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  • The JBL Forum, an Occasional Exchange
  • Mark G. Brett and Susan E. Hylen

Biblical Studies in a Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has been revelatory on a global scale, and analyses of the crisis are proliferating. In addition to the numbers of infections and deaths, international commentators are struggling to address the magnified legacies of race, class, and caste. Beyond the public health crisis, a massive economic downturn seems inevitable across the globe. The virus has brought planetary questions to the forefront in ways that cannot be avoided. Where do the disciplines of biblical study sit within the current tragedies? The question needs to be addressed from many different perspectives. Beyond the narrow specializations of our fields, we also need to think more broadly about systemic forces that shape our experiences as scholars, the lives of our students, and the world we inhabit.

Although education has long been seen as an equalizing force in society, the current picture appears more complicated. In some respects, the opposite is equally true. Assembling remarkably detailed analyses of international data on “inequality regimes,” Thomas Piketty has argued that changing educational demographics in Western countries over the past few decades are linked to a shift in voting patterns that have complicated older class loyalties: significant numbers of people among the working classes (especially white people) have turned from left-of-center parties to the right. And against the trends observable earlier in the twentieth century, higher levels of educational attainment now correlate, for example, more with allegiances to the Democratic Party in the United States and Labour in the United Kingdom. The Brexit voting pattern belongs to that transnational shift. Recent social changes have started to rebound on what Piketty calls the “Brahmin left,” with its own dream of upward mobility.1 The Brahmin left seems to have lost [End Page 597] focus on inequality (e.g., largely capitulating to the highly stratified rankings of universities), while many working-class people in the West have drifted to the right as they seek solace in their experiences of economic vulnerability. Further, in a globalized world it is not possible to understand these dynamics without considering also the recent mutations within non-Western economies and societies, the creation of new middle classes in Asia, and patterns of immigration.

The disciplines of biblical study now occupy a paradoxical space in Western contexts. In professional terms, they have been effectively separated from religious communities for more than a century, and, until recently, the gravitas of our disciplines could continue in a relatively untroubled and privileged manner with broad cultural support and historic accumulations of infrastructure and capital.2 With steadily increasing patterns of “no religion” in census data, and a more complex public space, the legitimacy of biblical studies in universities is not at all self-evident.

Historically, each regime of inequality has nurtured its own concepts of justice, and these concepts are mutating once again in our own day. As biblical studies comes under pressure from several different directions at once (including the new business models that can exploit online deliveries), it is imperative to take stock of the situation. A professional journal like JBL embodies at least some practices of “procedural justice,” especially in the double-blind reviewing of submissions and the proud tradition of meritocracy. When it comes to substantive justice, however, the issues are more vexed.

Statistically, our evaluation of intellectual merit favors white men from well-resourced English-speaking universities, even when half of the members of the JBL editorial board are women, including four women of color. The composition of the board reflects more substantive aspirations for justice, which can be improved upon, but Piketty’s recent research clarifies a much larger set of questions about the role of education in fostering a common good. Alarmingly, his questions might remain untouched even if the Society of Biblical Literature improved on its demographics. In short, expanding the ranks of the Brahmin left may contribute little to [End Page 598] mending the world unless there are more deliberate efforts to address current experiences of inequality, as Black and Indigenous scholars have regularly pointed out.3

In beginning to address the larger questions at stake, we have...


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pp. 597-599
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