Todd Hartch - Rebirth of Latin American ChristianityIn recent years, the study of global Christianity has reshaped the way we conceive of not only the Christian religion, but the discipline of church history itself. It has provided the important corrective to view Christianity not as a Western religion but as a world religion. By exploring church history through a global lens, we have much to gain in how we think about the historical developments in Christianity.

Todd Hartch offers an insightful look at global Christianity in The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity (Oxford Studies in World Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2014; source: publisher) by focusing on the region of Latin America in the last sixty years. In this book, Hartch tells the ironic story of how Protestant activism from 1950–2010 made Latin America not only more Protestant than it had ever been but also more Catholic.

In short, while Protestants sought desperately to convert Latin Americans to a Protestant understanding of the gospel, their efforts inadvertently woke the sleeping Catholic giant. Catholicism, in turn, appropriated some of the very methods Protestants used to keep their people from leaving the Roman Catholic Church while also renewing the religion of vast swaths of nominal Catholics. Thus, Hartch explains, “Protestantism has not merely made the religious field more diverse and more competitive; it has also served as a catalyst for the revitalization of Catholicism” (18).

To step back, one of the helpful aspects of this volume is Hartch’s contrast between Latin America and the other two centers of rapid Christian growth in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: Africa and Asia. While the recent explosion of Christianity on these two continents can be described more as a new faith, Christianity has dominated the Latin American context for five centuries. Though one must not ignore the early forms of Christianity in north Africa and parts of Asia, the longer and recent continuity of Christian experience in Latin America most certainly differs from the African and Asian scenes. Thus Hartch describes the last sixty years in Latin American Christianity uniquely as a “rebirth.”

To probe this rebirth, Hartch organizes his monograph by five aspects of renewal, devoting two chapters to each theme. Readers can find much historical insight in Hartch’s treatment of all of these areas, more than I can mention in this review, but I’d like to touch on a few details.

First, he discusses the revival of evangelistic fervor in the region, first in Protestants and subsequently in Catholics. Strong missionary zeal led to the rapid rise of Protestantism in the second half of the twentieth century, and the arrival of Protestants caused a number of reactions. Many converted, while others staunchly rejected Protestantism and even violently lashed out against Protestant converts. Evangelists like Billy Graham and Luis Palau employed large-scale efforts but also connected their ministries with local churches. In fact, Protestant evangelism relied heavily on the work of indigenous Protestant action. In turn, Catholics realized that they could no longer assume Latin America was Catholic but had to evangelize actively themselves.

A second aspect of the rebirth was the call to prophetic witness in the face of a new political landscape in the region. While the Catholic Church had previously enjoyed a status of power with the state, beginning in the 1960s it gradually lost that power and instead sided with the poor, publicly criticizing new oppressive dictatorial states. Key developments in this regard included the CELAM (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano, Latin American Episcopal Council) conferences at Medellín in 1968 and Puebla in 1979, the development of liberation theology under the leadership of theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez, and Pope Paul VI’s synthesis that embraced the “preference for the poor” without validating the more radical elements of liberation theology. Interestingly, Protestants and Catholics achieved a “practical form of ecumenism” that united around the common cause of justice, an ecumenism that “proved far more common and successful than any theological dialogue” (82)—an important note, given Hartch’s concluding recommendations (see below).

The third aspect Hartch treats is the rise of Pentecostalism and its impact on Roman Catholicism. To give readers a sense of Pentecostalism’s importance, Hartch compares its rapid rise and the tremendous changes it has caused in society and religion worldwide to the Reformation—just as Philip Jenkins does in The Next Christendom (2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 8). Not only did Pentecostals radically change Latin American religion, Latin America played an important role in the global explosion of Pentecostalism, notably influencing the Toronto Blessing in 1994 and the Brownsville Assembly of God revival in Florida beginning in 1995.

Perhaps Pentecostalism’s most surprising impact was the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which Hartch speculates may be “even more significant than the rise of Pentecostalism”—it has even outgrown Pentecostalism in Latin America (113). While liberation theology lacked positive relations with the Vatican and spiritual experiences for the popular classes, Protestant Pentecostals offered a supernatural experience. But they were also alienated from the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal was most successful because it offered “both divine healing and the Virgin Mary” (125).

The fourth aspect of the Latin American Christianity’s rebirth is the rise of the laity. Lay Catholics became key movers and shakers in the renewal of Catholicism in Latin America through two institutions: CEBs (comunidades eclesiales de base, or base ecclesial communities) for the lower classes and NEMs (or new ecclesial movements) for the middle and upper classes. Both emphasized community and lay training, gave a sense of belonging, and turned ordinary people into active Catholics—reflecting Protestant approaches to church.

While the first four aspects emphasize changes that took place within Latin America, the fifth aspect highlights the way Latin America’s religious rebirth made an impact on Christianity worldwide. Hartch shows how Latin American Christians re-appropriated a universal vision of Christianity, one that pushed them outside of their parochial and local view of religion and connected them to the broader church around the globe. The two key agents in this renewal were the Protestant missionary movement, which had a universal view of the church, and the Vatican, which sought to save the Catholic Church from Protestant missions.

In thinking about the future of Latin American Christianity, Hartch argues that Christians need to address two areas: Catholic-Protestant dialogue and relations between indigenous and other Latin American Christians.

Hartch rightly places his finger on one of the key challenges facing Latin American Christianity: the relationship between Protestants and Catholics. As he reflects on the past sixty years, he recognizes enormous challenges facing these two groups, particularly in Latin America. Yet he also argues that the Protestant-Catholic rivalry was actually “mutually beneficial” (4). He further posits that Protestants and Catholics have already worked out their differences on the core doctrine that separated them in the sixteenth century—justification by faith—pointing to the Catholic-Lutheran “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (1997).

However, contrary to popular opinion, many Christians doubt that this document expresses “substantial agreement” between Lutherans and Catholics (219). See, for example, the First Things article by Paul McCain, a Lutheran, “A Betrayal of the Gospel: The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” Scott Manetsch also offers an incisive theological and historical analysis of the state of the conversation in “Is the Reformation Over? John Calvin, Roman Catholicism, and Contemporary Ecumenical Conversations.”

I suspect that Hartch’s optimism about Protestant-Catholic dialogue is more hopeful than the theological differences between Protestants and Catholics warrant. I fully agree with him that “religion is a genuine field of human action and decision making that has a life of its own” (209), yet I also think that theology more narrowly defined represents a genuine field of human action because it reflects the deep beliefs that drive people to do what they do. Thus for the conversation to move forward, theological differences must not be minimized, especially as they touch on what one perceives to be core doctrines of a group’s faith.

In his second recommendation, Hartch’s argues, convincingly, that Latin American mestizo Christians must not push their own language and culture on indigenous Christians. Instead, they must allow Christ and Christianity to speak in the indigenous languages and cultures of these believers, or else they will truncate the acceptance of the gospel.

Taken as a whole, Hartch laments that many today still fail to see how religion in Latin America has been so influential and transformative for the region—and also for the world, as it has exported its religious flavors globally. He hopes this volume can provide a corrective to this myopic view of the past sixty years. Hartch hits the nail on the head in this regard.

In fact, The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity offers an instructive, readable, and engaging synthesis of a wide body of primary and secondary materials. It constitutes not merely a synthesis, but a well-informed interpretation of how Latin American religion was reborn in the late twentieth century. As a piece of historical analysis, this volume shines.

While I am not a Latin American religion specialist, I found this book extremely helpful and informative in thinking about the history of global Christianity. We historians must continue specializing in our own subfields for the good of the historical guild and our students and readers, but we must not neglect the study of religious history outside our specialties. Hartch provides an excellent discussion of Latin American religion that I will use to inform how I teach modern global Christianity. Historians should look forward to more volumes in the Oxford Studies in World Christianity that are as illuminating as this one is about the nature of Christianity around the globe.


*Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.