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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Biblical Scholarship for the People? Considering LO POPULAR in Central American Biblical Studies

M. Daniel Carroll R.

It is quite a challenge to attempt to describe adequately the distinctive nature of biblical scholarship in Central America in a short essay. [1] There is no lack of publications that have presented explanations or anthologies of some of the biblical scholarship going on "south of the border." [2] Instead of rehearsing issues in the same manner as these and others have done, I have chosen a different tack. A fruitful approach, and one that may help explore some uncharted territory for a North American audience, is to organize the discussion around the Spanish term lo popular, which in common parlance carries either a socio-ethical or demographic emphasis. I will limit my comments to biblical scholarship and not enter into discussion of related topics such as lay groups (like the comunidades eclesiales de base) or models of theological education. [3]

Lo popular: A Socio-Ethical Perspective
To begin with, lo popular can refer to a particular social class or group — more specifically, the masses of our countries' populations, who suffer under inequitable political and economic systems. This meaning is reflected in phrases like barrios populares (neighborhoods of the poor) or precios populares (prices within their means). This collective sense surfaces, too, in what are known as movimientos populares — that is, those movements that struggle to resolve political and cultural issues, like land ownership, housing, and indigenous rights.

In biblical and theological studies this angle on lo popular usually has been associated with Liberation Theology. Liberationist scholars have been quite articulate in identifying their theological, ideological, and pastoral commitments to the marginalized. What Jorge Pixley has called "militant scholarship" is clear in its goals to be aware of the concrete context in which biblical studies are done and to impact social realities through one's scholarly work. José Severino Croatto championed relecturas (re-readings) of the Bible that would explore its reservoir of meaning for connections with the world of the oppressed (1981, 1987). Authentic biblical studies, in his view, are those that are relevant for (pertinentes a) and belong to (pertenecen a) the poor.

Interestingly, liberationist scholars do not all employ the same exegetical methods. Elsa Tamez has published commentaries on several Old and New Testament books. In her work on Ecclesiastes (2000), Tamez works from a moderately critical perspective, but this stance never intrudes in any significant way into the exposition. Hers is an effort to correlate how that text wrestled with injustice in its own world with the need today to respond to the dehumanizing effects of neo-liberal market economics in Latin America. The ancient sage offered an earthy hope of small joys, counsel which points to an alternative way of experiencing life under a harsh hegemonic system. Another recent commentary that underscores the role of the biblical text in shaping an alternative view of reality is Pablo Richard's Apocalypse (1995). Although not a biblical scholar, in this work on Revelation Richard demonstrates an admirable acquaintance with research on prophetic apocalyptic literature. This biblical book, he argues, provides a lens to see life more realistically and thus unmask the myths of domineering powers. Pixley takes a very different approach in his commentary on Exodus (1987). He does not focus on the canonical form of the text but instead utilizes a socio-critical approach to question its ideology. Following the suggestion of Norman Gottwald, he interprets the Exodus-Joshua traditions as originally the story of a peasant revolt that was reshaped over time into an account of national liberation designed to legitimize the monarchy. It is that foundational tradition of rebellion, however, which Pixley feels can empower those who contend for a different kind of society for Latin America.

Each of these biblical scholars affirms the importance of studying the Bible with an eye toward using its message to change the plight of the poor. Nevertheless, it is clear they do not agree on how to evaluate (and thus analyze) the sacred canon. For Tamez and Richard, it is our present text that has a profound liberating potential. Pixley, on the other hand, believes that the true message of the Bible lies behind its canonical shape and must be recovered. In other words, the Bible, as we now have it, is not an innocent text.

Less well known to readers outside of Latin America is the work of what I would label "concerned" or "engaged" evangelicals. This group of scholars tends to be members of the Fraternidad Teológica Latinoamericana (FTL), an association of a broadly evangelical persuasion that was founded in 1970 with the express purpose of reflecting upon the Bible in light of the needs of the continent. On the one hand, they were frustrated by the failure of more traditional evangelical circles to respond adequately to those realities; at the same time, their interaction with liberationist scholarship stimulated them to look at the biblical text through a more contextualized lens. The commentary series Comentario Bíblico Iberoamericano reflects this concern to address current issues by combining exegesis with excurses on the text's contemporary relevance. The FTL also publishes a series of short monographs that deal with pressing problems.

In sum, scholars from across the theological spectrum are trying to interface the biblical text with the Latin American socio-political context. They may not agree on the nature and authority of the Bible, textual method, or the aims of their research and publications, but all do desire to contribute somehow in constructing a better tomorrow for our people and nations. In addition to commentaries and monographs, one can also mention various journals that engage the context according to their own particular theological persuasions — from Revista de interpretación bíblica latinoamericana (RIBLA) and Vida y Pensamiento on the ecumenical and liberationist end to Kairós on the evangelical side. At the same time, it is obvious to any one who has worked in Central America for any length of time that many publications simply do not address lo popular in this sense of the term. There are several reasons for this phenomenon. Sometimes formal academic training dichotomizes exegesis and contextualization; some believe that such a combination diminishes their academic standing, especially in the academic guild beyond the continent; [4] and, to be honest, others are themselves detached from the warp and woof of their context and thus to incorporate those concerns is not a natural move. There are at least two other reasons why so much of biblical studies in Latin America does not address its systemic issues. First, a good percentage of what is sold is simply the translation of books written elsewhere, whether in the United States or Europe. These can come from a wide range of theological and denominational positions and include all kinds of 'classics' (from the works of John Calvin and Matthew Henry to those of Gerhard von Rad and Hans Walter Wolff). Historically in Latin America more respect has been given to North American and European authors. They are deemed to be "international" authorities and are granted higher status, because it is believed that they come from countries with longer religious traditions, greater ecclesiastical success, and higher academic standards.

Another reason is that many publications limit whatever reflections they do present to dimensions of personal problems, family life, and the work place. That is, contextualization is 'authentic' to reality, but in a restricted sense. This would be true particularly of many evangelical publications. These strike a significant chord with their readers, however, because they deal with the immediate challenges of day-to-day existence that everyone faces.

Lo popular: A Demographic Perspective
The phrase lo popular also can have a more populist connotation. What is in view here are numbers of people. This, of course, is a heuristic distinction, since in actuality this nuance would be intimately related to the ideological or political issues of the preceding discussion. Nevertheless, it does serve to surface the issues of accessibility and distribution of biblical studies within the general population.

To start with, one must be aware of the educational realities of the continent. Literacy levels differ from country to country. By far, the greatest percentage of people who actively practice their Christian faith are from lower socio-economic backgrounds; they also would be those who would have completed lower educational levels. This fact raises prickly questions for biblical scholars. Pragmatically, what can be — or should be — the realistic target audience for biblical studies, and to what standard of literacy competency should biblical scholars commit themselves? How might a vocation to write for the masses affect aspirations for international scholarly recognition?

A second set of related issues concerns the economic woes of Central America. Our countries suffer from economic instability, widespread poverty, rampant corruption, currency fluctuations, and heavy foreign debt. Who, then, can afford to buy books (Let alone read them!)? This economic pinch is a complicating factor, too, for authors and publishers. Royalties are minimal at best, and time for writing is scarce. Many scholars teach concurrently at several institutions and pastor a church on weekends to help make ends meet. Any writing must be done in snippets of time out a love of scholarship and a commitment to our context. Publishers often battle red ink, and so publishing is done more from a sense of mission than as a profit-making enterprise. As a consequence, some Latin American publishing houses have been bought by North American conglomerates. Although this change quickly benefits cash flow, promotion, salaries, and distribution, with it also can come the corresponding danger of a shift in focus. The North American parent company might be more interested in translating its English titles and in producing books for mass consumption than in advancing more timely works; profit becomes the bottom line, and publishing decisions are made accordingly. Complicating the educational and financial frustrations are the bureaucratic headaches that can accompany publication efforts. Customs houses and postal services are notoriously inefficient, so shipping can be an adventure. What is worse, on the distribution side, the bookstore industry is undercapitalized and underdeveloped.

Significant efforts are being made to provide material commensurate with lower educational and economic levels. Many may be familiar with the work of the Brazilian liberationist Carlos Mesters, who has long advocated readings of the Bible for the poor. From the evangelical wing, one can point to an assortment of commentaries geared to lay readers. For example, the Estudio Bíblico ELA is designed to be coordinated with a quarterly adult Sunday school program. The Comentario del Continente Nuevo series has utilized the fame of a well-known evangelist to produce basic treatments of New Testament books.

The financial crisis is being handled in creative ways. Publishing now is often subsidized from outside Central America. The small markets for commentaries and the economic status of readers demand outside help. Production costs are kept down by using rough, cheaper paper. DEI, the ecumenical center in San José, Costa Rica, is to be commended in this regard, but other publishers are doing the same. The Southern Baptist Spanish publishing headquarters in El Paso, Texas, is producing the multivolume Comentario Bíblico Mundo Hispano in a very inexpensive format.

Where Do We Go from Here? Many daunting obstacles can be discouraging and dampen hopes for biblical scholarship in that troubled part of the world known as Central America. But, all is not "doom and gloom." There is a growing interest in biblical studies in the region. Younger scholars, who have studied in higher degree programs in the West, are returning to teach in seminary and university faculties (although some have to be 'detoxified' of foreign perspectives and values upon return to their home countries). Up and down the Americas there is now serious talk about establishing doctoral level programs in Bible, theology, ministry, and educational administration, and some small steps are being made in this direction at several seminaries. Second, there has been a transformation of sorts in the political landscape, which will affect lo popular. While economies continue to flounder and inequities have grown, at least open civil war in Central America has ended. In the future, it will be important to see how privatization, economic globalization, and the spread of information technology will impact cultural identities, the buying power of the populace, and the production and sale of books and journals. That is, the face of contextualization is changing.

Biblical scholarship in and for Central America has always been a heroic exercise by those who are committed to the Bible as the word of God. The enterprise will continue to be a struggle. Latins, though, are resilient and creative. Permit me to close with a picture from our heritage. The greatest tale in Spanish literature is Cervantes' masterpiece Don Quixote de la Mancha. Out of this book was born a word: quijotada — that is, the pursuit of false and deluded dreams. Biblical scholarship in Central America is not a quijotada. One continues on in the hope that all this effort truly matters, that it is not in the end a chasing after windmills.

M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas), who is half-Guatemalan, is Professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary and taught at El Seminario Teológico Centroamericano in Guatemala City, Guatemala from 1982-1996, where he continues to serve as adjunct professor.

[1] I have written on this elsewhere, including "Liberation Theology: Latin America," in The Oxford Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible, ed. J. Rogerson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 316-29. The bibliographic data for the books mentioned in this essay can be found there, except for Pablo Richard, Apocalypse: A People's Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1995), and Elsa Tamez, When the Horizons Close: Rereading Ecclesiastes (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000). I simply note the dates of publication of English translations in order to locate the reader historically.

[2] E.g., Christopher Rowland and Mark Corner, Liberating Exegesis: The Challenge of Liberation Theology to Biblical Studies (London: SPCK, 1990); Fernando Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert (eds.), Reading from This Place, vol. 2: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in Global Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995); Leif E. Vaage (ed.), Subversive Scriptures: Revolutionary Readings of the Christian Bible in Latin America (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997); John R. Levinson and Priscilla Pope-Levinson (ed.), Return to Babel: Global Perspectives on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999).

[3] For more details, see my "Lecturas populares de la Biblia: Su significado y reto para la educación teológica," Vox Scripturae 5, no. 2 (1995): 131-45; "Tendencias y retos en la educación teológica evangélica en América Latina," Kairós 25 (1999): 37-52.

[4] In my own experience I have sometimes found that First World scholars have not taken work from the Two-Thirds, or Majority, World seriously. In various ways they have communicated that, whereas those approaches might be "interesting," "real academic study" is done in North America and Europe according to more traditional methods. I have had students from the Two-Thirds World, who are studying in the West, confide in me how they have been discouraged from relating their research to their home context and have been told to "just deal with the text."

Citation: M. Daniel Carroll R., " Biblical Scholarship for the People? Considering LO POPULAR in Central American Biblical Studies," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2004]. Online:


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