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City of God (The Anthropology of Christianity)
University of California Press, 2009
309 pp., 29.95
Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America
Oxford University Press, 2011
294 pp., 31.95
Spiritual Warfare in Guatemala
The two books under review here, important studies with a wealth of valuable information, invite discussion in tandem. Both began life as doctoral dissertations: Kevin Lewis O'Neill's in cultural anthropology at Stanford, Robert Brenneman's in sociology of religion at Notre Dame. Both writers focus on Guatemala, O'Neill almost exclusively while Brenneman adds El Salvador and Honduras to what he calls Central America's "Northern Triangle." Although both deal with religion, O'Neill concentrates primarily on El Shaddai, an élite neo-Pentecostal megachurch in Guatemala City, and Brenneman on a number of small evangelical churches in the city's poorest barrios. While both are concerned with the role of Christian believers in a violently dysfunctional society, their perspectives are very different. O'Neill operates with a wide-angle lens and organizes his material around the concept of Christian citizenship. Brenneman narrows his focus to one of the society's most critical problems and explores the way Christian citizens are dealing with it. It's a difference that makes a difference.
Let's look first at City of God. I can best illustrate what religious faith and life are like at El Shaddai by moving ahead to a scene midway in the book. The time is December 2006, the place the church's prayer room. The air is filled with a steady buzz like an old ceiling fan. It's coming from a group of people hovering over a basket of smooth black stones, speaking in tongues. In teams of eight, they have been doing this seven hours a day without interruption for two weeks. They will continue for one more week. Then the stones, 72 in all, charged with the power of the Holy Spirit, will be individually (and surreptitiously) placed in strategic locations around the city—at locations where "spiritual mapping" has determined Satan is in control: mostly national and municipal public buildings but also various cultural centers and several Catholic churches. On New Year's Day, at a precisely ...