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Taking Superstition Seriously

(Fom "First Things," Nov. 97 and is reprinted with permission).

Spontaneous combustion" is the term used to describe the growth of "autochthonous" Protestant churches in Latin America. These are groups that are radically indigenous, having no connection with evangelical missionary efforts from North America or elsewhere. Writing in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, two veteran observers report: "Latin American Protestants traditionally, have been accused of subverting Latin America's unity by introducing religious forms that run counter to Latin culture. Traditional Protestants may well stand accused of such foreignness. But the autochthonous churches — with their rhythms, charismatic leaders, passion, personal sacrifice, and openness to the miraculous — are not only highly contextualized but, according to some, may be more attuned to the region's culture than traditional Roman Catholicism." While "enculturation" is much discussed by Roman Catholics, the authors suggest that these new movements may be taking the lead.

"In recent years, Catholic folk religion — religiosidad popular ("popular religiosity," as it is known in Latin America) — has received much attention and analysis. Far from the lofty philosophical and theological heights of official Catholicism, and equally far from the politically radical views of liberation theology, the down-to-earth practice of Latin America's masses revolves around tangible practices and objects such as pilgrimages to shrines, religious fiestas, water from sacred springs, and objects with curative powers. Some look with disdain upon this popular religion. Others countenance religiosidad popular and hold in prospect the possibility of building upon it, to lift the masses to a higher and more spiritual faith.

"It has not escaped the attention of many that Latin America's autochthonous Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on cures and material blessings, may be a Protestant equivalent of Catholic popular religiosity. Observers share the same contrasting perspectives, disdain or appreciation. Some see only the crude manifestations of Protestant 'popular religiosity'; others, thanking God that the masses are being reached, anticipate a growing maturity in these movements.

"The charges that Protestant autochthonous movements are susceptible to syncretistic influence is countered by some autochthonous leaders who draw attention to syncretistic 'Romish' influences in the historic Protestant churches. Such leaders also point out that historic churches in Latin America pay little attention to the demonic and may easily overlook the persistent superstitious or even occult practices of their members. Autochthonous groups, in contrast, recognize the existence of the spirit world and demand that new converts renounce all non-Christian practices."

It may be the case, we are told, that not all Christians must go through what Marx called, the fiery brook" of Feuerbach's Enlightenment, the deconstruction of religion. "The real issue is whether mission-related churches can understand and adopt the best of a pre-Enlightenment world view, that is common to the masses in Latin America. This is a view that is open to the miraculous, to God's intervention in daily experience, to biblical confrontation with the demonic, and to a focus in worship that emphasizes reveling in God's presence, rather than passive participation in a cerebrally oriented service." The relationship between Catholics and non-Catholic movements in Latin America is very much on the agenda of the initiative known as "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." And, one may hope, it will be very much on the agenda of the forthcoming Roman synod for America (meaning both North and South) that begins in November.

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