When U.S. President Obama met with his Venezuelan counterpart in 2009, he received an unusual present: Hugo Chávez presented him with a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, a classic survey of five centuries of foreign domination in the continent. An unusual gift from one president to another perhaps, but one that says much about the region. For Latin America, despite its poverty and social ills, is a continent where books matter and literacy is high.
While politicians are often viewed with suspicion, writers like Galeano from Uruguay, and novelist Gabriel García Márquez from Colombia, are widely read and deeply respected. New titles sell by the millions, while old copies of their books circulate among friends, and are cherished and re-read.
It’s not surprising that books played an important role in the growth of the Protestant Church during the first half of the twentieth century. In countries where a traditional Bible-bereft Roman Catholic Church represented the establishment, both the Bible and books about the Bible were sold from door to door, in marketplaces, and through a growing number of Christian bookstores. In this way, seeds were sown that changed the continent.
Meeting the Church’s Needs
Over the last fifty years, the religious scene has changed drastically. The evangelical Church, particularly the neo-Pentecostal wing, has boomed and now accounts for perhaps fifteen percent of the population. Lest evangelicals should be tempted to triumphalism, it is important to recognize that the religious marketplace also offers many other alternatives. Charismatic Catholic Renewal groups, Andean Native spirituality, and Afro-Caribbean religions like Umbanda, Candomblé, and Santería are all growing rapidly.
What is of concern is a tendency to self-absorption and superficiality among church attendees. Many researchers note that people opt for a religious group on the basis of its promises to solve their immediate problems of health, self-esteem, loneliness, or financial security. Churches that are attractive and offer instant solutions to life’s crises may find huge numbers coming through the front entrance—but also many leave through the back door, feeling disillusioned.
It is tempting for booksellers to offer only those titles which match the core preoccupations of the public. A challenge for publishers is to produce books that speak to the heart of Latin Americans, but also show that true joy and lasting peace is only found through a new, living relationship with God, which will also be reflected in life changes that impact family, work, and society. True conversion, grace, spiritual disciplines, and discipleship must have priority over self-help.
From the isolated communities of the high Andes, to jungle villages along the Amazon River and the shanty towns of the continent’s megacities, key agents for change are the hundreds of thousands of pastors who give heart and soul to caring for the Church. Many are lay pastors, with little or no formal training, who combine leadership of the church’s activities and preparation for services with a secular job.
The fact that many of these pastors have little formal education does not mean that books for them can be simplistic. Churches face complex ethical and political situations unknown in the North. On the one hand, in Colombia, pastors may find they live in areas ruled by drug lords and guerilla leaders.
On the other hand, some evangelical leaders have been courted by powerful, right-wing politicians, because of the size and influence of their churches. Pastors need great wisdom to handle those pressures, to know how to act justly, and to respond to pastoral needs. Given their limited access to formal theological education, suitable books are a priority. Of particular importance are materials to develop biblical preaching in a way that is culturally relevant.
Publishers of Letra Viva
Apart from those U.S.-based publishers that produce books in Spanish, around thirty evangelical publishers exist within Spanish-speaking Latin America, linked together in the Letra Viva network.
One newcomer to the Christian publishing scene is Editorial Sagepe, based in Buenos Aires. With a background in graphic design, publisher Sandra Pedace is aware of the importance of presentation as well as content. Crónicas de un Camello & Cia (Chronicles of a Camel and Company) by Elena Caride challenges readers to consider those whose wealth might place them as “camels who cannot pass through the eye of a needle.” It is a reminder that the rich in Latin America have spiritual needs that can only be met by the gospel.
Also in Argentina, but far from the capital city, Córdoba-based Ediciones Crecimiento Cristiano specializes in manuals for use in churches. El Evangelio que Leen los Adolescentes (The Gospel that Adolescents Read; see book cover graphic) by Gabriel Salcedo is used in conjunction with workshops on working with young people, and how adults’ lives will be “read” by the adolescents in our midst.
Several Christian publishers are located in Lima, Peru. Ediciones Verbo Vivo was created by Patricia Adrianzén de Vergara, an accomplished communicator and poet. In a new series of materials for women, she contributes a book on the challenges of motherhood, while Keila Ochoa Harris of Mexico challenges and guides young women to lead exemplary lives (see book cover graphic). These subjects are universal, but developed here in uniquely Latin ways.
Challenges among Publishers
Among the challenges publishers in Latin America face, three are particularly acute.
1. Developing writers. Strategic Christian leaders in Latin America, who have a message that should be “published abroad,” may not have the opportunities of their peers in the North to hone skills of research and writing, nor the time or resources.
Urgent needs include identifying leaders and biblical scholars who can communicate a profound message with Latin passion, enabling them to participate in writers courses, linking them with mentors, and facilitating sabbatical time—preferably with a library on hand.
Writers such as René Padilla and Samuel Escobar have been models for many in Latin America. New generations of writers are needed, who will write for both the Church and also wider society. Media Associates International has published two books to equip Christian writers in Latin America: La Aventura de Publicar (The Adventure of Publishing) and La Aventura de Escribir (The Adventure of Writing)
2. Growing mentor-editors. Key persons in the publishing process are mentor-editors—people who understand how books work and are published, and who have the ability to work with potential authors. Most publishers report the lack of creative editors, with the theological, personal, and editorial skills to develop people and books.
3. Strengthening publishers. Publishing is not a matter of trading in paper and ink, but of “making public” an ongoing debate. The challenge is not to print materials, but to publish them in such a way that members of the public want to pick up the book, buy it, read it, and be transformed by the process.
Maintaining high production standards is clearly important. As in other areas, book design and print quality are important. While there have been major improvements over recent years, there is a need for thinking Christian graphic designers.
Printed book stocks that are stuck in a stockroom are like soldiers confined to barracks. One of the major obstacles in the chain of communication from writer to reader is in distribution. In many countries, Christian bookstores exist; however, they may not carry a wide range of titles, nor know much about books!
Members of the Letra Viva network joined forces in 2000 to create a continental book distribution centre, which has played a significant role in improving distribution between the countries of Latin America. However, much remains to be done, and there is need of men and women who will take on the challenges of book distribution in this complex environment, as an important aspect of Christian mission.
To help promote books published within Latin America, the Letra Viva network created a web-based service, with regular updates on new books and book-related activities. Book stores and distributors can link through to the publishers in order to order supplies, while the general public can now buy titles through Amazon.
One consequence of Chávez’ gift to Obama was that sales of Galeano’s book soared on Amazon. Within hours, it moved from a ranking of 54,295 in sales, to number two. Few Latin American Christians have the bank facilities or access to postal services that enable them to use Amazon. Few have Kindle readers or iPads. Nonetheless, Christian publishers are actively exploring appropriate technologies, including digital print, that will serve the Church well.
We long to see Christian books, written by Latin American leaders and published by national publishers, that will have impact on society, change lives… and be gifted from one president to another.
Ten Latin American Writers to Look Out For
Milton Acosta. El Humor en el Antiguo Testamento (Humour in the Old Testament)
Pedro Arana. Providencia y Revolución (Providence and Revolution)
Jorge Atiencia. Hombres de Dios (Men of God)
Orlando Costas. Evangelización Contextual: Fundamentos Teológicos y Pastorales (Liberating News! A Theology of Contextual Evangelization)
Samuel Escobar. Como Comprender la Misión (The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone)
Jorge León. Psicología Pastoral para Todos los Cristianos (Pastoral Psychology for All)
Darío López. La Misión Liberadora de Jesús (The Liberating Mission of Jesus)
René Padilla. Discipulado y Misión (Discipleship and Mission)
Harold Segura. Ser Iglesia para los Demás (Being a Church for Others)