- Translated Christianities: Nahuatl and Maya Religious Texts by Mark Z. Christensen
Mexico’s first missionaries envisioned an American Church with Indian clergy and indigenous-language rituals. However, against the background of the Reformation and the Council of Trent, Mexico’s First Provincial Council of 1555 turned back from this position and restricted the production and circulation of religious writings in native tongues. Mark Christensen shows us the extent to which an indigenous Christian literature continued to evolve and thrive in the centuries that followed.
Translated Christianities is organized around a series of religious texts originally composed in the Nahuatl and Maya languages between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The documents are not widely known to the reading public, nor are they easily accessible to scholars, and much of the book is based on the author’s own archival discoveries and translations. This volume at first could be mistaken for a sourcebook or for a monograph, but it is actually something in between. The approach has much in common with books like William Taylor’s Marvels and Miracles in Late Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque, 2011) and Louise Burkhart, Barry Sell, and Stafford Poole’s Aztecs on Stage: Religious Theater in Colonial Mexico (Norman, OK, 2011). Christensen surrounds the translated texts with explanations of their origins, transmission, and cultural context. The resulting work is both rigorous and transparent.
The diversity of genres represented in this volume is striking. It include sermons, catechisms, guides to confession, and—perhaps most fascinating of all—adaptations of biblical narratives and hagiographies. As Christensen emphasized in his previous work, Nahua and Maya Catholicisms (Stanford, 2013), religious writings in native languages had multiple origins and functions: some were official printed works, others were manuscripts circulated informally among European and indigenous churchmen, and still others were written by Indians for Indians in a realm of religious life that was flourishing beyond the walls of mission churches. All are represented here. As one would expect, the majority of the documents are from the early colonial period. However, there are also some valuable and unexpected materials from later eras. Among these, a Maya Methodist catechism makes one reconsider how Protestantism was first experienced amidst the diversity of beliefs and practices in indigenous Catholicism.
The sixteenth century gave the world a remarkable generation of European and indigenous linguists who preserved a written record of Mexico’s early contacts between cultures. The beginning of the twenty-first century has given rise to a new generation of scholars capable of more fully interpreting that record. This wave of scholarship is often termed New Philology and associated with the tradition of James Lockhart. Today, dozens of such scholars are bringing new methods to bear on known sources, even as they discover new ones. Christensen has become a significant historian in this community. Much like David Tavárez and Peter Sigal in [End Page 692] their recent works on culture and religion, Christensen raises subtle questions about word choice and field-of-meaning. He asks us to consider what theological judgments were expressed when a colonial translator selected the nearest linguistic equivalents for complex concepts like soul or devil. The implications for understanding both the expression and reception of Christianity are significant.
Those of us interested in global early-modern Catholicism might do well to read Translated Chistianities beside standard works on the Chinese Rights Controversy, as we struggle to understand the role of language in the communication and adaptation of religion in this age of intercontinental exchange. Readers who have not yet encountered Christensen’s Nahua and Maya Catholicism may wish to read both works. Despite similar titles and some overlapping arguments and texts, these are distinct works, each with its own contributions to make. In retrospect, they might have been brought to press as one combined volume. Be that as it may, Christensen has turned out two very important publications a year apart. Both will leave their mark in the fields of history and religious studies...