Los Angeles Airport (LAX) would make a good contender for a modern version of one of Dante’s circles of hell. I travel there in November of each year, usually with a view to making a connection through to another city in the USA. The question I always ask myself as we land in Los Angeles is whether the trans-Pacific flight, negotiating US Customs, and a few hours lay-over in the most soulless of airport terminals will be outweighed by the benefits of attending the Annual Meeting of the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL), my ultimate destination.
On each occasion, as I have taken off from LAX to fly back to Melbourne, the answer has been yes; and this year especially so. For one thing the SBL Conference was in San Diego, a short hop from Los Angeles and a city marked by natural beauty, a temperate climate, great hotels (I stayed in one of the high rises in the picture) and plenty of distractions for busy biblical scholars in the bustling Gaslamp Quarter*. But more important than location is the opportunity to step deliberately into the world of critical academic biblical scholarship at the highest level. Highlights for me this year were attending papers on Paul’s apocalyptic theology, a review panel of N. T. Wright’s recent two-volume work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and sharing in the work of the Biblical Ethics section, not least through my own paper entitled ‘Paul’s Experience and Paul’s Ethics: Law and Love in Galatians’. Add to this intellectual stimulation the opportunity to browse the best book display ever to be gathered in once place, and the chance to meet with friends and colleagues from all over the world—the result is an intense but important experience that is, for me and for many, an annual highlight.
The conference is American, which means it is large. Together with the American Academy of Religion, which meets concurrently, the SBL numbers around 10,000 delegates. But the important moments are the one-to-one conversations and interactions. This year I was able to spend time with Uniting Church ministers from the Vic-Tas Synod, who are studying or teaching beyond Australia. Conversations with a number of scholars about potential visits to Melbourne and to Pilgrim Theological College proved fruitful (watch this space for details!). The chance to witness one of my own research students presenting and engaging in the conference induced a sense of (I hope appropriate) pride.
So, getting there and back in a week is an effort, but it is worthwhile. Our hope for Pilgrim Theological College is that we will be able to preserve and enhance the reputation for excellence in biblical and theological scholarship that characterised the United Faculty of Theology. We want to offer that scholarship to the church and beyond it. That is a worthwhile task for the other fifty one weeks of the year.