A year later…

I’ve been away from this for quite a while now, but this is a good time to return.  The issues of academic freedom and non-discrimination (against all, but particularly LGBTQ folk) are still in the air, and the Society of Biblical Literature is at least taking a serious look at some of the issues I raised roughly a year ago.

In particular, the SBL Council convened a Sub-Committee on Academic Freedom with an eye toward generating a policy for the Society.  Committee work being what it is, we are all still awaiting official word on what this might be.

On Friday, April 1, 2017, I was privileged to speak at the New England / Eastern Canada Region of the SBL on the topic of academic freedom.  Professor Tracy Lemos (Huron University College) and I were graciously invited to speak by the NE/EC Region student committee on a panel called “Academic Freedom In an Age of Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces.”  I’ve decided to post my remarks here; they’re not programmatic or comprehensive, but I think it is worthwhile keeping talk about the issue alive among SBL members (and all others concerned about the health of academic discourse), especially in the wake of a poll sent to members of the Midwest Region asking if their regional meeting should return to Olivet Nazarene University (for the problems with agreeing to partner with ONU, see my earlier posts).


Thoughts on Academic Freedom from the New England Regional SBL 2017

Below are my remarks delivered at a special panel on “Academic Freedom in the Age of Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces” with Prof. Tracy Lemos (Huron University College) at Yale Divinity School on April 1, 2017.


I would like to thank the Graduate Student Committee of the New England and Eastern Canada Region for inviting me to talk on the issue of academic freedom. I’d also like to thank Amelia Devin Freedman and the rest of the members of the Region for actually going along with it, against all reason. And they put me alongside Tracy, no less.

When we were first approached about speaking here on the topic of academic freedom, Robert Kashow informed us that part of the impetus for inviting folks to speak on the topic of academic freedom was the 2016 letter from University of Chicago Dean John Ellison sent to incoming freshmen. The letter went viral within the online academic community and created a storm of debate on the role and appropriateness of trigger warnings and safe spaces in college education.  Therefore, I’d like to begin with some general thoughts about trigger warnings and how they relate to academic freedom.

They don’t.  At least, not in any way that should really concern us as educators.

What did Ellison say that got people so upset? Ellison wrote:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

I will say that I am to a large degree sympathetic with the general thrust of Ellison’s comments in this letter: a college or university should be a space in which one’s ideas are challenged, where one is exposed to methods and questions of rigorous academic discourse, and in which being unsympathetic to certain ideas does not excuse one from learning about them.

However, Ellison’s fundamental error in my view, was connecting—or accepting a connection—between trigger warnings and academic freedom.  In my view, such a statement is likely rooted, at least in part, in the speaker’s distance or alienation from the actual college classroom. I’d like to make four points about trigger warnings and how they are presented by critics.

  1. Reports about the thin skin of this generation of students have been greatly exaggerated, if not outright invented. Numerous online commentators have bemoaned what they perceive to be the overly coddled and cloistered nature of the current generation of college students. Political correctness, we read online, has run so rampant that college students now cannot hear any content with which they do not agree without developing a “case of the sads” and subsequently demanding that they not be exposed to any material that might discomfit. While there are numerous anecdotes (whose basic reliability I do not question) related in support of such characterizations, I must say this is not my experience of the undergraduate classroom. I have not personally seen evidence truly distinguishing this generation from earlier generations in this regard.  I dare say the white students at Ole Miss prior to integration in 1962—and for quite a long time afterward—were rather more coddled and cloistered than the average college student today, less forced to confront people and ideas that they’d regard as strange or even dangerous to their worldview. While I do not deny that there have been incidents of vocal student opposition to being exposed to legitimate academic ideas with which they disagree, I do not believe this is either pervasive or new; nor is it limited to the political left or right.
  2. Both my personal experience in the classroom and my (admittedly limited) research into this issue agree: when used in the classroom, trigger warnings are almost universally something that the individual instructor has chosen to implement out of concern for student reaction to certain course content. I have not encountered the suggestion that university administrations are forcing this upon their instructors. To be quite frank, as a rule of thumb regarding American Higher Education, administrators tend to care little about enforcing any aspect of what goes on in the classroom—quality of instruction included—short of higher enrollment numbers. College professors are not being censored by Big Cuddly PC Brother. Overwhelmingly, the use of trigger warnings in the classroom is a choice by the instructors themselves.
  3. Trigger warnings do not stifle academic discourse by declaring certain topics out of bounds. Here I believe Ellison fundamentally misconstrues the origin, nature, and purpose of trigger warnings in the classroom. The idea of a trigger warning is first and foremost concerned with shielding people who have suffered a trauma from experiencing serious psychological pain and suffering by warning them that some content may trigger a recollection or a reliving (psychologically) of the traumatic event. Most of you in the audience are graduate students. You will have students in your classroom that are survivors of rape. You will have students in your classroom that have been the victims of violence. You will have students in your classroom whose lives have included trauma you cannot imagine. I am tempted to say that the question of trigger warnings and safe spaces can be summed up with the dictum: “first, do no harm.” But that isn’t quite right. We are not physicians; we are not therapists.  Our job is not to try and heal students with trauma, though if they choose to involve us it is our duty to try and make sure they get help. No, rather than “do no harm,” I think the fundamental idea behind the trigger warning is quite simply: Don’t be an asshole.  We are not mechanics pouring oil into machines; we are educating human beings, with human strengths and human frailties. The idea that in our interpersonal interactions we should be sensitive to not cause real pain in another does not amount to coddling. It amounts to humanity. Don’t be an asshole.
  4. Trigger warnings actually protect academic freedom. There are times when our teaching may involve not only difficult and contrary ideas, but content or descriptions that cause someone to recall or relive a personal traumatic event. The purpose of warning students that this material is going to be discussed is not to stifle this conversation; rather, the warning is what allows the discussion to take place. Now, I must say, I personally do not use trigger warnings in my teaching. At least, I’ve never thought of myself as using them, nor have I used that terminology to describe things I do in the classroom. But I do try and foster an environment of respect, even in those times when I purposefully try to make students uncomfortable by unpacking material that is frankly contradictory to their personal values or expectations.  But I do say things like, “The reading for next class has some real hard stuff in it.” I want students to speak up and tell me if something makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.  Because then we can figure out how to address those realities and make the student feel safe while still engaging the difficult material.  Trigger warnings and safe spaces are not about avoiding the hard stuff; they are about creating ways to ensure that difficult topics are discussed by encouraging the student to be an active participant, a vocal communicator, and to engage rather than withdraw.


Now, I do not pretend to have any special expertise in the topic of trigger warnings beyond that of being a university instructor who cares about creating productive learning environments in his own classroom, and following the discussion about trigger warnings and safe spaces that has been raging online.  The reason why I was invited, as Tracy has mentioned in her remarks, is that I have caused a certain amount of consternation and agita related to how our professional society, the SBL, interacts or fails to interact with serious threats to and breaches of academic freedom.  In my opinion, one of the clearest examples of a way in which our Society can position itself as a proponent and defender of academic freedom is by not associating with those bodies that disregard the principles of academic freedom, institutions that are actively constituted in opposition to free academic discourse.

Do the SBL and its Regions interact with such institutions? Yes. All the time. What finally pushed me into action on this issue was the host location for the meeting of the Midwest Region (my own Region) of the SBL which, for many years prior to 2017, had been Olivet Nazarene University. I will not go into all the details of the petition I began, the extreme anger that it triggered among some, and all the attendant details.  I’m happy to talk about it, but we need to leave time for your questions.  So, let it suffice to say that Olivet Nazarene has a publicly documented history of discriminatory treatment against LGBTQ students. Such discrimination by itself compromises the principles of academic freedom by seeking to completely remove and/or silence one entire class of person. Further, in 2009 Olivet Nazarene University fired a tenured biology professor, Richard Colling (first censured in 2007), for teaching evolution within a theistic, Christian context.

I would hope that any and every person who has ever cared at all about education can realize: when a biology professor is fired for teaching evolution, the institution that fires him is opposed to the principles of academic freedom. And yet year after year, the Midwest Region held its meeting there.  And, after holding their 2017 meeting at a different site, the Midwest Region circulated an online poll to determine whether or not they should return to having their meetings at Olivet Nazarene next year and into the future.

Now, in the wake of my petition and Tracy’s letter, the SBL Council has convened a sub-committee on academic freedom, which gives me much reason to be hopeful. And the members of this sub-committee have put in a lot of serious and hard work, for which I am extremely grateful.  That work is still not obvious to us because, well, this is how committee work goes, it takes time, and there’s no way around it.  But I am given pause, I have had my hopefulness tempered by some of the feedback that has come out so far.  In particular, the SBL Council held a session at the most recent Annual Meeting to field questions from the membership at large.  Of the 11 or so audience members in the room, only two people—myself being half that number, more if we go by weight—were not there representing conservative, evangelical publishing houses concerned about the hubbub involving InterVarstiy Ministries, and their subsidiary InterVarsity Press. InterVarsity, as Time magazine reported, had announced that they were firing all employees who disagreed with the organization’s opposition to gay marriage, and there was fear that SBL would care about this and block them from renting space at the convention’s book display (the SBL did not take any action that I am aware of).  While much of the time was spent soothing the concerns of publishers, I did get to ask about the state of the sub-committee’s work, and the answers I got were , in my opinion, a bit of a mixed bag.  For example, sub-committee member Greg Sterling (who is here today), in response to my question about whether SBL and the Regions should be hosting meetings at institutions that, for the sake of argument, fire biologists who teach evolution, emphasized that the SBL is simply unable to dictate policy to other institutions.  And of course, this is entirely true.  However, any affiliation with an institution that so egregiously disregards the tenets of academic freedom illustrates that the SBL, well… the SBL doesn’t care if an institution supports academic freedom or not.

There are real threats to academic freedom out there. While the SBL cannot change the policies of another institution, it can certainly choose to sever institutional relationships with them. It can cease lending its prestige to and associating its name with institutions that actively prohibit free academic discourse. That would be a very good, and very easy, first step toward a Society that actively cultivates and supports the ideals of academic freedom.


Apologies for being preoccupied over summer and not writing more regularly.  Today’s news of the death of Elie Wiesel prompted my thoughts to return to the matter of SBL turning a blind eye to the discriminatory practices of partner institutions. So, I shall endeavor to get back to the blogging at more regular intervals, and continue my assessment of the SBL’s response thus far to various member concerns on discriminatory practices and academic freedom.  For now, I’ll just leave things with these words from Wiesel’s Nobel Prize speech.

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.

Some Thoughts on SBL Council’s Letter to Petitioners (part 2)

In my previous post, I outlined how SBL Council’s reply to our petition is in fact no reply at all, as it ignores the fundamental issue of discrimination against LGBTQ persons.

Now I want to turn to some of the things that Council’s letter does address.

2. SBL Council Subcommittee on Academic Freedom

SBL Council wrote:

The Council determined that SBL needs a Statement on Academic Freedom to help guide our work in a way that is consistent with the Society’s mission, values and policies as an international learned society. To this end, the Council named a subcommittee to draft a statement that defines academic freedom for SBL in an international context. The subcommittee will consult with SBL members in the course of its work and will present its draft for discussion and approval to the SBL Council at our next meeting in October 2016. The statement will allow Council to address specific points raised by the petition and to draw up a standard Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that states explicitly the expectations SBL will have in place for potential host institutions, regional and international.

Formulating an official statement on Academic Freedom is, in my opinion, a good thing. And, obviously, this will require the formation of a committee to research the issue and draft the language of the statement. Thus far, all is to the good.  However, I have a number of concerns regarding this process.

a. The Subcommittee will consist solely of members of SBL Council.

I’m not sure I see the reason for this.  In particular, I think the work of this committee might be materially aided to a tremendous degree if it included SBL members who themselves have been involved in institutional conflict over academic freedom. There has been a number of high profile cases in recent years. I have no idea if any of these persons would want to sit on such a committee; however, I would think some of these individuals might have important knowledge and experience that would best be employed as members of such a committee.

b. The Subcommittee will consult with members.

Again, in principle this is laudable.  How will it actually proceed in practice?  With which members? In what manner? Will there be transparency in the process? I am becoming increasingly convinced that the current SBL leadership considers transparency in the decision making process to be a bad thing. Transparency is to be avoided.  Differences of opinion are to be hushed up, suggestions should be made in private, etc.

In my opinion, this is a terrible model and method.  Transparency can only be for the good. People’s positions and opinions should be sought and posted publicly.  A public conversation is the way to proceed, not ad hoc solicitation of an unknown number of opinions in private.

c. The Memorandum of Understanding will make plain expectations for potential host institutions.

This can mean different things.  It could mean: The MOU will outline what type of institutions the SBL and its Regions are willing to partner with. We will not partner with institutions that violate the stance on Academic Freedom contained in the MOU.

However, I strongly suspect (based on wording later in Council’s letter) that this is not what is meant.  Rather, I fear that the MOU will state expectations to be honored for SBL conference participants onlyduring the period of the conference.  In my opinion, this is unacceptable. Since it is in the next paragraph of Council’s letter that the type of requirements placed on potential host institutions under such an MOU are spelled out, I’ll develop this at greater length in my next post.


more to come….

Some Thoughts on SBL Council’s Letter to Petitioners (part 1)

In my last post, I copied, in its entirety, the email I received from SBL Executive Director John Kutsko on behalf of SBL Council in response to the petition that I circulated regarding the Midwest Region’s choice of Olivet Nazarene as host institution for its conference, and the need for an SBL policy on academic freedom and LGBT inclusiveness.

In this post, I’m going to offer some of my thoughts on what that letter says, and–of equal importance–what that letter leaves unsaid. There are a number of issues that I want to address, so I’ll be doing this in stages.

1.  This letter is not  a response to our petition posted to change.org.

Rather, this single letter was drafted to answer both the concerns raised in the petition as well as an independent letter sent to Council, circulated by Professor Tracy Lemos, that focused on questions of academic freedom in general.

The disregard that Olivet Nazarene has shown for academic freedom is, indeed, blatant, disappointing, and repugnant.  However, our petition focused in equal measure on the fact that Olivet Nazarene University is an institution that actively engages in the violation of individuals’ civil rights, and actively discriminates against LGBTQ persons.

Now, gentle reader, if you would be so good as to again peruse Council’s Letter to Petitioners. Please note now the following terms:

  • LGBT
  • Gay
  • Lesbian
  • Transgender
  • Bisexual
  • Queer

NOT ONE OF THESE TERMS APPEARS IN COUNCIL’S LETTER. John Kutsko and SBL Council actively chose to ignore the LGBTQ community in their response. Perhaps this tells us all that we need to know regarding current SBL leadership’s attitudes toward LGBTQ issues. The letter addresses academic freedom; it addresses the relationship between the Regions and the national SBL (and neither of these does it address in a wholly satisfactory manner–more to come on that).  Not once does Council’s letter mention the issue of active discrimination against LGBTQ persons and the call for an SBL policy stance on this.

To spend this amount of time mulling over the petition, to “extended our usual meeting schedule by a half day in order to attend to the important concerns [the petition] raised” and NOT to mention the LGBTQ issues at the heart of the petition is little short of an insult.

So: Cowardice or indifference?

Those are the two primary explanations I can see for failing to address in any way the LGBTQ civil rights issues by name. And I’m not sure which is worse.

more to come later….




Council Letter to Petitioners

Last week I heard back from SBL Executive Director John Kutsko regarding the petition to urge SBL to develop specific policies regarding those institutions with which it will do business–in particular, that the SBL as a society should not conduct business with institutions that reject the basic tenets of academic freedom nor those that discriminate against LGBTQ persons (or any other group).   The official letter from SBL Council is quoted below in its entirety.

27 April 2016

Dear Prof. Matthew Neujahr,

At its April meeting, the SBL Council discussed in detail the petition you submitted in January.

We extended our usual meeting schedule by a half day in order to attend to the important concerns it raised.

The Council determined that SBL needs a Statement on Academic Freedom to help guide our work in a way that is consistent with the Society’s mission, values and policies as an international learned society. To this end, the Council named a subcommittee to draft a statement that defines academic freedom for SBL in an international context. The subcommittee will consult with SBL members in the course of its work and will present its draft for discussion and approval to the SBL Council at our next meeting in October 2016. The statement will allow Council to address specific points raised by the petition and to draw up a standard Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that states explicitly the expectations SBL will have in place for potential host institutions, regional and international.

As this work moves forward, the Council is also clarifying the administrative relationship of the 11 North American Regions with the Society, balancing the autonomy the regions enjoy and their responsibilities to the Society in selecting a venue to hold a regional meeting. These responsibilities are: (1) to consult widely with SBL members in the regions to select a suitable host institution; (2) to exclude any institution under an existing censure by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) or the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), according to location; and (3) to affirm and to document with a signed interim MOU that SBL will only meet at institutions where no restrictions are placed on participation or programming. Regions not conforming to these expectations would not be permitted to use the name or logo of SBL. These requirements will also guide staff in selecting institutional hosts for the SBL International Meeting.

In regards to the jointly owned and managed AAR-SBL Employment Services, which seeks to maximize employment opportunities for all members, those services conform to the 1940 AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom, which permits “[l]imitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution,” while requiring that they “should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment,” and reflect later commentary by AAUP on the original statement and cases they have reviewed. Therefore the AAR-SBL Employment Services requires, at minimum, that employers acknowledge in their job postings any such limitations to academic freedom so that SBL and AAR members may be fully aware of them before they make an application, and that employers confirm that these are available in writing at the time of the appointment. The SBL Council may review these standards and initiate discussion with AAR following the establishment of an SBL Statement on Academic Freedom.

SBL Council will continue to address the important matters the petition has raised. We care deeply about supporting our members and serving the mission and values of this international learned society that all of our members, together, constitute.

Efrain Agosto
Ehud Ben Zvi
Marc Brettler
Gay Byron
Mary Foskett, Chair
Michael Fox, Vice President
Steven Friesen, Secretary
Beverly Gaventa, President
Judith Newman
Jorunn Økland
Dan Schowalter
Greg Sterling
Gerald West
Sidnie White Crawford
John F. Kutsko, ex officio


Firstly, I would like to extend my thanks to SBL Council, and Executive Director Kutsko in particular, for the seriousness with which they took the petition.  I would also like to say that the tone of the letter is extremely positive and this is a promising first step.

I’ll have more thoughts on the specifics of the letter in this space later in the week!


I’m a scholar of ancient Israel and the Near East, specializing in Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism, and intercultural contact and exchange (especially of religious phenomena) in the later first millennium B.C.E.  I hold a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale University, and my first book, Predicting the Past in the Ancient Near East, was published in Brown University’s Judaic Studies series in 2012.

I’m currently Visiting Assistant Professor in the Theology Department at Marquette University.

On the Petition regarding SBL association with Olivet Nazarene University

So, I’ve gotten a fair bit of feedback regarding the petition I circulated urging the SBL to take a stand on issues of academic freedom and tolerance and inclusiveness of LGBT persons.  Most of it has been enthusiastically positive.  But some of it has been quite negative.  A number of people reported being completely baffled that I should see a problem with Olivet Nazarene hosting the SBL Midwest Region Meeting.  Some said the petition was wrong-headed. The SBL Executive Director and the current VP of the Midwest region went to great lengths to tell me my position was born of ignorance. So I thought I’d just respond briefly to those who oppose the very idea of the petition.

Let’s be clear. This is not about trying to control what individual people think.

It’s about policies that institutions enact, policies founded upon and that further bigotry against LGBT persons. It’s about whether the SBL or its Regions should publicly ally themselves with such institutions.

Olivet Nazarene is known to deny LGBT students the housing they were assigned as well as to deny LGBT students the counseling resources that are offered to all other students.

Now, the argument of some is that this is not bigotry because it is founded upon religious teaching. And in order to be truly “inclusive,” the SBL must include adherents (and apparently institutions) of religious groups that enact such institutionalized discrimination.

However, let’s play a little game.  Let’s replace “LGBT” with “Jewish” or “black.”

A college denies black students access to counseling resources; it denies them the freedom of living in whatever housing they are assigned to, once it is discovered they are black.


A college denies Jewish students access to counseling resources. It denies them the freedom of living in whatever housing they are assigned to once it is discovered they are Jewish.

I rather suspect that most people who dismiss the petition would be outraged if black or Jewish students were treated this way.

For those who oppose the petition: Would you continue to oppose the petition if it were about black students? About Jews? There are three ways to respond.

  • “Yes, I’d oppose that petition. It’s fine for schools to deny resources to blacks and Jews (so long as their religion commanded it).” If this is your answer then in all probability you’re a liar. A dirty filthy liar. I don’t believe you for a second. That or you should have the decency to wear your Klan hood at the next Annual Meeting.
  • “Oh no, I’d withdraw my opposition! There’s no excuse for an institution doing that.” Good. Then you agree that the protection of an individual’s dignity and rights is paramount; clothing bigotry in religiosity does not make it palatable or acceptable.
  • “Well, that’s not a fair comparison, because Christianity doesn’t say anything about blacks and Jews and how they should be treated.”

Response 3 is of course, absolutely laughable and logically unsustainable. The persecution and slaughter of Jews in the name of Christianity is so tragically prevalent in European history as to be a running joke.  Have we forgotten the biblically based defense of segregation so soon? And by no means is this a relic of the past: white supremacists routinely clothe their racist ideals in terms of Christian identity and rhetoric.

So can we accept institutional persecution and exclusion of LGBT persons while rejecting institutional persecution and rejection of racial or religious groups? No. Anti-Jewish and anti-black groups likewise claim biblical authority and theological foundation for their positions. That does not make their actions acceptable.

If  the SBL rejects the hyper-racist Christian Identity movement but accepts Olivet Nazarene’s treatment of LGBT students, then the SBL has taken an active position as adjudicators of Christian theological stances, labeling some “truly Christian” and others “falsely Christian.”

Do we really want the SBL to officially pronounce which theological stances are legitimate and which are not? The SBL deems it legitimate to associate with institutions that deny services to LGBT persons for what the institution claims are religious reasons, but illegitimate to associate with those that deny services to blacks or Jews for what the institution claims are religious reasons?  Or is the SBL all-knowing such that it can tell that Christian Identity groups don’t really believe the religious grounds for discrimination they tout, but Olivet Nazarene does? And therefore it’s ok?

No.  This is ludicrous.  But opposing the petition, opposing urging the SBL to dissociate from institutions like Olivet Nazarene amounts to exactly such a position.

Well, that or you’re ok with discriminating against any and all minority groups.

So what to do going forward? The SBL must adopt a policy that it (and affiliated Regions) will not host meetings at or otherwise officially associate with institutions that enact overtly discriminatory policies against any class of person, OR that have been conclusively shown to actively restrict academic freedom. The SBL should continue to robustly support the right of any individual regardless of race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or political belief to attend academic conferences at the national and regional level free of hostility and restriction of speech.

A word of welcome…


Welcome to A Better Brand of Biblical Studies.  While this space is devoted to biblical studies, this perhaps needs a word of explanation.  The primary purpose of this blog is not to reflect on the interpretation of the Bible or the study of the ancient Near Eastern world.

Rather, this is primarily a space for reflecting upon the field of biblical studies (hereafter BS),how it is practiced, what it encompasses, and what I would like to see the field strive to be.

All scholars are odd beasts, and their habitats strange places. We’re intellectual urchins, each of us, feeling out others’ ideas with prideful spines surrounding almost uniformly fragile and outsized egos.  Our ecosystem is one of intellectual interdependencies and awkward interactions, interwoven yet fractious. And sometimes, well, sometimes the circularity and insularity and fresh tilling of centuries-barren bedrock just makes me wish the whole enterprise, all our precious bailiwicks of BS, would burn to the ground.

Or, perhaps, we could work toward an altogether better brand of BS.