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Seasoned grammarian of faith

02 January 2015

Michael Bourdeaux  considers demanding essays by an LSE man

Religion and Power: No logos without mythos
David Martin
Ashgate £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT870 )

IT WOULD be idle to pretend that this book is an easy read: its 260 dense pages are more apt for a sociologist than a theologian to assimilate. You also need a quick mind to follow the changes of scene and emphasis. Professor David Martin enjoys an enormous reputation in academic circles, however, and Religion and Power is the summation of a long career; so perseverance brings its rewards.

The main theme is a potent one: the persistence of religion as a force in this modern world. This is more obvious now, with the rise of militant Islam, than it was fifty years ago, when Martin began his career at the LSE, where he has been ever since; but he was a pioneer against the mainstream in academia when his views were originally unpopular. He writes of elucidating the "grammar of faith", which underpins the whole of society, not just those segments of it that are overtly religious.

One strand is a refutation of Professors A. C. Grayling and Richard Dawkins in their debunking of religion, which Martin describes as simplistic. "Bully-boy polemic of the kind deployed by Grayling offends against the canons of rational debate and scientific comment" - you cannot be much ruder about a fellow-academic than that.

Dawkins comes into even sharper focus in Martin's sights. In January 1995, Dawkins was Sue Lawley's guest on Desert Island Discs, a context in which he could allegedly make gross assertions without fear of contradiction. His statement that "religion causes wars . . . is not simply an off-the-cuff locution made in a moment of gross intellectual carelessness. . . It represents a standard hit-and-run raid on the vast storehouse of history. . . The verbal assailant achieves a cheap victory and is away before anyone can mobilise."

Martin returns to the fray later, claiming that the atheism of Dawkins achieved popularity in Russia before Presidents Yeltsin and Putin turned Russian Orthodoxy virtually into a state religion.

Martin is well versed in the vicissitudes of religion in Eastern Europe, and devotes the last chapter to this, besides introducing scattered references elsewhere to countries as diverse as Albania, Lithuania, and Armenia. He compares Pussy Riot in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, and the "Occupy" movement at St Paul's Cathedral, London. One notes that in London there were no arrests, not even when a group of women interrupted a service itself, and chained themselves to the pulpit during a sermon, while the Moscow Patriarchate called for the maximum sentence for the Russian punk group (they received considerably less: two years in a penal colony for a demonstration lasting 40 seconds).

The final sentence of the book cites the Crimea as the rightful homeland of the Tatars, who are once again being threatened, though not yet as devastatingly as they were under Stalin, who deported them en bloc and tried to wipe them out of existence.

What Martin writes on the religious aspect of urban geography is interesting. Chapter 14 ("England and London") is fascinating and enlightening.

He is not without fault, however. There are many musical references scattered throughout the book, but not all will agree with his claim that "about 1960" small professional choirs began to lead the way in the UK. This did not even begin to happen until at least a decade later. The rise of the Philharmonia Chorus - a large amateur body founded by the impresario Walter Legge and trained by Wilhelm Pitz - by virtually universal acclaim of the critics held the musical world in thrall until at least the 1970s.

Canon Michael Bourdeaux is President of Keston Institute, Oxford.

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