Biblioblogging.”

Our fourth paper will be presented by Dr. James McGrath of Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana entitled, “The Blogging Revolution: New Technologies and their Impact on How we do Scholarship.”

Our final paper will be presented by me, Robert R. Cargill of UCLA, entitled, “Instruction, Research, and the Future of Online Educational Technologies.”

thoughts on the sbl’s pay-per-projector policy

SBL Data Projector with Coin Slot

Is the SBL also among the tax collectors?

The Society of Biblical Literature has instituted a new policy at the 2010 annual meeting in Atlanta that charges presenters $25-$75 for the use of a data projector during a presentation. You heard me correctly, that’s $25-75 per presenter, per presentation, depending upon whether or not the presenter pre-paid by September 17.

Please allow me to express my profound displeasure with this decision in my own unique way.

Now, this fee is no surprise. The SBL actually unveiled this new revenue-producing scheme before the call for papers, and it was included in the online proposal form. You may remember this gem on the SBL website:

This year a nominal fee ($25 per item prior to June 15th) will be charged for each piece of Audio/Visual equipment requested. This will assist the SBL in covering a portion of the A/V costs for your session. Please request only the A/V equipment essential to your presentation to help us keep the meeting affordable for all members. Upon your paper’s acceptance, you will receive additional information on how to confirm equipment and pay for your A/V needs.

Most scholars either didn’t pay attention; read it, but didn’t bother to do or say anything about it (as scholars are oft wont to do); ignored it and planned on simply not paying when the bill came; or figured they’d do what faculty always do: complain about a new (albeit ridiculous) policy a week before crunch time rather than proactively write in dissent or objection to the policy in the early stages.

As the chair of the Blogger and Online Publication section (whose presenters, as one might expect, might actually employ the use of technology during their presentations), I was aghast at the notion that I needed to pay extra to give a presentation, when other presenters and attendees, who also benefit from other technologies like electricity, microphones, speakers, podiums, chairs, etc., were required to pay nothing. I chose not to pay the fee, and instead arranged to bring my own digital projector, extension cord, cables, etc., which I do every year. (Jim West has offered to do the same.)

SBL Data Projector Meter

This is what it has come to: the SBL is taxing those who create visually compelling presentations to accompany their papers.

Perhaps the new SBL email confirmation can read as follows:

“Congratulations!
Your paper has been accepted in the Johannine Literature section. Please send us $25 additional if you plan on actually creating a visually compelling presentation to accompany your paper.
If you’re just going to stand there and read a boring paper, well then, that’s free.
Again, congratulations.

P.S. Send money. We’re broke.”

The SBL is attempting to exact a tax on digital projectors. At some level a strategic decision was made to surcharge presenters, perhaps because they knew that most people attending SBL would be receiving some sort of reimbursement from their employer (whether university, bookseller, or non-profit organization), and would simply pass this expense along to their employers. (Airlines get away with charging extra for bags because most major carriers know that the bulk of their business comes from business travelers on expense accounts.) We know SBL has been collecting reimbursement data. (Remember filling out the question during registration that asked if you would be receiving 100%, some, or no reimbursement from an employer?) A decision was made to tax presenters above and beyond the already high conference registration fees, SBL annual membership, hotel costs, and additional skyrocketing hotel taxes (check your hotel bill before you hand it to your office manager for reimbursement)!

However, the SBL may be at fault on more than one level. I am hoping it is not the case that the SBL signed a deal with hotels that it either knew was bad (because it did not include data projectors), but needed to sign quickly for one reason or another. Worse yet, I hope it is not the case that negligence played a role and SBL simply overlooked the fact that data projectors were not included, signed a deal, and then got caught off guard when it realized it would be hit with the surprise charges, and scrambled to recoup some of the additional expense.

Scott Bailey has pointed out the absurdity of the SBL hotel’s claims regarding the costs of data projectors. Most data projectors can be purchased outright for less than $450 these days, (click here for a selection of digital projector options), yet the SBL hotel is charging SBL $450 per day(!!) to rent its data projectors. AND THE SBL AGREED TO THESE TERMS!!! It appears that SBL either signed a bad deal without doing its due diligence regarding the actual cost of data projectors, or simply missed the fact that projectors were not included. Given that the SBL is headquartered in Atlanta, one would think that they would know their local hotels and could negotiate a decent deal.

A $25-75 surcharge for what are usually 25-minute presentations comes to $1-3/minute! For standard technology!

The SBL should immediately rescind its policy of charging presenters $25-75 per presentation for using a data projector.

SBL and Projectors

$450/Day. (Photo by James McGrath)

SBL should not begin charging presenters for projectors. Data projectors have become a staple of all good presentations. I can’t wait to see presenters reading papers without PowerPoints simply to protest the policy. A more likely solution is that given the compact nature of today’s projectors, most scholars will bring their own projectors along with their laptops, as we are doing for the Blogger and Online Publication session. (Thank you James McGrath!)

This policy especially hurts younger scholars and graduate students, the very demographic SBL is attempting to reach and the group SBL must reach to ensure its long-term viability! SBL annual meetings are already very (almost prohibitively) expensive, especially for graduate students, who do not have secured positions at universities to whom they can submit reimbursements, and who are the most likely to use technology to present papers in an effort to procure jobs. Because the “data projector tax” hurts young scholars, the SBL is essentially taxing the poorest of the poor (because after all, we’re all in the humanities), and exacting a tax on those who are least able to afford it.

If SBL is going to fine anyone, it should charge presenters who do not use data projectors. If you wrote your SBL “talk” on the back of a napkin in the bar just before your session, you should have to pay $75 in order to present – money that can be distributed to those of us who have to listen to you drone on about hiphil middle-weak verb forms without any form of visual aid whatsoever. Don’t punish those presenters who have spent the time to write a good paper and create a helpful accompanying presentation.

The SBL should not disincentivize the production of effective, visual presentations at its own annual meeting!

Jesus Cleanses the SBL Registration Booth

An angry Jesus, upset about the fact that SBL is charging presenters to use data projectors, cleanses the SBL registration booth. (Mashup of Carl Heinrich Bloch painting by Robert R. Cargill) More on Bloch here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Heinrich_Bloch

Nickel-and-diming the attendees gives the SBL a real black eye at a time of nation-wide economic cost-cutting at universities, and when the SBL is attempting to market to a new range of scholars. Higher education really can’t afford the additional cost burden right now, especially if the revenues raised from the data projector tax are simply being passed along to hotels.

I’m seriously waiting for Jesus (Christ, not Jones in hotel facilities) to show up and “cleanse” the SBL registration booth. I’d like to see him overturn a table full of data projectors or two.

I can hear it now: as soon as a projector goes dark, someone will say,

“Will you put another quarter in the data projector meter for me?”

Church Collection Plate

Seriously, we should take up an offering for use of the data projectors. A section with 5 papers would cost $125, and that’s if you pre-reserved them back in June! We could pass a plate down the rows.

Solution

The SBL should immediately announce that it is rescinding its data projector fees for this year’s annual meeting.

Itemizing the data projector costs as an additional surcharge only highlights the fiscal trouble of the SBL.

Placing the fiscal burden directly on those scholars who are doing and presenting higher-end research that requires modern forms of technology to communicate their findings disincentivizes innovation.

Nickel-and-diming its own participants for participating makes an otherwise professional organization look cheap and does not send an inspiring message of fiscal viability to SBL members.

It would be better to spread the cost of data-projectors evenly across all participants, whether they use them in presentations, or watch presentations that use projectors. This minimal cost (say, $5) could be added to the already absurd annual meeting registration cost. It would be less burdensome to the presenters, and would not advertise SBL’s financial woes by highlighting the need to exact a surcharge for a service that is now standard in higher education and professional conferences.

Rescinding the decision to impose fees on those using data projectors would buy the SBL a year to debate the role of technology in scholarship, properly assess the real costs of technology, and give SBL a year to communicate the need, if any, for higher fees to subsidize technology costs.

SBL could also agree not to do business with hotels who insist on exacting absurd usury fees on conferences. It’s SBL’s home town for crying aloud! SBL should be able to negotiate a fair deal.

In Sum

In sum, charging presenters a fee to present their papers in a modern format is a very poor decision on the part of SBL. Then again, a digital image is worth a thousand words (and I’ll let you see it for free):

SBL Pay-for-Projector Policy

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