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Book reviews >

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Calvin Smith considers the social and political aspects of liberation theology

The History and Politics of Latin American Theology
Mario Aguilar

Volume One (978-0-334-04023-1)
Volume Two (978-0-334-04160-3)
SCM Press £22.99 each
Church Times Bookshop £22.70 each

AS THE title suggests, this series (a third volume was published last week) explores the interaction between theology and politics in Latin America. Specifically, Mario Aguilar is concerned with liberation theology and its offspring, in a continent that spawned the movement in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

Divided into three parts, these books explore liberation theology within an ecclesial context; the rise, and expressions of, liberationism in reaction to specific challenges and contexts; and responses to contemporary issues. Well-known figures, including Gustavo Gutierrez, Jose Miguez Bonino, Leonardo Boff, and Oscar Romero, are discussed, together with younger theologians in the field. For all, a useful biography, and an analysis of their religio-political contribution, are included.

Aguilar’s differentiation between first and later generations of liberation theologians is nuanced and useful. Yet his survey of the various strands of liberation theology, whereby younger (and some older) theologians have sometimes moved away from the movement’s original focus, highlights the way in which the liberation-theology edifice has broadened substantially to encompass almost any Leftist cause that is not strictly liberationist.

There is no doubt that the milieu in which liberation theology emerged has changed considerably; but, as one reads Aguilar’s account of efforts to engage with new challenges, it is clear that the movement has lost some of its coherence.

These books offer a thoughtful and authoritative treatment of current trends within intellectual liberationist thought. Problematically, though, Aguilar argues that the explosive growth of Pentecostalism does not “set the appropriate context for a theology that narrates God’s work among Latin Americans”. Aguilar believes Pentecostalism to be excessively individualist, explaining why the movement favours (and is favoured by) Latin American military regimes.

In fact, such unsophisticated stereotyping ignores the way in which, for example, grass-roots Chilean Pentecostals (unlike their leaders) supported Allende; and the fact that a significant minority of Nicaragua’s Pentecostals backed the Sandinista project. Moreover, contrary to the view that Pentecostalism lacks substantial political impact, the reality is that its massive growth across Latin America is having a seismic societal effect. As a result, the countless scholarly studies over the past two decades dwarf the literature exploring liberation theology.

Aguilar does include a chapter on Pentecostalism in Volume Three, but this is insufficient, given its far-reaching political impact, and the Roman Catholic Church’s despair concerning its success. Clearly, because Latin American Pentecostalism lacks a theological intelligentsia, Aguilar believes it can have no significant social or political impact.

This focus on intellectualism at the expense of the grass-roots is not only élitist: it is profoundly uncollectivist — which is ironic, given Aguilar’s unashamed Leftist leanings. Clearly, he does not recognise the implicit political impact of Pentecostalism, which has now reached seismic proportions in Latin America.

None the less, this series remains valuable. It is doubtful whether liberation theology will ever reach the dizzy heights of several decades ago; and Pentecostalism has proved far more adept at mobilising the poorest classes in Latin America. But, given the continent’s quiet but firm shift to the Left throughout the Bush era, Aguilar’s survey of liberationist intellectual thought offers an insightful analysis of a religio-political movement that is enjoying something of a renaissance. As such, this is an important resource for students of liberation theology.

Dr Calvin Smith is Course Director and Lecturer in Theology at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School, and editor of Evangelical Review of Society and Politics.

To order either volume, email the details to Church Times Bookshop (please mention "Church Times Bookshop Price")

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