To examine the figure of Christ in the context of twentieth-century Latin American culture is to enter into a fascinating world of poets, priests, novelists, insurgents, social prophets, heterodox missionaries, and political agitators.
It is a world of tensions between an Iberian form of Christianity inherited from colonization and an Anglo-Saxon form of Christianity that entered via liberals and Freemasons;
between the relics of African and indigenous religious practices dressed up in Christian forms, and the currents of a “Protestantized” Catholicism borne on the winds of the Second Vatican Council; between the red and black flags of the Catholic fundamentalism of the Argentinian military who invoked “King Christ” in their dirty war and the “Christ-Guevara” of Cuban theologians and zealous insurgents.
“Christianity is Christ” was a favorite phrase of the evangelical Protestant message in Latin America.
In contrast to a static and formal religiosity, Christ makes all things new, just as the apostle Paul says: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17). An encounter with Christ radically transforms both individuals and communities.
Christ is not just a word evoking a Galilean teacher; the name of Christ has power to change human beings here and now. Christ is the model of the new humanity, but also the redemptive power that enables that new humanity to be born.
Thanks to Jesus Christ, we can talk about a human history that makes sense, and his empty tomb sounds a note of hope allowing us to fully face the tragic dimension of the human condition.
This idea has been expressed emphatically by Argentinian Methodist bishop and poet Federico Pagura in his well-known tango “Tenemos esperanza” (We have hope):
Because he entered into the world and into history;
because he broke the silence and agony;
because he filled the earth with his glory;
because he was light in our cold night;
because he was born in a dark stable;
because he lived planting love and life;
because he broke hard hearts
and lifted up downtrodden souls.
This is why today we have hope;
this is why today we persist in our fight;
this is why today we look with confidence
to the future.
Sung in the style of Argentinian tangos, with the sounds and rhythm of an accordion accompanied by the guitar, double bass, piano, and violin, this tango exemplifies the incredible vitality of the memory of Jesus Christ, which in a continually fresh and renewed way, across an immense variety of cultures and languages, continues to inspire new generations of admirers and followers throughout all parts of the globe.
The vitality of Christian experience springs from the presence of Christ himself at the center of life. Likewise in theology, which is reflection on how our faith is lived out, vitality comes from Christ-centeredness.
In this form of theological thought, Jesus Christ is the central pivot around whose person and work we strive to articulate our understanding of the content of the faith.
Of course all theology called Christian should have Christ-centered aspects, in which reflection focuses specifically on the person of Christ—this dimension of theology is called Christology. However, a fully Christ-centered theology articulates all its parts and sections around the central fact of the faith: that of Jesus Christ.
In the history of Christian thought, theological reflection has approached Christ via several different paths. One of these is a Christology that concentrates on the development of dogmas after biblical times.
From the first century onward, Christians sought to summarize what they believed about Christ in phrases or brief declarations known as the creeds. The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds come from the first four centuries AD and are accepted by all the major branches of Christianity. Christology developed as a commentary on the great creeds recognized by Christianity throughout the centuries.
Some of the great systematic theologians worked to explain and apply these creeds and declarations of faith in different contexts. Meanwhile Christian teachers created catechisms in accessible language in order to communicate these dogmas to the faithful.
In the time of the Reformation certain important books written by the Reformers, such as Martin Luther, served as catechisms to convey Christian doctrine to illiterate believers or to children. And the great theological figure of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, framed his monumental work on dogmatics as a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed.
There is a brief work of Barth that follows the outline of his systematics. In the work of theologians across the centuries, Christology has taken on new forms depending on the different times and on the historical and cultural context in which the church has existed.
Another path is biblical theology, which studies the form in which the message of the New Testament developed. It concerns itself not so much with commentary on the classic creeds as with a return to the original documents, considering how the Gospels, the book of Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation represent the first believers’ progressive understanding of the person of Jesus, his work, and its meaning: the fact of Christ.
This process of conscientization, or growth in understanding, began in the Jewish context, where the person and actions of Jesus of Nazareth are interpreted in the light of the Old Testament. Later it passed to the Gentile world, in which the person of Jesus began to be understood against the background of first-century Greco-Roman culture and social reality.
The rich variety of christological thinking from the New Testament authors comes as pastoral and theological responses to questions raised by the missionary announcement of Jesus Christ along the routes that connected cultures and people groups in the Mediterranean world of the pax Romana.
As we can see, the paths of dogmatic and biblical theology are mostly turned inward, toward the interior of Christian communities.
We can follow a third path, however, which aims for a cultural analysis, starting from the conviction that Christian thought is the fruit of a missionary process by which the announcement of Jesus Christ crosses all types of barriers.
This could be considered a missiological approach. The paths I’ve summarized look inward and deal with faith as it is expressed and lived out at a specific time, in dialogue with the past. A missiological theology, on the other hand, pays special attention to the process of gospel transmission. The Gospels’ narration about Jesus, like the theological formulations in the Epistles and later systematic reflection, has had a powerful influence over the cultural manifestations of societies where the Christian faith found a certain degree of rootedness.
At the same time, Christian perceptions of the biblical text, including reflections now considered classics of the faith, have been influenced by the different cultures in which Christianity has been rooted. Christian influence on the development of visual, musical, and literary expression in Europe, for example, not only includes the refined manifestations of the elite, such as the paintings of famous Spanish painter El Greco and Bach’s music, but also can be seen in diverse expressions of popular culture, such as an array of Spanish proverbs, allegorical plays from the Middle Ages, and the Latin American use of sacred images.
Mural in Cochabamba (Bolivia) Catholic Catechetical Centre Cadeca
All of these reflect the widespread impact of the figure of Jesus Christ on Western society. On this third route, christological investigation involves analysis of the diverse cultural elements in which the footprints of Jesus Christ can be perceived.
Taken from In Search of Christ in Latin America by Samuel Escobar. Copyright (c) 2019 by Samuel Escobar. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com