Serving curry at a royal wedding, the challenges of theological education in Peru.

Apparently, there was an important wedding last weekend. In fact, our Peruvian friends seem to have been much more interested in the royal wedding than I have, forcing me to channel hop between news programmes to escape the blanket coverage. [For the record I am not against the monarchy, I struggle to muster the energy/interest to criticise it]. In fact, my initial response to seeing a link to the “Power of Love” by Michael Curry is that someone must have sung a Mariah Carey cover at the ceremony. However, it seems that everyone is talking about the sermon, with the BBC amazed that preaching in the African-American tradition does not resemble Mr Bean goes to church [have they never watched the Blues brothers? Shame on them!]

Response has ranged from hagiographic  to gushing to nuanced to critical to very critical  to extremely critical . Reading some of the reviews, without having actually heard the sermon [listened to enough sermons in my PhD research…] left me with what my Spanish friends would call an “inquietud” [this beautiful word is translated as “concern” by the Collins Dictionary but is much more subtle than that, it reflects a certain uneasiness which leads to questions rather than opposition, even this fails to convey its delicate non-confrontational nature] This “inquietud” is related to some of the challenges of theological education in Peru.

The more positive reviews tended to want to give Curry a theological free pass because it engaged with people. One reviewer even went as far as to compare critics to religious Pharisees (that old caricature, EP Sanders anyone?) attacking the Christlike iconoclast. The fact that the sermon gained praise from Piers Morgan and Ed Miliband is seen to be the clinching argument [I would tend to take the opposite argument, a sermon is only good if it annoys both Piers Morgan and Ed Miliband, both the Daily Mail and the Guardian]. Here in Latin America, we have faced for decades the dangers of giving people a theological free pass because they “engage with people.” Many of the fastest growing churches are heavily invested in prosperity theology and some also use extreme forms of spiritual warfare which easily denigrate into implicit or overt racism [not exaggerating, once read a Brazilian church leader suggest that having dreams with black people in them could be a sign of demonic oppression]. Yet when one tries to provide a theological critique, one is accused of being a religious Pharisee, that these churches are growing and therefore one “should not touch the Lord’s anointed.”  Rather, no one should be given a theological free pass, and if one engages in public proclamation of the gospel that should be subject to scrutiny and critique, even if the preacher is being interviewed by the BBC.

Theological education in Peru requires developing an irenic, critical mentality. It needs to move students from the extremes of sycophantic positivity and obdurate negativity to assessing arguments, sermons, articles and books in a balanced way. This is a challenge because often the educational system has not promoted this kind of thinking. Nonetheless, positive steps forward are possible. In a recent ethics class on divorce and remarriage, I gave the students time to do some group work on the issue and discuss real-life scenarios. It was gratifying to see the respectful, balanced way they managed their different opinions on the subject- and ended up in some cases with positions which were different from my own.

In contrast, the more negative reviews at times reflected a tendency, sadly all too common in contemporary academic discourse (no-platforming?), of “playing the man/woman/person rather than the ball”, that is, to criticise something for who is saying it, rather than what is being said. In the case of the aforementioned sermon, the fact that Curry is a leader of a denomination which is suing ministers and evicting congregations that do not agree with a particular theological viewpoint seems to have been as important for critics as the content of the sermon.

Another challenge of theological education in Peru is helping students to assess ideas on their own merits, not just in terms of who says them. There is a tendency to divide authors into “heroes” and “villains” and reflect on ideas according to what category the author fits into. Hence an educator needs to 1) convey that it is possible to learn from people who come from a different theological tradition from your own and 2) that it is possible to agree with an author on one particular issue and disagree with them on others.

On a final note, some people seem to have been shocked that the sermon lasted all of 14 minutes! That would be just the introduction in a Peruvian sermon… maybe theological education has something to say about expressing ideas concisely…

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