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What does Oprah have to do with theological education?

JonPahl2015By Jon Pahl, PhD

What does Oprah have to do with theological education?

If your answer to that question is “nothing”— think again. A small but dedicated group of students who enrolled in a January-term intensive course, “Faith, History, and Finance: The Spirituality of Business, and the Business of Spirituality,” studied how the history of markets challenges any easy division of matter from spirit or spirituality from commerce.

The course was supported by a grant from the Soli Foundation. It explored some of the ground I described as a “warfare” between business and religion in my Hagan Professorial lecture. This conflict didn’t develop in a vacuum, and efforts to end that warfare require both savvy and careful strategy at the intersection of faith and finance. Oprah, of course, is nothing if not both savvy and spiritual — as Kathryn Lofton’s book Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, one of the course texts, makes clear.

Oprah wasn’t the only case study. Martin Luther had a surprising amount of things to say about economics — as a recent conference in Washington DC on The Forgotten Luther: Advocate for the Poor tried to clarify. And American cultural history has been rich with people both exploiting, and critiquing, connections between commerce and religion.

For example, take holidays. Leigh Eric Schmidt’s book Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays, another of the course texts, documents in vivid detail how Christians in America contributed to, and resisted, the commercialization of Christmas and Easter.

Professor T.L. Hill of the Fox School of Business at Temple University, who specializes in social entrepreneurship and was instrumental in developing the MAPL program at LTSP, was co-teacher of the course. Several other guest speakers (and LTSP alumni) shared their expertise: Bishop Dwayne Royster of POWER, Pastor Tricia Neale of Feast of Justice, and the Rt. Rev. Judith Sullivan, Dean of the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral.

And students brought their own cases with them — from how to start an after-school program in connection with a congregation, to starting a new social enterprise to provide people of faith with alternatives to rapacious pay-day lending practices. Throughout, easy answers weren’t possible — as they aren’t at the tense intersection between faith, history, and finance.

Dr. Jon Pahl is Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor in the History of Christianity at LTSP.

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