Though not a theologian or religious scholar herself, Lilian Calles Barger’s previous two books—Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body (Brazos Press, 2003) and Chasing Sophia: Reclaiming the Lost Wisdom of Jesus (Jossey-Bass, 2007)—explore the intersections of women’s bodies and Christianity, and were both well-received. However, in this her latest project, Barger shines as a historian zooming out from the particular focus on women’s issues to engage what she calls a “cultural history of liberationist ideas,” articulating a historical account of the radical movements of Latin American, black, and feminist liberation theologies. (8) Detailing the socio-cultural landscape in which these ideas emerged, Barger embarks on a contextual quest, situating these theo-political movements among larger intellectual trends of the time. She emulates liberation theology itself by looking to the people who experienced and shaped the movement and the contexts in which they operated. Her avowed aim to focus on “affinities rather than on internal debates” comes as a welcome reprieve in our current divisive political climate. (10)
Composed of four parts, The World Come of Age is written clearly and compellingly, guiding the reader through the affinities between the three core movements within liberation theology, and focusing primarily on the tumultuous years spanning the 1960s and 1970s. In part one, Barger gives an overview of the complex and interlocking political and religious systems that caused the cultural crisis out of which liberation theology emerged. Diving into the contradiction between professed religious values, political notions of freedom, and the lived realities of Black, Latinx, and female bodies in the Americas, Barger finds the points of connection between them to show the overlapping concerns that bound liberation theology as a movement. Barger addresses the labyrinthine relationship between theology and politics, pointing out that at the center of the “crisis was a heightened awareness of religion’s role in perpetuating inequality.” (13) Part two offers a view of the hope found in the spiritual, economic, social, and political offerings made by liberation theologians. Barger here surveys the challenge to “absolute transcendence by locating salvation in the present and joining secularizing currents in post-war theology away from metaphysics to humanity as an agent of history creating its own future.” (71) Part three frames the social and practical ramifications presented by liberation theology. Invoking Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barger describes the reevaluation of Christianity’s ability to respond to the modern theo-political crisis. That she used his phrase the “world come of age” as the title for her project indicates Bonhoeffer’s importance to her. Barger motions towards the impact of his work to illuminate that “the modern situation required a reassessment: Instead of God being evoked at the boundaries of human knowledge and suffering, God, and thus theology, had to be situated in the warp and woof of life.” (142) Finally, part four and the epilogue address debates within the movement and their lasting impact. Of particular interest is how the author understands contemporary movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement and Occupy Wall Street as examples of how liberation theology’s ideological power continues to flourish through new voices.
Barger makes extraordinary use of both archival material and personal conversations with those at the center of these movements. In presenting a project that is enormously wide in scope, Barger aims to provide a “history of a theological transformation.” (5) If I have one caution to the reader, it is that Barger is not offering new theological insights, but rather a historical perspective of a theologically radical time. She risks exploring the internal debates and tensions within liberation theology in favor of examining its overall cohesion as a movement. Thus the book will be helpful to theologians who are interested in how liberationist theologies share a revolutionary history with other cultural and political movements of the period and how their overlapping sensibilities continue to reverberate today. The World Come of Age will benefit not only undergraduates and graduate students seeking an entry point into this theological and cultural history but also those studying the cross-pollinating influences of politics and religion in the Americas.
Graduate Theological Union