The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity by Todd Hartch

Christianity is on the rise in Latin America, Africa and Asia, and in decline in Europe and North America (pp. XIII-XIV, 1). But what form of Christianity has emerged in Latin America and what has shaped it during the past 60 years? Answering these questions is the mission of Todd Hartch’s book. Hartch believes that Latin American Christianity has been reborn during the last six decades and as a result Christianity in Latin countries is vastly different from the 1950s and before. There have been five forces behind this rebirth:

This book argues that Christianity in Latin American was reborn in five ways reminiscent of the vital church of the early colonial period: (1) as a movement of witnesses and evangelists, (2) as a prophetic movement committed to the poor and the oppressed, (3) as a Pentecostal movement oriented toward spiritual and emotional religious experience, (4) as a lay movement, and (5) as a universal religion. Each of these areas is treated in two chapters that examine the issue first in general terms and then in more specific examples (p. 18).

The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity is an excellent historical and analytical work with a minimum of authoritarian evaluation and comment. It connects many dots, is well researched and explains in detail the many moving parts of Latin Christianity. I do think, however, that some of the five ways that Latin American Christianity has been reborn could be more clearly named.

  • What Hartch calls “witnesses and evangelists” is the invasion of Protestantism and the changing of Catholicism in response (which is in the subtitles of chapters one and two). Prior to 1950, Protestantism was a small faction of Latin countries and Catholicism took the form of “folk” religion (pp. 7-8, chapters nine and ten) which blended official dogma with local paganism, so that Catholicism little resembled the church of Rome. While folk Catholicism (what Hartch calls “sandwich religion,” p. 177) still exists in Latin countries, the Catholic Church today is considerably more in line with Rome than in the past. Protestantism and Catholicism have inadvertently spurred one another to change and growth (pp. 3, 18, 48, 56, 168, 210).
  • The prophetic movement of chapter three and four would be better titled the “Rise and Influence of Liberation Theology” (see also pp. 4, 18, 37, 45, 133-137, 153-161, 184-185, 193-196). The leadership of Gustavo Gutierrez (the recignized father of Liberation Theology) is documented (pp. 63, 66-68, 71-72, 88, 153, 194-196) as is the supporting role played by Vatican II (pp. 14-15) and to some degree the Lausanne Conference (pp. 71-72), among other things. In recent times this has led the growing movement toward the social gospel among evangelicals who now are regurgitating much of the rhetoric of the founders of Liberation Theology.
  • The Pentecostal movement (chapters five and six) is well named. Both Protestantism (chapter five) and Catholicism (chapter six) have been radically changed by the insurgence of Pentecostal doctrine and practice, some of which are radical to the extreme. Neo-Pentecostalism, or the prosperity gospel, has become widely popular and is doing much damage (pp. 54, 102-112, 220). Catholic Pentecostalism adds the worship (they would say veneration) of Mary (pp. 114, 123-125). Exhibit “A” among Neo-Pentecostalism in Latin America is the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God which began in Brazil in 1977 and has spread around the world (pp. 102-103, 187-193, 205).
  • Chapters seven and eight are well titled “Rise of the Laity.” The vast changes in Latin American Christianity are largely the result of a lay movement, spreading from the grassroots rather than from the top down. It is true that Protestant and Catholic missionaries laid the foundation but most of the building has been done by the native people.
  • The final section, titled “Universal Christianity” (chapters eight and nine), is about the standardization of Latin American Christianity. That is, it has become less a “folk religion” and more “a religion for all people, everywhere, containing truths and ethical standards applicable to all human beings” (p. 167). Included in these chapters are three particularly disturbing movements. On the Protestant side is the expansion of Brazil’s Universal Church (pp. 189-193). On the Catholic side is the spread of the cult of the Lady of Guadalupe, the dark skinned virgin Mary who supposedly first appeared in Mexico in 1531 (pp. 196-201). And common to both is the influence of Liberation Theology (pp. 193-196). These three forces: radical neo-Pentecostalism, the growing cult of Mary, and Liberation Theology have not only shaped much of Latin America’s Christianity but are continuing to change it today.

Everyone involved in ministry in Latin American countries or to Latinos in other countries should read and study this book. It is also helpful in understanding some of the related influences in American and Western Evangelicalism. Highly recommended.

The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity by Todd Hartch (Oxford University Press: 2014)264 pp., $19.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher Southern View Chapel

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