Martin, David, Pentecostalism: The World their Parish, 224 pages,
Blackwell Publishers, 2001.
David Martin is a really clever bloke… No, really. In an age when terms such as ‘leading scholar’ and ‘seminal thinker’ have been undercut by the ‘death of the author’, describing an author the stature of David Martin, who has earned that stature by pursuing a life of scholarship at the highest level in the same direction becomes difficult. There are very few people (in the ‘knowledge machine’ which modern academia has become) like him for scope, rigour and personal honesty. So, RCB (“really clever bloke”) status is about the best we may be able to do – but then, it won’t carry the punch and the intricacy that a scholar such as Martin brings to a work.
Martin has said publicly that his sociology, like much sociology of religion, is ‘highly autobiographical.’ It is his own background in a lower-class conservative evangelical home, and his continuing engagement with broader British Anglicanism and peace movements, which are half the base line from which he operates. The other half is a passion for poetry, literature, and music – he is an accomplished pianist. His interest in Pentecostalism is thus an interplay between his personal interests in sectarian religion and his professional interests in the development of a General Theory of Secularization, a project he began at the LSE from 1965 onwards. Pentecostalism and its global success, for Martin, is partly a case of the exception requiring a qualification of the ‘rules’, and his interest in it comes from a personal history of questioning and developing in faith. Here is an eye that sees what is, through the cant and ideological obfuscation which one too often finds in not just religious circles, but in sociological ones as well. It is important, furthermore, to understand Pentecostals: The World Their Parish, not as a compressed introduction to a large subject, but as a continuing product of a highly powerful mind on a lifelong quest.
As with all his work, Martin begins by demonstrating that the standard secularisation theory – that modernisation means secularisation, and secularisation means the death of religion – is flawed. It is a projection of a European ‘master narrative’ on the rest of the world which, even within Europe, needs serious qualification. In this latest variation on a theme, Martin develops a more articulated schema which will take some readers a little time to get their heads around. The first section of the book is highly theoretical, followed by a number of applications and expansions. This is a synthesis of Martin’s sociological pursuits (his penchant for actually engaging with the theory qua theory, as opposed to simply applying odds and sods from Max Weber) with Martin’s own voracious, symphonic mind. More than one person I have spoken to did not ‘like’ the first section at all, in the same way that many people do not ‘like’ Rachmaninoff. This section is both highly compressed (a reflection back on Martin’s previous work), and highly mobile, as Martin reaches the limits of available sociological language and turns to literary and other terms to explain the ‘downward mobilisation’ concept in its various guises. And of course, Martin is dead right in tying the Pentecostal outpouring of the twentieth century with the Methodist outpouring of the eighteenth and nineteenth. (As recent studies of Australian Pentecostalism demonstrate, particularly in Queensland) Martin is also subtle – unlike Harvey Cox, for instance, he does not fall into the trap of simply identifying Pentecostalism with shamanism, but rather looks for synergies and global resonances. In all it, is lovely stuff. Many people will still at the end not ‘like’ this book, but then, reviews, like sociology or religion, are ‘highly biographical’. A real contribution both to the understanding of global Pentecostalism and to an understanding of the theory of secularisation, Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish is brilliant material. If only Blackwells could produce RCBs like David Martin in the quantity that they produce literature, the world would be a happier place.
© Southern Cross College, 2004