From The Fourth R Volume 27–4 July/August 2014
Over the past several months, Westar has engaged in a series of negotiations that may make it possible for us to meet with the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion on a regular basis. The decision to meet concurrently with the AAR/SBL is important for many reasons. Above all, it provides Westar with a much larger venue for its work and makes it easier for scholars to attend both conferences. But it also has symbolic significance: it closes the scholarly circle for Westar Founder Bob Funk and other Westar Fellows. Before Funk established the Jesus Seminar in 1985, he played a major role in democratizing the SBL and founding the AAR. Bringing Westar together with those learned societies consolidates Funk’s legacy as a moving force in the effort to promote cutting-edge biblical scholarship on issues that matter in the larger culture.
The Society of Biblical Literature is one of the oldest associations of scholars in the humanities in North America. From its founding in 1880 until 1969, it consisted of a small coterie of graduate-school professors who held annual meetings every two out of three years at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Professors who taught Bible courses at undergraduate colleges were typically excluded from reading papers at SBL and so formed their own academic society in 1909, the National Association of Biblical Instructors (NABI). Following the Supreme Court decision in 1963 that allowed teaching about religion in public schools, courses in the history and literature of the world’s religions were quickly added to university curricula and NABI was reinvented in 1964 as the American Academy of Religion, a guild for those teaching non-biblical courses.
Beginning in the late 1960s Bob Funk was instrumental in laying a solid foundation for the fledgling AAR and in transforming a cloistered SBL. Jacob Neusner, AAR President, asked Funk to become the chair of the Research and Publications committee in 1967. His assignment was to salvage the AAR from its financial woes and to build its reputation as a scholarly guild. At the same time, Funk was asked by Walter Harrelson to become the Executive Secretary of the SBL and to enlarge its scope beyond the Ivy League. The doors of SBL were blown open at the 1969 meeting in Toronto when a new slate of officers was elected to replace the old guard. The rapid expansion of SBL under Funk’s dynamic leadership was highlighted by the first International Congress of Learned Societies in the Field of Religion, held in Los Angeles in 1972: eighteen academic associations in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America were represented. Over 2,500 attended, a record for that time. There are currently over 9,000 members of AAR and 8,500 members of SBL, with about 10,000 attendees at their joint annual meetings.
In 1982 Ernest W. Saunders published Searching the Scriptures , a centennial history of the SBL. In assessing Funk’s contribution, Saunders writes: “The six-year period of Robert W. Funk’s leadership as executive secretary (1968–1973) inaugurated a new era in the history of the society in which he played a decisive role. … A top-flight scholar whose publications testify to his competence, he possessed the twin gifts of an inspired imagination that dreams dreams and sees visions and technical skills that can convert these ephemera into structures … no one would challenge his seminal influence in reshaping biblical studies in America in general or the guild of biblical scholars in particular” (63–64). Midwife to the AAR, instigator of the “new SBL,” and founder of Westar Institute, Scholars Press, and Polebridge Press: the concurrent meetings of the AAR, SBL, and Westar in San Diego will be a tribute to Bob Funk’s multifaceted and remarkable professional legacy.
Lane C. McGaughy is the Geo. H. Atkinson Professor of Religious and Ethical Studies emeritus at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. The author of three books on New Testament Greek and numerous scholarly articles in academic journals and anthologies, he has served as President and Executive Secretary of the Pacific Northwest Region of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature. With his mentor, Robert W. Funk, he worked on numerous projects including the development of Polebridge Press and Westar Institute, and the reorganization of the Society of Biblical Literature. He is the former Chairman of the Boards of Directors of Westar Institute and Polebridge Press, and is also an ordained United Methodist minister.
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