The Expectation of the Poor—Latin American Basic Ecclesial Communities in Protestant Perspective, by Guillermo Cook (Orbis, 1985, 316 pp.; $13.95, paper). Reviewed by Alice-Catherine Carls, assistant professor of political science, Lambuth College, Jackson, Tennessee.

Protestant theologian René Padilla defines basic ecclesial communities (CEBS) as “small groups of poor and oppressed Christians who seek to understand and to respond to their concrete problems in the light of Scripture.”

CEBS were born in the wake of Vatican II and the 1968 Medellín Conference of Latin American Catholic bishops that focused church attention on social concerns. Although an ideological elite tied to the liberation theology movement helped to start some CEBS, most began as biblical circles, following the strong pietist tradition brought by the first Protestant churches in Brazil, says Guillermo Cook in The Expectation of the Poor.

Because of an endemic shortage of priests, CEBS have been multiplying rapidly among the rural campesinos and the residents of the urban slums of Latin America, especially in Brazil. Today there are an estimated half-million CEBS, averaging 30 members in each.

Involved in everything from holding political discussions to building roads, wells, and hospitals, CEBS challenge the traditional conception of Christian life. They go beyond traditional Bible studies and affirm the desire of the people to participate in the life of the church, to live out their faith in everyday life, and to create a new sense of solidarity among their members.

Tame Liberation Theology

On April 5, a chapter in the controversy about the role of Marxist ideology in Latin American Christians’ struggle against poverty and oppression came to a close when the Vatican released a document entitled Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation. The document has been perceived by some as the doctrinal stamp of approval on a “tame” brand of liberation theology. Cook, general director of the Latin American Evangelical Center for Pastoral Studies in Costa Rica, substantiates the claim that fears of an overpoliticized Latin American Catholic church (and in particular the Brazilian church) have been greatly exaggerated.

Cook, who holds the Ph.D. in intercultural studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, distinguishes between grassroots Christians and “pastoral theologians”—liberation theologians who work daily within religious communities. He argues convincingly that “authentic” liberation practiced by CEB Christians has little to do with “pastoral theology” and very much corresponds to the definition agreeable to Vatican authorities.

Faith, not ideology, is the dynamic force behind social change for CEB Christians, since only faith cleanses the “old man” of sin, and stops the spiral of oppression and violence. Such an attitude results in the daily practice of faith and works—reconciled, not pitted against one another as so often happens in First World Christian doctrine.

Protestant Perspective

Cook, who is also a church-growth consultant to the Brazilian Baptist Convention, speaks from a Protestant perspective. He reviews early Protestant grassroots communities both in Europe and the Americas. His comprehensive case studies and rigorous analysis enable him to answer essential questions regarding the challenges posed by today’s religious renewal in Brazil.

From among these challenges, two emerge as central: First, while the CEBS place too much emphasis on man’s sin against man, says Cook, they remind us that it is vitally important to recognize this aspect of sin beside our sins against God. Second, unlike the traditional view of conversion as a one-time illumination and turning-away-from, the CEBS define conversion as an ongoing process.

From these two tenets emerges the notion that the CEBS’ emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit and its real presence in daily actions could be and should be the living link between doctrinal orthodoxy and renewal.

The Expectation of the Poor suffers from an overdose of meticulousness and compartmentalization. Repetition impedes the progress of the argument. Guillermo Cook has written a scholarly book that will be difficult reading for those without prior knowledge of liberation theology. Yet such a book needs to be read widely, for we First World Christians need to understand these decisive developments in the Christian world.

Book Briefs

And Then There Were Three: An Ode to Parenthood, Sara Wenger Shenk, (Herald, 1985, 224 pp.; $8.95, paper).

“Liberation through diapers” would be far too glib a summary for this thoughtful and often lyrical testimony to parenting, marriage, and the proper place of professional pursuits. Yet author Shenk found liberation—and spiritual maturity—through the endless and humble parental chores she once viewed with suspicion.

Hardly a format for “glamour Christianity,” motherhood became a steppingstone to increased faith for this erstwhile secular feminist. As a “world citizen” (she spent half her life in Africa and Eastern Europe) and a beginning professional, Shenk believed that “self-sufficiency and intellectual prowess” identified the liberated woman. After her son’s birth, she slowly came to realize that career development did not “equal or produce” liberation; that came only with an “unparalleled relationship” with Christ that grew daily through the mutual servanthood of husband and wife to one another, and together to their children.

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Nurtured on radical feminism and beckoned by academic success, she found nursing a colicky baby through the night in a tiny apartment in Yugoslavia antithetical to her dreams. Yet the magic of motherhood grew, and she determined to experience the fullness of every moment instead of yearning for professional pursuits—even though her marriage was as “precarious as a high wire act.”

And Then There Were Three is not a how-to book for ordering the Christian home. Instead, it urges self-discovery through honesty, acceptance of God, ministry to others, and above all the emergence of “tenderness … and person-centered sensitivity” as a feminist model—rather than “power and dominance.”

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