In the past, I have often blogged my way through the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting. Sometimes I have even sat in sessions, blogging away as I listen. For one thing, it's been a great way to help me to stay awake.
To some extent, Twitter has changed all that. A quick tweet on your phone, with the #sblaar hashtag, and you are in touch with loads of others who are also tweeting away, most of whom you will never even meet. Twitter has actually made blogging the SBL much easier -- it helps you to work out what's worth a blog comment and what is only worth a tweet.
If you read this year's tweets, one thing will come through again and again, especially on Saturday, the realisation that McCormick Place is simply MASSIVE. One fellow participant said that it was far bigger than the village he lived in in Cambridgeshire. I found that it was a huge help with the usual SBL diet issue, that one eats far too much unhealthy stuff in quantities that are too large. Normally, one does not have to walk ten miles in the convention centre just to get from one session to the next, and so I was able to shed a few calories that way.
And that was already after one had commuted in from the hotels area, itself a couple of miles from McCormick. You did not have to walk, though, if you did not want to. The shuttles laid on by the society worked well and it reminded me a bit of Orlando 1998 when you could find yourself sitting next to someone interesting quite by chance, or renewing old acquaintances, or overhearing fascinating conversations.
In some years, the book exhibit has been really squeezed in space. This year, there was so much space available that they hardly knew what to do. And yet, I don't think I visited it as often as usual because everything was so far away from everything else. You had to plan to go to the exhibit. You could not simply pop in for 10 minutes in between sessions.
Moreover, SBL tarting was much more difficult than usual. I have always been an advocate of tarting one's way from one session to another. But this year, you might have half an hour's walk to get from one session to another. On the Saturday, I wanted to get from John, Jesus and History (superb paper by Dale Allison aligning the BD with John son of Zebedee that cohered nicely with my NT Pod on the topic) to the Second Century Intertextuality section to hear about Papias -- but I had nearly had a heart attack by the time I had arrived.
My experience of SBL this year was tarnished by the worst series of headaches I have had since I was in college. So I was in survival mode for much of it and I must apologize to those who found me a little stranger than usual. Nevertheless, there were a couple of highlights, one the chance to see Skyfall, on Friday evening, with old friends. Of course the danger with doing the best thing first is that everything is down-hill from there, but it was still a treat.
I was pleased too to get some Chicago pizza on Monday evening, and some good beer, pub food and Thai food on other evenings. It's awful to say, but eating and drinking really is the heart of SBL. Oh, and I had an amazing breakfast on Tuesday morning at Eleven City Diner, which looks exactly what you would imagine a Chicago diner should look like, and the breakfast was fantastic, and lasted me all day. And we saw Austan Goolsbee there too (Obama's first term economic advisor, for those not as up with American politics as I am).
As usual, I seemed to have let myself in for involvement with too many sessions this year. I enjoyed speaking on Secret Mark over at the Biblical Archaeology Society's Fest on Sunday morning and found them an ideal audience, genial but interested and full of questions (more here). In the past, I have not bothered with a powerpoint, but on this occasion I felt that I needed to illustrate the talk, and it took us the best part of fifteen minutes to get it working. Still, we got there in the end.
Back at the SBL, I also chaired a session that day, the first of the "Blogger and Online Publication" sessions. The focus was on Media and Archaeology and featured Simcha Jacobovici, James Tabor, Robert Cargill and Christopher Rollston. It was not the easiest session to chair and the attendance was poor, I'd guess thirty to forty or so.
On Monday afternoon, I was part of a panel reviewing Zeba Crook's Parallel Gospels in the Synoptic Gospels section. The other reviewers were Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, Paul Foster and Robert Derrenbacker. I found myself in the unusual position of being the mean guy here, since it seems that the other reviewers were all far more positive overall about Crook's new Synopsis than I was. I will post my review under separate cover. For what it is worth, Zeba Crook responded well to the critique, with good humour and some good points. The discussion flowed too in the aftermath.
I walked the twenty miles from that session in the East of McCormick Place to another in West, only just making it in time. This was a session reviewing two recent books on the Gospel of Thomas, my Thomas and the Gospels and Simon Gathercole's Composition of the Gospel of Thomas. The three reviewers were Stephen Patterson, Christopher Tuckett and Nicola Denzey Lewis. I was delighted with them all -- critical but appreciative. More than one could possibly have hoped for. I received the reviews too late to compose a response, so I responded on the fly. I made a fair fist of it but Simon did much better and made me laugh several times, not least in drawing attention to Dorothy L. Sayers's character the Revd. Simon Goodacre, in response to the reviewers' remarks about the remarkable similarity of our books in spite of their independence.
One thought did occur to me in that session. Although there is the conceit that everyone has read the books in question at a book review session, in fact very few have yet had the chance even to look at them, all the more so as several have only just bought them in the book exhibit. So it would be ideal to begin these book review sessions by allowing the authors ten minutes each to summarize their books before the reviewers are invited in. In other words, with new books, the sessions could be crafted in such a way that they are geared towards the majority of hearers. The reviewers too could be encouraged to address those who are not familiar with the books. Having said that, I did think the organization and chairing of the session (by the Extent of Theological Diversity section, partnering with the Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism section) was exemplary, so it's just a small suggestion for the future ethos of the SBL.
It wasn't my favourite SBL, but that's mainly my fault, and I would like to thank the SBL for the fantastic work they put into making this such a successful meeting, and thanks too to all those who worked so hard as volunteers to make things go so well.