Book Review: Christianity in Latin America

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Christianity in Latin America, A History by Ondina E. González and Justo L. González. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 331 pages. $23.99/$80.00 (paper/hardback)

Tackling the difficult task of encapsulating over five hundred years of religious history in a geographic area of over seven million square miles is quite daunting, especially given the space limitation of three hundred pages of text.  However, Ondina and Justo González provide a good general overview of the history of Christianity in Latin America in their new book.  The authors use a thematic approach to trace the colonial and post-colonial periods in Latin America.  They provide readers with a sense of the transformation that took place as different groups assumed (and often fought for) control across this immense and rich region.  They write in an accessible style, allowing for a fairly wide ranging appeal.  This book will be most useful for undergraduate courses or general readers with interest in Christianity in Latin America.

Over the course of the eleven chapters, González and González write about the different phenomenon of outsiders bringing various ideas to Latin America, but in so doing, Latin Americans adopt, adapt, and take ownership of new concepts arriving on their shores.  After a brief contextual setup outlining the indigenous religious layout before the arrival of colonizing countries, Christianity in Latin America addresses the impact of Roman Catholic Europeans, and the authors make the interesting observation that the New World had a significant impact on Catholicism.  The relationship between the Old World and the New World was reciprocal.  As the various Latin American countries began to gain independence, the landscape appeared homogenously Catholic, but autochthonous (indigenous) movements never disappeared.  Latin America also experienced a steady influx of Protestant groups beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing to the present.

Despite Protestant immigration and evangelization, the Catholic Church remained the dominant religious group throughout the region.  Its prominence made the impact of Vatican II particularly noticeable in Latin America, and it gave birth to one of the most significant schools of thought in the twentieth century: liberation theology.  González and González do an excellent job of placing liberation theology within the broader context of Latin American Christian history.  Even though liberation theology is responsible for bringing many Latin American theologians into fame in North America and Europe, the authors illustrate the breadth of history that preceded the birth of liberation theology.  They also represent the significant Pentecostal movement and growth in Latin America during the latter twentieth century.

While reading the book, I often wished the authors had provided more footnotes or references.  However, González and González explain this omission in the Preface.  They chose to eliminate what they perceived would be an over-burdensome number of citations if they supported every statement, yet even with their thorough bibliography, readers who wish to learn more about a particular topic might find tracking down more detailed, thorough resources frustrating.  Setting this minor criticism aside, González and González summarize the depth and complexity of Latin American Christian history in a single, digestible volume.  Christianity in Latin America is a fast-paced book that will help illuminate an area of Christian history that might be ignored by many people because the field of study is too vast or daunting.  If some people previously believed the history of Christianity in Latin America was monolithic, involving mostly Roman Catholicism, the authors remedy this oversimplification by representing all of Christianity in Latin America.

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