Reason to Believe: Cultural Agency in Latin American Evangelicalism

by David Smilde

Based on three years of participant observation and interviews, Smilde explores the reasons why some men in Latin American convert to evangelicalism and others don’t given similar backgrounds and opportunities to hear the gospel.

University of California Press, 2120 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94704, 2007, 262 pages, $21.95.

Reviewed by Jack Lilley, associate pastor for Latino ministry, First Presbyterian Church, Marengo, Illinois.

Jorge lived in a Caracas barrio. He used and sold drugs, and he robbed people to support his family and his habit — until he became an evangelical. Five years later, he made a living selling cleaning products and was active in his church. Aurelio also lived in a Caracas barrio, estranged from his partner and plagued by gambling. Although he had sufficient opportunity to convert to evangelicalism, he never did. Why did Jorge convert, but Aurelio did not?

This is one of the principal questions that David Smilde answers in Reason to Believe. He bases his answer on three years of participant observation and life history interviews with evangelical and non-evangelical men from Caracas barrios. He started with the assumption that people converted for religious reasons; however, his research soon convinced him otherwise. Jorge and others like him had converted to evangelicalism with the conscious intention of personal or family reform—to defeat substance abuse, resolve conjugal conflict, cope with crime and violence or address issues of unemployment. Smilde says that Pentecostal evangelicals in Caracas barrios conceptualize daily problems of survival in such a way that they can overcome them or minimize their negative effects. He calls this imaginative rationality.

Imaginative rationality may explain the case of Jorge. But what about Aurelio? He had an equal need to overcome life problems, and evangelicalism’s conceptual structure might have helped him, too. Yet he didn’t convert. Smilde’s answer is that conversion does not only depend on need or desire. It also depends on relational imagination. Caracas men convert to evangelicalism when they have evangelical family members who inspire them to seek change, and when their own ties to a Catholic family are weakened by physical separation or conflict. On the other hand, when men live with non-evangelical family members who provide social and cultural support during times of trouble, they seldom convert to evangelicalism.

Smilde presents his conclusions in relation to theories of social change (e.g., neo-Marxist vs. neoconservative), meaning (e.g., dualism vs. pragmatism) and the study of religion. Specialists may judge his success. I found Smilde’s stories of struggle, conversion and survival on tough Caracas streets to be lively and compelling.

Check these titles:
Mariz, Cecilia. 1994. Coping with Poverty: Pentecostals and Christian Base Communities in Brazil. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press.

Martin, David. 1990. Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Miller, Daniel R., ed. 1994. Coming of Age: Protestantism in Contemporary Latin America. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.

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