As it appears to be de rigueur to debrief SBL, I present below my humble offering. (I have left out an enumeration of the many good friends and new acquaintances whom it was delightful to see. There was also food and drink, as every year [though not enough of it free, as every year], and a lot of walking and surprisingly inclement weather, as every year. I spare you the details.)
Best of 2013
The Mark Seminar—This group is lively in the best ways. The seminar format means that members submit papers ahead of time to others actively working on the Gospel of Mark; when they gather, each paper writer offers a 10 minute summary of her or his paper, and then there is extended time for the seminar participants to discuss the paper with the author and each other. This year’s topic was the relationship of Mark to the Pauline epistles. A number of top scholars are members of the group, and there was significant engagement, particularly of the final paper which addressed similarities between Paul’s and Mark’s Christologies, particularly in the parallel conceptions of Jesus as Second Adam (Paul) and Son of Man (Mark). The possibility that both Paul and Mark understood Jesus to be a divinely empowered messianic human but not a person who was both human and divine (“God incarnate”) sparked much debate. It was one of most passionate yet respectful exchanges of arguments and counter arguments I have seen at SBL. If you weren’t there, you missed out.
Borges and Scripture—This session of the Reading, Theory, and the Bible group took up the relation of the writings Jorge Luis Borges to scripture—either through Borges’ use of scripture or simply ways in which the writings were mutual illuminating. All of the papers were engaging, thought-provoking, excellent, and very different. Particularly memorable was Rhiannon Graybill’s (Rhodes College) paper looking at the dangers of the “found book” in Borges, H. P. Lovecraft, and 2 Kings 22, and a paper by Richard Walsh (Methodist University) looking at how imaginary books with real content and, conversely, real books with imaginary content in Borges can be illuminating for our thinking about the Q source for the synoptics.
Derrida and Caputo in Congregations—Every year there is some attempt at devoting one or more sessions to how academic study of the Bible, theology, and religion affects the life of actual worship communities. I can’t say I have ever found any of the topics interesting enough that I was inspired to attend one until now. I could only stay for the first half, and so only heard three presentations in this session sponsored by the folks at Homebrewed Christianity, the highlight of which was the opening paper by leaders of the St. Lydia’s house church in Brooklyn. The presenters demonstrated deep reflection on the topic and how, contrary to what many might expect, a profoundly post-modern perspective can lead to both beautiful sacramental theology and a community that finds joy and belonging in the midst of brokenness.
Women in the Biblical World—The Sunday session this year was a performance and discussion of selections from the book Lady Parts: Biblical Women and The Vagina Monologues (Wipf & Stock). I stayed only for the performances and skipped the discussion, and while most of the creative monologues of biblical women lacked the gritty reality of the work that inspired the project, a couple of them were particularly good: both the monologues of Jael and Mary Magdalene were insightful, undermined stereotypes, and were well-performed by Lise Porter and Jo-Ann Badley, respectively. Theological/biblical performance art is, to be honest, often cringe-worthy. This was not, and that cannot be anything other than a highlight.
The true highlight of the weekend
The exciting, mostly behind-the-scenes conversations that might—just might—make a difference for the future.
 SBL = the annual conference for members of the Society of Biblical Literature. It meets concurrently with the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Basically 12,000 academic people from North America and (to a lesser extent) Europe who teach and write about the Bible, theology, and religion get together and read papers to each other and discuss topics of widely varying interest.