In a comment to my post about the SBL’s technology initiative, Mary Hess noted that Luther Seminary has actually produced effecive examples of this sort of biblical-education website; how about spotlighting their work (and maybe supporting and building out from it) rather than funding and devising a whole nother enterprise?
So, let me affirm her collegial pride in Luther’s accomplishments. Enter the Bible provides excellent introductory material for any inquirer into biblical interpretation. I tend to resist “registration” requirements for sites, but Enter doesn’t exclude you from most of its functionality if you decline to start an account. Everything I see there strikes me as valuable and productive. It would be hard for the SBL to do better.
Into the New Testament is less a reference source and more a pedagogical superstructure. It’s excellent and valuable, to the extent that one shares the pedagogical trajectory for which it‘s written. Even apart from that, the site stands to enhance students’ learning about the New Testament; its fullest usefulness, though, would come if one were using the site in conjunction with an introductory course framed as Luther Seminary frames that unit.
Both sites exemplify the importance of substance over glitz. While they’re both well-designed, it’s clear that the web design serves the function — rather than the (very frequent) opposite alternative. I’ll be sending students to these sites as supplements, and conceivably even as main assignments, when I teach introductory courses.
On a related note, Virginia Seminary co-publishes a series of extremely short introductory guides to the books of the Bible (“Bible Briefs,” which sounds unnervingly like TMI about Steve Cook’s underwear). This is an emphatically great idea, and my main reservations about how they implement it involve some technicalities and my own idiosyncracies. I’d wish that they posted PDFs of the typeset text, rather than scanned images of the pages. In the same way, I’d suggest that they make the resource available as a web page in plain HTML, for ease of access (I like PDF for formatting reasons, but for searchability and access nothing equals good ol’ HTML/XML). Umm, and I disagree with some of the authors, which is especially vexing when they’re given only a short wordcount; any point in dispute stands as a naked given in the text, rather than something about which to have a reasoned argument. But that would be inevitable; if I had written one of these booklets, other people would feel the same way about my perspective.
SBL: please learn from, adopt, extend, complement, benefit from these best-practices examples. Don’t feel obligated to construct something de novo, with SBL-originality branding all over it. You don’t need to copy, or to be submissive to them — but please don’t waste money by ignoring them or thinking that because you’re bigger wigs than they are, everything you do will automatically be better. As David Weinberger notes in his response to the Wired article about Craigslist, the most important thing about such a service-site is that “[i]t offers a service of immense value to users, but prices it not by that value but by its cost. And there isn’t a thing on that cramped, prosaic, old Webbish page that isn’t for the benefit of the user.” I fear the prospect of an SBL page that looks super-fantastic, with eye-popping animations and scripts, but that misses the opportunity to deliver what users reasonably hope for from the Society of Biblical Literature. Better to be a biblical Craigslist than, say, an academic version of Christopher Norman Chocolates (scroll down).