Thursday, October 11, 2018

ETC Interview with Caio Peres

In this installment of the ETC interview series, we diverge from our normal practice of interviewing established text critics to interview a (recent) student. I met Caio Peres through my wife and we have corresponded for a few years online. Some of that correspondence was about textual criticism  during his class on the subject with the good folks at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam where he received his Master (Research) in Theology and Religious Studies in 2018. He currently works as a social worker for a missionary NGO in the south part of São Paulo and in this interview I wanted to hear his perspective on theological training in his native Brazil and what it was like to study abroad. Enjoy!

Peter: Caio, tell us a little bit about your background and what got you interested in the Bible? What’s your primary area of research interest?

Caio: I am married to Dorothee and have a four year old son, Mikael. I am Brazilian and grew up in one of the largest cities of the world, São Paulo. When I was very young my mom went through a process of conversion, so I would go to an evangelical church on Sundays since I can remember. However, there were no religious disciplines in my household. In part because my father is not a Christian, nor religious in any sense, and in part because common Brazilian evangelicals, like my mom, do not integrate their faith with everyday routines. Nonetheless, I remember that at a certain age, my mom would read a Bible verse for me in the morning at breakfast, before I would go to school.

Two experiences in my life, roughly at the same period, got me interested in the Bible. The first was attending a Bible study service at my former church. The guest pastor, who is well known in the Brazilian evangelical context, was the first I saw to include some aspects of textual interpretation and theological implications. At the time this was very different from all the spiritual and life-lesson kind of approach to the Bible that I have known for a long time. It was more rational, organized and intellectually stimulating. The second was meeting my wife. She is Dutch and I met her in Brazil, when she was doing a short-term mission work at a children’s shelter near São Paulo. She comes from a family of several Christian generations. Her household dynamic was very different than mine. Christianity really formed how they lived and saw the world around them. And this was very clear in their strong missionary commitment. That made me realize how much the Bible could penetrate our own lives, but for that to happen I had to become familiar with it. These two experiences led me to commit to the study of the Bible and to missions in social ministries for children at risk in Brazil.

This last development also guided my research interests. After a couple of years flirting with Reformed theology, I got hooked by Biblical Theology during seminary, and the Bible was never the same again for me. I started seeing interesting possibilities of integrating my studies of the Bible and my interest in social issues. Thus, I started to research the Latter Prophets, especially the Book of the Twelve. For reasons that I do not recall clearly, I got interested in Temple and cultic matters. So, at the moment, my primary area of research is the theology of the cult in ancient Israel, including ritual analysis from an anthropological perspective. I am especially interested in commensality and family relations in the context of the ancient Israelite cult. From a broader perspective, my aim is to understand how household dynamics and practices inform the religious conceptions of ancient Israel. Looking at these matters from my missionary perspective, this is highly important in the Brazilian context. To look at cultic practices and religious conceptualizations with an eye on family dynamics and table fellowship might be fruitful for people living in shanty towns, where broken families abound and basic human necessities, like food, are scarce. Especially because in this exact context is where we can find the highest numbers of small Pentecostal churches.

Can you tell us a bit about the landscape of theological education in Brazil? Is Biblical research mostly done in confessional or non-confessional environments?

In Brazil, theological education in the evangelical context is mainly provided by confessional seminaries. Although my own perspective is limited by my evangelical environment, I would say that in this context theological education is mostly done from the perspective of dogmatics and philosophy. Biblical studies as a field of study is still rare among evangelicals.

In Brazil, the most respected institutions in higher education, in general, are public universities (funded and administered by the Federal or State Government). In those institutions there is no department for religious studies. Professors and students interested in religious studies in general, and theology or Biblical studies in particular, are found in other departments such as History, Ancient Cultures and Language, Sociology, etc. For example, in the University of São Paulo, the highest ranked university in Latin America, it is possible to study the Old Testament in the Department of Eastern Languages, which has a center for Jewish studies.

In the private sector, theology and Biblical studies can be found in few confessional institutions that are not seminaries, such as the Methodist University of São Paulo, the Presbyterian University Mackenzie, or in one of the Pontifical Catholic Universities throughout Brazil. These institutions provide graduate programs with researches focused on Biblical studies. The presence of evangelical students and professors in those institutions are quite insignificant, while they are the ones where Biblical studies, and not theology necessarily, can be pursued. It is worth saying that at Presbyterian University Mackenzie, they offer an exclusive evangelical Master’s program, but, again, the focus of the program is the study of theology from the perspective of dogmatics and philosophy.

What is the state of Biblical studies research like more broadly in South America? Are there organizations analogous to the Evangelical Theological Society or the Society of Biblical Literature? And do you have opportunities to attend conferences like these?

I have no knowledge of the state of Biblical studies in South America. In Brazil, I have just found out about two societies for the study of theology, religious studies and Biblical studies. They are compared to American, European and British societies in their aims, but not in their organization and membership. They are much smaller if compared to ETS or SBL – they are closer in numbers to smaller societies such as the Society for the Study of the Old Testament or the British New Testament Society – their meetings are more like conferences, and their membership comes mainly from the Catholic institutions.

I have never been to any of the SBL meetings and do not know any of my fellow students and professors who have. While in the Netherlands I had the privilege to attend the meeting of The Society for Old Testament Studies, in London, and to present a paper at St. Andrews University, Scotland, in their Symposium on Atonement. In both of them I realized how much we, Biblical and religious scholars in the Global South, are missing by not being able to attend these meetings. The opportunity to have personal conversations with the leading scholars of various fields, to be part of a body of scholars who share their most recent researches, and to put yourself on the spot to be criticized on your own research, are essential practices for the development of our scholarship, especially for those like me who are novice in the field. I understand the logistic challenge, but I would really hope that these societies, in partnership with different institutions, would make it easier for us to be part of the academic world.

One way I found to bridge this gap is to get in contact with some scholars by email and exchange some research interests and views. I am experiencing quite an openness from these scholars and I feel like this is a limited but effective way to supply some network of scholarship for my academic needs. The Facebook group Biblical Research Collective has also been an important tool for me to find a community of scholars that are willing to help less privileged students and academics to find articles and book chapters for their research. This group, however, has not yet found its potential as a means for its members to share researches and receive feedback from others. This would be especially helpful if more experienced scholars would interact with novices, students or otherwise, who are trying to get their first article published or some other academic submission. If there would be more experienced scholars who are willing to bridge the gap, I would encourage them to also find those novices and be open to help them with their research in different ways, especially by reading and commenting on their material.

What’s the general state of theological training for Brazilian pastors?

This is a difficult question because Brazilian evangelicalism is a complex phenomenon. I could actually say that the majority of Brazilian pastors are not theologically trained at all. The reason for that is that the majority of Brazilian evangelical churches are independent small Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal churches in the periphery of the big urban centers or on the far inland places (even when they carry the name of a Pentecostal denomination, it is hardly the case that they are really part of it). In these cases, theological training is not a criterion. Much more important is the sense of calling, a charismatic personality that attracts other people, and a story of strong devotion and, many times, of personal transformation. I am not making any value judgment here, just trying to report how things actually are. In confessional institutions, like the historical denominations or in the Assembly of God, theological training for pastors is required and almost exclusively occurs in seminaries of their own denominations. Confessional seminaries in Brazil cannot be compared to academic institutions. With some rare exceptions, most of their faculty is formed by pastors with no graduate studies.

Tell us why you decided to do your master’s degree in Europe and what unique challenges did you face as someone coming from Brazil?

Because of my missionary engagement, I never aspired to become an actual academic in the sense of pursuing a PhD and finding a position in academia. Nevertheless, I wanted to acquire all skills necessary to do a first class research so that I could make contributions to academic studies. I decided, then, that I needed to experience how research is done at a top ranked institution. Although at the time I was already decided to research on the field of cultic rituals in the OT, I did not look for institutions where I could find specialists in this field.

My wife being Dutch, it only made sense that I would check the qualifications of Dutch institutions, because it would make this huge move less complicated. I found in the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Free University of Amsterdam) the academic environment I would like to experience. Mine was not the typical international student experience, then. Many of the struggles were eliminated, because life is easier in the Netherlands if you are Dutch. Housing, health insurance, transportation, etc., were not so difficult for me. From talking to other students, however, I know that the VU Amsterdam provides lots of help in these matters. It is also important to mention that I was fortunate enough to be granted full scholarship and even received an extra scholarship for diverse costs from the Dutch Government.

Concerning the culture, my experience was also not usual, because I have been to the Netherlands several times before, and, well, I am married to someone from there. So, I even knew enough Dutch to go to the supermarket and deal with some short and simple conversations. The Netherlands, however, is very friendly for English speakers. If I need to include some challenges here, I must say a couple of things.

First, the weather. I hated the long Dutch winter with mild temperatures, grey skies and rain, rain and more rain. Second, after more time there, I could not enjoy the cold and distant way Dutch people relate, even at churches. So, I missed greeting people with some warm hugs and light conversations. Third, I got really stressed, at the beginning, with the clock-oriented culture that permeates Dutch society. I am thinking especially about the trains and how people are running on stations to catch them on time. Fourth, coming from an evangelical seminary, it was a hard adjustment to a big institution like the VU Amsterdam, with its many buildings, bureaucracy, protocols, etc. At the beginning it was hard to find my way through the building and through the digital system with the program’s information and the interface for the classes (Blackboard and Canvas). Fifth, I had never experienced the high demands imposed by the program, so it was quite stressful, especially to write papers for the classes in such a short time.

What would your advice be to someone in a position similar to yours? Where would you recommend they do their education? And what do you hope education will look like in Brazil in 10, 20 or 30 years’ times?

My experience, as I mentioned, was quite different from the common international student. However, I would highly recommend evangelicals from Brazil and from other parts of the Global South to pursue their higher education at a top-ranked institution, be it in Europe or somewhere else. At least at the VU Amsterdam, international students are given all the support they need to find their way in the country and in their specific study program. I believe this is true of many other American, European and British institutions as well. But, more importantly, I recommend these students to return to their native country or another country where higher theological education is scarce or deficient in the evangelical context. Although it is important to acquire the most advanced research skills, I would say that theological questions are much more fertile outside the academic environment. Therefore, go back, immerse yourself in the tough reality of your country, and use your new acquired skills to provoke your theological inquiries.

I can name some dozen Brazilians about my age who did their graduate studies in Europe or America in top ranked institutions. Many of them returned to Brazil, so I have some hope that theological education here will improve significantly. More than individuals, however, I expect that this new generation of trained scholars will be able to do two things: create a community of evangelical Biblical scholars and theologians, and make their way into the existent institutions and associations that are now almost entirely composed by scholars from Catholic institutions. Both of these are important for the development of a good theological education in Brazil. This is not only true for Brazilian evangelicalism, but also in general.

What do you hope to do with your degree?

Although a PhD is not yet in my plans, I am more open to this idea than I was before I entered my Master’s program. It might be that I can work out some of my research ideas to actually pursue a PhD. But I am not willing to go for a huge move again, especially because of family matters. I know the VU Amsterdam offers an interesting possibility for PhD students, which does not require their staying in the Netherlands, and I believe the University of Aberdeen also offers a similar option. But, as I mentioned before, the most important result I expected from my degree was to acquire the needed skills to do my own researches. My hope is to make contributions in three areas: academia, theological training in Brazil and church missions.

Thanks, Caio!

1 comment

  1. Is pretty nice to see a guy from my city doing this things. Brazil really needs more high qualify institutions that teach theology.
    There are good universities but pretty expensive. Mackenzie is one of them, i cannot pay for that haha.My escape was a theology course in my church, Just basic stuff, but pretty good.
    Martin Bucer Seminary,Charles Haddon spurgeon School(awesome Free course in greek in youtube) and others institutions are becaming our source to learning theology, but i see that without knowlodge of english is Impossible to learning stuff in high quality for Free.