Maya Christians and Their Churches in Sixteenth-Century Belize

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Latin American Maya Christians and Their Churches in Sixteenth-Century Belize. By Elizabeth Graham. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 2011. Pp. xx, 436. $79.95. ISBN 978-0-8130-3666-3.)

This study in historical archaeology uses ethnohistory, anthropology, religious studies, and church history to reinterpret the religious experience of the Maya in sixteenth-century Belize. The Spaniards maintained loose control over the region, which meant that the people were not subject to the same level of forced cultural change as experienced elsewhere in Mesoamerica. Graham argues that the Maya in Belize accepted Christianity on their own terms and remained Christian even though their contact with priests was sporadic.

To the author's credit, the book makes a serious attempt to address anthropological theory, which is sometimes underutilized in historical archaeology. She also breaks with the traditional effort to achieve complete objectivity by revealing that her understanding of Christianity is affected by her own experience as a youth growing up Catholic in an Italian-American parish in New Jersey.

Because of her childhood religious experience, Graham reaches the conclusion that one does not have to know much about Christianity to be a Christian. After all, the people in her parish seemed to be more interested in collecting holy cards and in the cult of the saints than in understanding the significance of Christ. This allows her to define Christianity so broadly that it leaves out Christ altogether; if one claims to be a Christian, then that is what one is, regardless of what one believes. A Christ-centered Catholicism, in Graham's opinion, is a theology of bishops and priests (p. 102). She apparently believes that the adults in her childhood parish were clueless about the centrality of Christ to their religion. Given the importance of Lent and Holy Week in American Catholicism, it is hard to give this credence.

The author's broad definition of Christianity allows her to argue a thesis that many scholars would have difficulty accepting. …