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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 350-351
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The Millennial New World
The Millennial New World. By Frank Graziano. (New York: Oxford University Press. 1999. Pp. x, 366. $45.00.)
This book is a compendium of detailed descriptions of millennialism in Latin America since the Conquest. For Graziano, the term "millennialism" does not refer to the thousand-year reign of Christ or the Saints, but rather to religious and political movements led by charismatic, utopian reformers. Graziano does not offer conclusions regarding the significance of millennialism; neither does he put forward a thesis. Instead, he offers an "exposition more than an argument." Accordingly, he outlines several characteristics of millennialism, defines his terms, and then presents a variety of case studies illustrating each attribute and representing a range of cultures and time periods.
Graziano remains consistent in regarding as millennialist those religious and secular movements that are spurred by the search for salvation, cultural revival, and earthly paradise. The desired regeneration is characteristically spearheaded by a charismatic outsider who confers the status of chosen people on the degraded population, thereby inverting the existing social hierarchy. The messiah figure, almost always male, claims to unify and heal the fragmented, ailing social body, promising cultural renewal and a restoration of morality and traditional values. This leader offers connectedness to the past and a vision for the future; that is, hope for those who are hopeless in the present, but only, of course, if they submit to his authority. [End Page 350]
Graziano views millennialism as a response to imperial impositions, religious and political. His chapter on nativist rebellions deals with, among other things, strategic borrowing by colonized peoples, that is, the selective use of aspects of the dominant culture, such as language, technology, and the addition of God to the indigenous pantheon while continuing clandestine worship of their idols. Among the many examples that Graziano gives is that of a shaman in the Argentine Chaco in the 1950's whose healing rituals were based on the curative power of smoke. Resentful of the incursions of white missionaries, he summoned his people, built a fire, tore pages from a Bible, and burned them. Onlookers inhaled not only smoke, but also the power of the Word, now reduced from threatening weapon to innocuous ash.
Graziano points out that millennialism always contains a subversive element because it seeks to right a world turned upside down. This utopian aspect receives interesting treatment in his discussion of liberation theology, where Graziano cites Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff on the need to remake society along utopian lines. To both theologians, Jesus is the realization of the utopian promise; thus, when they invoke utopia, they do not have in mind idle dreams, but rather radical political and religious commitment.
The book would have benefited from a conclusion to assist the reader in tying together recurring themes over many centuries and illustrations from countries as different as Mexico and Brazil. It would also have been helpful to have more connective tissue uniting the intrinsically interesting examples. Nevertheless, Graziano's exhaustively annotated cases constitute a valuable catalogue of the salient features of Latin American millennialism, according to his inclusive definition of the term.
Denis L. Heyck
Loyola University Chicago