Todd HARTCH The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity. New York. Oxford University Press, 2014; pp 278 Paper. ISBN 978019984138. Reviewed by Daniel H. LEVINE, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor MI 48109-1045
This book tells a story that is not new, but on the whole the author tells it well. It is no longer controversial to say that Christianity is well on its way to becoming a religion of the global south. This is where the numbers are growing, and this is where competition with other religions and among Christian churches themselves—for members, resources, and public position—is most prominent. The author centers attention on the sources of innovation and rebirth. He argues that the diffusion of Pentecostal ideas, practices and organizations has given new life and energy to religion, both Protestant and Catholic, as lived and experienced throughout the region. As Protestants cast off the control of foreign missionaries, they innovated and grew, and this spurred Catholic changes and voila, something new and dynamic emerges. The general phenomenon of charismatic Christianity is more important to the content and direction of change than distinctions between denominations
Following an opening chapter that covers 400 years in 18 pages, the author proceeds to his core story which concerns the spread of Pentecostal Protestantism, charismatic Catholicism, liberationist Christianity, and New Ecclesial Movements. (NEMs) in the region. He examines the “rise of the Catholic laity” as visible in the rise and fall of Catholic Action, and the emergence of base ecclesial communities and NEMS like Cursillos, Focolare, Opus Dei, and Sodalitium. Hartch is highly positive about the NEMS, although there is a nod to scandal and abuse in Sodalitium and Regnum Christi, the latter associated with the Legionnaires of Christ which is not mentioned by name. The author’s narrative is based for the most part on a limited selection of well known sources and cases like Brazil, Chile, Central America. These are livened up with vignettes of communities and individuals.
Hartch is enthusiastic about the growth of Pentecostals, noting that” there is very little doubt that Pentecostalism is the new mainstream” (124). As a general statement, this is at best premature. The trend lines are there, but closer analysis of the numbers is required before statements of this kind can be credited. Given the author’s stress on the dynamics of growth and change, one might have expected more systematic attention to the numbers, and careful quantitative analysis of patterns of growth over time. This would include evaluation of the quality of the numbers. But this is not done. Instead, Hartch provides a series of cases, sometimes with numbers and percentages attached but no critical look at these figures and absolutely no analysis that looks across cases. Serious quantitative analysis would strengthen the book considerably.
Hartch writes within the comparative religion tradition, with all its strengths and weaknesses. Strengths include rich detail, thorough knowledge of structures, groups and terminology, and a wealth of case material. Although it is not always clear on what basis particular cases are selected, the presentation is generally lively and interesting. The weaknesses of this tradition include a virtually total absence of systematic explanation. The author’s basic idea is either that (1) Protestant growth spurred Catholic change leading to transformations in both, or (2) that Protestant growth was stimulated by contexts of violence, or (3) that Protestant growth came as local leaders took over from foreign missionaries and local leadership spurred innovation leading to Catholic imitation…see (1).
There is a fourth possible explanation, implicit throughout, but not articulated until the closing chapters, and that is that the periphery bites back. Most of the cases and much of the dynamic documented by the author begins with innovation from outside established centers of church power, and from sources within Latin America. Once initiative passes to local agents, innovation and growth takes off. This is a useful insight but not sufficient to explain growth and innovation. Why should these changes have been successful now and not earlier, why here not there, why in these particular ways, why by these particular agents? To craft a convincing response, the author would have to do more searching theoretical and comparative analysis, but that is not his brief. He examines the surge of new ideas, but apart from a quick overview of new Catholic ideas (Vatican II, Medellin, Liberation Theology, Puebla, the “new evangelization”) and short mention of the Lausanne Covenant, there is little attention to why these ideas appealed to people in these particular ways and at these specific times and places in Latin America. Who articulated them, why did believers respond, how did they incorporate them into ordinary life? Consideration of questions like this, combined with sustained attention to quantitative data, would have made for a much more convincing and innovative book.
The concluding chapter takes the argument in a new direction. The author reviews the implications of his findings for the possible future of ecumenism and asks about the possibilities of freeing indigenous religious practice from “Hispanic captivity” with sustained efforts to translate the gospel into indigenous languages. He is optimistic on both fronts.