- Nahua and Maya Catholicisms: Texts and Religion in Colonial Mexico and Yucatán by Mark Z. Christensen
Mark Christensen has produced a remarkable work of scholarship. Grounded in the New Philology, this study moves from that field’s traditional analysis of social units and [End Page 375] social history writ large to consider the nature of (indigenous) Christianization in New Spain in a comparative context: of center (Valley of Mexico) with periphery (Yucatan). The principal focus of the book is on religious texts, print as well as manuscript, in Nahuatl and Maya. Accordingly, the study examines the variant localized and adaptive forms that Spanish Catholicism took in the indigenous world. Christensen’s research unveils a constantly shifting Catholicism in New Spain. Instead of a neatly organized “spiritual conquest,” fine-grained and nuanced analyses reveal no one unified Catholicism but many catholicisms instead.
The starting point for Christensen is the presumption that Catholicism in New Spain, especially as understood and practiced in the indigenous world, was characterized by “doctrinal variation” (p. 7); by what Charles Dibble has termed the “Nahuatlization” of Catholicism or what Louise Burkhart described as the “slippage” between the orthodox theology of Spanish Catholicism and its customary adaptations in New Spain. With this in mind, Christensen sets out to examine the ideas contained in various Nahuatl and Maya religious texts, which “betray a religious landscape in central Mexico and Yucatan more varied than the texts themselves” (p. 13). The Nahuatlized Catholicism of central Mexico is sometimes taken as a synecdoche for all Mexican Catholicism—an assumption Christensen’s study rejects. Instead, he argues effectively that a comparison between Maya texts from the Yucatán and Nahuatl texts from central Mexico allows us a broader understanding of the localism of Mexican Catholicism.
Christensen schematizes three categories of indigenous language texts. Category one contains “printed religious texts written by ecclesiastic authors and/or their indigenous aides for a broad readership of both ecclesiastic and native populations” (p. 53). In this category one finds well-known texts like Molina’s Nahuatl Confessional. As these texts circulated and were subjected to relatively high levels of scrutiny by inquisitional and diocesan oversight, newer versions of texts would emerge in an attempt to “improve” on their orthodoxy, leading to multiple versions and eventually and in turn a renewed desire for doctrinal purity. Category two texts are “unpublished texts written by ecclesiastics and/or their native stewards for more local audiences including religious authorities” and developed “out of necessity to assist local religious leaders” (p. 80). Unlike category one texts, these were subject to less oversight and were often manuscript texts, circulating at the parish level. Christensen also shows that unlike category one texts, category two texts were mostly written by natives, albeit with some kind of Spanish clerical supervision. Category three texts are “unpublished, unofficial texts written by natives for natives” (p. 84).
These category three texts are among the most intriguing materials studied by Christensen, for a variety of reasons. First, they reveal a great deal about how “culturally specific Catholicisms” (p. 203) are reflected in texts such as a Nahuatl sermon on the conversion of Paul (1550s) and a late eighteenth-century Maya discourse on the Creation and Adam. In both cases Christensen offers exacting linguistic and cultural analyses to unravel the embedded mentalities intercalated with official Catholicism. For example, in the Nahuatl account of Paul, the stoning of Stephen is conflated with the tale of [End Page 376] Saint Sebastian who in turn sweeps the road to heaven, reflecting the importance of sweeping taken from Nahua culture. Likewise in the Mayan creation story Adam before the Creation lacks speech, sight, and hearing, but is not created out of earth as in the Genesis telling.
Individual chapters offer concise assessments of a variety of individual issues. Chapter 1 examines the processes of creating Catholic terminologies in Nahuatl and Maya. Chapter 2 outlines Christensen’s typology of religious texts in three categories. Chapters 3, 4...