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The line at Starbucks was long, snaking its way out into the lobby of the Marriott, but the overheard conversation got my attention: "the intensification of the police state … the literal parallels with Nazi Germany … and no one seems to care!"

Yes, this was the annual gathering known in the trade as AAR/SBL, the joint annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. This year's convention brought something like 8,500 academics to Philadelphia to give papers, conduct job interviews, prowl the aisles of the book exhibition, practice the fine art of networking, and deplore the descent of the United States into fascism while waiting in line for one's decaf tall latte.

It was ten years ago that this show last came to Philadelphia, an occasion unusually vivid in my memory because it was my first AAR/SBL. As I looked through the program that first year, I saw listings for far more sessions worth attending than I was possibly going to be able to catch. AAR/SBL is a chaotic marketplace of ideas, and if some outlooks are—shall we say—privileged over others, let no one claim that this is a one-party production. I found it exhilarating, and still do, a decade later.

By the time I picked up my own iced grande latte, I was feeling pretty pleased with my restraint while listening to my companions-in-line, at once comically hysterical and nauseatingly smug. After all, hadn't I maintained a lightly amused expression, resisting the impulse to break in with an acid comment? But then I remembered the night before, at St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Church, where Frederica Mathewes-Green talked about her just-published book, The First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty-Day Journey Through the ...

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November 2005

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