For those who are generally curious about the global development of Christianity, this book offers a formidable introduction to the Latin American Church and serves as a substantive reference resource for introductory undergraduate and graduate courses. Joel Cruz understands that the Latin American context is rich and complex and he is therefore clear that the goal of the project is to build a survey-style trajectory of key moments in the development of Christianity in Latin America from the pre-Columbian era through the contemporary period. Cruz states that the motivation for taking on the task at all is because “church history texts that begin in Palestine, travel through Europe and then culminate in the United States in a thinly disguised form of Manifest Destiny are no longer acceptable in the college or graduate classroom.” (ix)
What Cruz achieves is a survey of the Latin American Church that first, does a fine job of outlining the main currents in the wide variety of contexts and religious expressions in Latin America; second, provides an English-language historical reference work accessible to U.S. audiences; and thirdly, illustrates how the development of the church in Latin America is tied to global events, both religious and secular. A Lutheran (ELCA) religious scholar, Cruz lends equal attention to the significance of, not only Roman Catholicism but also Protestant, Pentecostal, Amerindian, and African religious traditions that are also threads in the rich tapestry that is the Latin American Church.
In a field of study that can be contentious about how terms are used, Cruz makes clear that for this project, Latin America and Latin American will not be defined by geographic or linguistic categories. Rather, he opts for a historical/cultural category that is centered around the shared experience of Iberian encounter in the fifteenth century, thus making room for Amerindian and African influences and modern-day expansion through migration.
The volume is divided into three parts. Part one briefly surveys the political, religious, economic, and social history of the region and provides introductions to the biblical translations used and principal theologies and religious traditions surveyed. Spanning 500 pages, part two offers an in-depth country-by-country exploration of twenty Latin American countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, Venezuela) as well as an exploration of the Latino church in the United States. The country-by-country analysis is organized under the categories of: demographics, timeline, relations between church and state, a list of autonomous churches, major religious festivals, popular devotions, a list of saints and blessed, and biographies of key actors. The third part consists of the appendices, which point readers to resources for further study. The volume includes six illustrations and twenty-two maps as well as helpful timeline charts of key dates, events, and people.
The publisher, Fortress Press, also offers an abridged version of the project under a separate title, A Brief Introduction, which includes part one of the larger work, a list of denominational websites for the twenty countries as well as a bibliographic resource divided by historical period.
To state the obvious, a project of this scope is monumental and with the ever-growing knowledge we gain about the region (through increasing engagement with scholars native to these lands and experiences), it would be difficult to say that any book bearing this title could ever be a comprehensive resource on the subject. The demographic categories of race and ethnicity due to mulatez and mestizaje, so central to the complexities of Latin American religious identity, usefully could have been treated more thoroughly. There is also no mention of how the popular literature and art of these lands contributes to the identity of the church as they were among the spaces that were available for theological reflection for lay members of society. Interested readers will find more focused engagement in the social, political, and religious intersections of the Christian movement in Latin America in the work of Justo and Ondina González (2007) and Hans-Jürgen Prien (2013). Nevertheless, the value that Cruz’s work provides as a comprehensive reference work well surpasses these omissions.
Southern Methodist University