Friday, September 16, 2011

Sneaking Into Libraries

By Laurel Dykstra

I researched my book Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus by sneaking into libraries. After completing my degree at Episcopal Divinity School I was no longer a student and could not afford the guest user-fees at most academic libraries, so I marshaled all my race and education privilege, tried to look like the sort of person who belonged, and quietly made use of the staff, the stacks, and sometimes the online passwords, at several of North America’s most excellent theological libraries.

Over the past few years I have been part of a project that would make such subterfuge unnecessary. The Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice (CLBSJ) seeks to make a collection of scholarly texts into a commons, rather than a limited-access resource or a privately owned treasure that passes from mentor to favorite student.

Norman Gottwald is the initiator of this collaborative venture. In 2006 he approached the Word and World People's School, a grassroots experiment in theological education for activists, to see whether that organization might accept the gift of his world-class personal library. Word and World did not have the infrastructure to accommodate this extraordinary gift but the seed of an idea was planted and grew.

John H. Elliott and Herman Waetjen, two other pioneers in the use of the social sciences in biblical scholarship, responded to Norm’s invitation to donate their libraries as well and over several years a remarkable and generous group of scholars and community-based activists came together to design and negotiate the Center and Library. Housed at Stony Point Conference Center, 40 miles north of New York City, with a developing relationship with their resident interfaith Community of Living Traditions, the CLBSJ’s mission is

“to provide informed biblical resources for those committed to the study and practice of social justice in contemporary church and society… [and to] seek to bridge the gap that presently separates critical study of the Bible from faith-based organizations and activities working for social justice and reconciliation.”

CLBSJ opens officially on the weekend of October 22-23; it is a first-class collection of books, periodicals, archival, and electronic data on biblical studies and related justice areas. Because of the interests of the initial donors, it is particularly strong in the social sciences. The Center and Library will serve the needs and interests of those from seminary, sanctuary, and streets, welcoming scholars, students, activists, educators, community organizers, clergy, and laity seeking biblical resources for restorative justice and peacemaking. To foster an interweaving of theory and practice, the Center and Library will provide an ongoing educational program of seminars and conferences on topics central to the social-critical study of the Bible and to its use in enacting social justice. There is no comparable collection, center, or organization anywhere in North America.

In conjunction with the project’s opening I have co-edited, with biblical animator and scholar Ched Myers, our inaugural volume, a remarkable anthology that is something of a hand-held version of the new library. Liberating Biblical Study: Scholarship, Art, and Action in Honor of the Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice, brings together the work of biblical scholars, social change activists, and movement-based artists. The book explicitly addresses such biblical justice issues as empire, resistance movements, identity, race, gender, and economics, but it raises questions as well: What is the role of art in social-change movements? How can scholars be accountable beyond the academy, and activists encouraged to study? How are resistance movements nurtured and sustained?

I am particularly proud of the real diversity of contributors to this volume and of the fact that artists and activists are not merely included for decoration or illustration. Instead the book demonstrates practically how the disciplines of scholarship, art and activism challenge and enrich one another.

I encourage you to come to Stony Point for the library opening, to take advantage of our programming and the opportunity to write and study immersed in an amazing collection of scholarship on the biblical call to justice.

*Laurel Dykstra, MATS '97, is a community-based Bible and Justice educator and activist exploring the vocation of neighbor in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the poorest off-reserve postal code in Canada.


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