My wife and I love cooking meals together.
We also enjoy watching cooking shows. One of our favorites is the "Chopped" Kitchen in which four contestants are eliminated - or "chopped" - as they attempt to use "mystery baskets," preparing an appetizer, main course, and dessert. The drama in the show arises from the outsized personality of the contestants, the unpredictable nature of the items in the baskets that they work with, the time constraints that pressure even the best of chefs, and the role of the judges who are among the best known chefs in the world.
Watching the show over the years, it has dawned on me that the "Chopped" kitchen has five things to teach us about theological education:
#1 Diversity is welcome. Both the judges and the contestants represent a variety of races and ethnicities.
So, too, in theological education: Seminaries should reflect and welcome the church's global diversity. That means engaging the varied approaches to worship, prayer, and practice that are part of the church's experience, past and present.
#2 History and definitions matter. The judges value creativity, but they insist on accountability as well. Culinary history and definitions matter and if you are going to call something a bánh mì, you'd better make a bánh mì.
So, too, in theological education: Creative theological work is necessary if the church is to continue addressing itself to the spiritual and existential needs of the world in every generation, but a dynamic faith is necessarily in conversation with the tradition. The complex stream of theological reflection that has shaped the Christian experience is central to that effort.
#3 The proof is in the eating. The contestants on "Chopped" regularly make sweeping claims for their achievements, but those claims are tested against the food that they prepare.
So, too, in theological education: Teaching at a seminary involves multiple lines of accountability. Accountability to a discipline, to the larger academy, and to the outline of a scholar's research agenda are all important. But in theological education the most important line of accountability is to the health and vitality of the church.
#4 Being nice doesn't mean ignoring the results. All the contestants on "Chopped" have moving stories and personal ambitions. It is striking how many contestants are trying to work through issues of a long-standing, personal nature. They often describe those struggles in the course of introducing their dishes. But the judges - who are plainly moved by the stories they hear - never let the desire to "be nice" dull the edge of their critical assessment. If you produce a defective dish, you are "chopped."
So, too, in theological education: Criticism is a necessary and indispensable dimension of theological education. It is incumbent on theological educators to avoid personalizing criticism. Abuse is not criticism. By the same token, students should avoid personalizing legitimate criticism. A good theological education entails attention to personal and intellectual formation; to rigor in thought; to effectiveness in communication; and to an ever-deepening understanding of "the human condition" and the ways of God.
#5 Those who teach can do the same work "after hours." Over the years, the producers have created a spin-off of the "Chopped" Kitchen in which the judges work with the baskets that have presented the biggest challenges for the contestants. What is clear from the work that they do is that the judges aren't just adept critics, they are skilled practitioners as well.
So, too, in theological education: There are countless disciplines that don't require educators to actively engage a community of practitioners, but theological education in a seminary is - in an important sense - all about the life of the church. Theological education is at its best when educators are able to draw on their experience of ministry in and with the church "after hours."
It turns out that kitchens and classrooms have more in common than we might think.