I. Thesis Statement
Justo González’s previous work of Historia del Cristianismo (1st ed. 1978, 2nd ed.. 1994) has been the seminary textbook for Latin America seminary students’ church history class, a considerable part of that book has been dedicated to the local development of Christianity in Latin America throughout the colonial encounter to its present era. Now for English readers Christianity in Latin America: A History, coauthored by the same writer and his niece Ondina González, visiting professor of Agnes Scott College and Emory University and an independent scholar, has become an indispensable companion to have a panoramic view of the heterogeneous natures of Christian faith presented in the Hispanic continent. According to the authors’ view as historians, the arrival of Christianity did not only coerce and exploit but also refashioned and enriched the land of Latin America (p.i). Likewise, Christianity identity and practices have also been challenged and changed to a great extent as they sought contextualization across the Atlantic, manifested above all in the flourish of liberation theology and Pentecostalism. Now through its immigration and global communication, it has been the first time for centuries that this influence is world-widely seen.
II. Chapter Summary
For historical reasons, a great part of the book is spent recounting the conquest and fall of the Roman Catholic Church. Following a roughly chronological order, the first chapter commences with an overview of the pre-Columbian Aztecs, Mayas and the Incas, as well as history of the medieval Iberia Peninsula. While the united Spanish monarchs enabled its expansion oversea, the high religiosity of the pre-Columbian civilization led the indigenous people think of this encounter in terms of destined doom. Chapters 2-5 address the efforts of conversion after the conquest of the new continent. The Spanish crown has exerted paternalistic control over religious matters in the new conquered land. The significant presence of its officials and conquistadors assured the king more power than the pope in the shaping of Catholic faith on their colonies. As is exemplified in the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, when the Europe itself was going through the Reformation, recalcitrant prelates and clergymen were simply replaced with those more amenable to the protestant Bourbons’ wishes. However, it has been proved that neither the king nor the pope could prevent the Christian faith in Latin America from taking its local roots. Outside the institutional church, there were folk version and syncretism of Catholic faith that are commonly known as « popular religiosity » in the Latin America. On the other hand, it would be hard for the Christian conscience of those missionaries/prelates who outreached to the oppressed and impoverished to keep tolerating the atrocities of colonialist exploitation. Their resistance, taking forms in theological reflection and social action, has midwived the independent movement of Hispanic colonies, hence the rise of liberal governments in the 19th century. Chapter 6 depicts various collective endeavors in search for relevance of Christianity to the new era, as the increasingly secularized societies eventually decentralized the institutional church and move it from master to servant (1930-1960).
(Venezuela’s President Chavez Tells Pope to Apologize to Indigenous Peoples)
Chapters 7-8 are specifically dedicated to the historical expansion of Protestantism in Latin America through missionaries and immigrants, who had initially been welcomed by the liberal government to facilitate its progressivism agenda in the 19th century. Unfortunately, the denominational protestant churches that had entered the continent and grown under the auspices of such liberalism soon lost their uniqueness and niche, as the 20th century Latin America sees much of itself both in the rise of autochthonous Pentecostalism and in the growth of the culturally re-meshed post-Medellin/Vatican RCC. These become respective the theme of topic in ch.10 and ch.9. In addition, the authors have made a special note here on liberation theology and recognize its global impact as resulted from a genuine theological reflection of the situation. The concluding chapter of 11 reminds us again about the dialectical relationships and tensions within and between each of these movements despite their share in the broad designation of « Christianity » and despite other common clues this book as an introductory survey has attempted to generalize.
Reading this book has been a sharp learning experience. The authors have organized their materials very well, given its vast attempted coverage in time and geography. Despite very occasional typos and foreign phraseologies, from this book English reader will definitely benefit a lot by gleaning insight of historical facts of Latin American church. It makes much more sense to me now as to why the independent Chinese churches tend to be so disconnected with each other, and as to how the contextualizing work should keep being done in the future. So far we have not seen a Christianity in China: A History or any of its equivalents written in English on the book market, and I anticipate the positive impact of Gonzalez & Gonzalez’s work should provide incentive and model for such a significant project.
IV. A Reflection Based upon Other Course Material
In the end of The Next Christendom, Dr. Philip Jenkins expressed his concerns about the rapid expansion of Christianity in the southern hemisphere that would lead to mega-scale conflicts between the north and the south or of Christians against Muslims. Gonzalez & Gonzalez’s book address the former concern by noticing « the flattening world » formed by the growth of mutual immigration across continents and global economy, as well as, more specifically, the indebtedness found in the situational aspects of contemporary ecclesial reflections to liberation theology. Just like the authors put in the wrap-up paragraph of this book, the history of Latin American Christianity, « which until recently may have been an appendix or a marginal note to the history of Christianity », now has been inextricably intertwined into that history and deserves study by whoever is going to understand his/her Christianity identity (310).