Book Review: The Future of Christianity

March 01, 2011

Book Review: The Future of Christianity

David Martin, The Future of Christianity: Reflections of Violence and Democracy, Religion and Secularization (Farham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2011)

It is not easy to write a simple review of David Martin’s demanding and important book. This is partly because the volume consists of 13 different and at times overlapping chapters on varied themes concerning religion in the modern world, partly because it contains the mature and nuanced reflections of an immensely well read and erudite scholar who has been working in the sociology of religion for over 50 years, and partly because, above all else, Martin is a relentless critic of the smooth generalisation and simple ‘master narrative’ concerning religion’s place in the world. No summary will catch this work. And yet, although one or two chapters are something of a challenge to a reader untrained in sociology, the book abounds in insights and illuminating analysis.

The book is divided into three parts: Part 1 ‘Secularisation and the Future of Christianity’; Part 2 ‘Case Studies in Secularisation’; and Part 3 ‘Religion and Politics; Democracy and Violence.’

The chapters cover a wide range of themes on the general issues of the interaction of religion and the social both in history and across different world contexts. While Martin is aware of the need for some overarching account or master narrative with which to make sense of reality he is scathing of the way in which master narratives have been allowed to inappropriately dominate or exclude what is actually going on. He denies secularisation can be treated as a universal and unilateral trend. Even the theory of secularisation is ‘profoundly inflected by particular histories’. The closest he comes to a theory of something in common between the developments in Europe and most other parts of global Christianity is what he calls social differentiation, ‘the loosening of ties between church and state, between ecclesiastical and social elites, between church and specific religious parties and between ecclesiastical and moral norms of secular law’ (p41).

Martin has much to say about his fellow sociologists and their failings as well as about the topic itself. For example, he draws attention to their blindness to the important and surprisingly modernising significance of Pentecostalism: ‘[e]ven when sociologists deal with the past they are selective, because only approved routes to modernity, like ascetic Protestantism, are allowed to count. That is why Pentecostalism, despite its clear modernizing potential, could be so long ignored.’ (p25)

Another example is the question of science and secularisation. Martin makes it very clear that on the evidence ‘there is no consistent relation between a degree of scientific advance and a reduced profile of religious influence, belief and practice’ (p119). Why is it so often thought otherwise? It is because ‘the power of master narratives, especially the Enlightenment master narrative, can cloud over the sociologically obvious in favour of an “obvious” but false hypothesis about religion receding as science advances’ (p120).

As there is no one powerful and simple story of secularisation there is also no one straightforward story of the future of Christianity. It all depends. Martin holds (‘tentatively,’ he writes) that Western Europe’s secularity is an exception to the world scene, not its inevitable future. On the other hand, where Marxism and politics generally have failed to fulfil their grand vision ‘the religious impulse flourishes, either in relation to national and territorial consciousness, of which Islamism and Hindu nationalism are the most obvious instances, or else through the transnational voluntary association, of which Pentecostalism is the most energetic contemporary expression’ (p83). And yet Martin does not think there is much in the ‘God is Back’ thesis, which holds that secularisation has gone into reverse, either. While the state of affairs in the special situation of the USA is fairly steady, in Latin America and Africa the situation is of ‘the persistence of largely inspirited universes for which secularisation and de-secularisation are alike largely irrelevant’ (p1o4). At one point however he does allow himself this one summary statement: ‘The future of Christianity depends not on what scientific advance may show, but on whether the Christian drama continues to make sense’ (p43).

The book is riddled with remarkable insights which are extremely helpful. For example, Martin understands that a religion has a ‘repertoire that extends over a distinctive spectrum, with some central tendencies and many marginal possibilities’ (p195) and that ‘the cultural realisation of those themes will vary enormously according to type of society, type of social context, and historical situation’ (p167). This means that Christian faith is played out in different ways depending upon its social context in different historical moments: the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Reformation; and in different places: eastern Europe, western Europe, South America. For example, he writes ‘There is no inherent connection between Christianity and democracy, but there are elements in its repertoire which can be given democratic inflection under particular and favourable circumstances’ (p18).

I found Martin’s analysis of the social and political place of Christianity in Eastern Europe, as well as the remarkable phenomenon of world wide Pentecostalism, a helpful antidote to my own narrow appreciation of the world wide faith. Of the latter he writes ‘Pentecostalism is a Christian movement fully comparable to Islamic revivalism, but entirely without a militant and violent wing’ (p40).

Martin is at his most witty when critiquing the over-confident Enlightenment and its master narrative which dominates the academy. ‘Intellectual history remains affected by a master narrative treating religion as inchoate and backward superstition or as pathetic froth obscuring the surface of the real until blown away by revolution’ (p129). But such an approach ‘mandates a principled ignorance about our global reality. That is why it keeps surprising us. Waiting for the world to play catch-up with us is a mug’s game.’ (p120)

This book, though difficult at times, is a very important antidote to the shallow, simple or deterministic pictures that so often pass as commentary on the role and place of religion in the world today. It also helps Christians realise how much they are shaped by their history and present social embeddedness, and that in another time or place much would have been different. There is a certain bracing refreshment gained by the perspectives that Martin gives.

The Future of Christianity is a book which will repay the effort of reading that it requires, and will leave the reader with a deep sense of the richness of religion in human experience—and a suspicion of any glib or simple explanation of what has been going on, or will happen next. To quote yet another memorable sentence of Martin’s, ‘History is too cunning for mortals easily to chart its course’ (p51).

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