…there are two distinct views on how Pentecostals relate to society. David Martin, the British sociologist who has pioneered in this area since the mid-1980s (Tongues of Fire, 1990), has been proposing that Pentecostals are a new embodiment of what Max Weber called the “Protestant ethic”””a morality of self-discipline, hard work and saving””which, he argued, was an important factor in the birth of modern capitalism. The research center which I founded in 1985 at Boston University supported Martin’s early work, which focused on Latin America. I liked to give nicknames to our projects. This one I called “Max Weber is alive and well and living in Guatemala” (that country, for reasons I don’t quite understand, has the highest proportion of Pentecostals in Latin America, somewhere between one third and one half of the population). If Martin is right, Pentecostalism is a modernizing force, certainly in terms of economic behavior, possibly also as a “school for democracy”. Not least of its revolutionary qualities is the transformation it seeks in family life and the role of women””broadly speaking, toward gender equality. Bernice Martin, David’s wife and collaborator, has paid special attention to this aspect.
The other interpretation sees Pentecostalism very differently””as a kind of “cargo cult”. This was a curious movement in Melanesia in the first half of the twentieth century. Its core belief was that ships (and, later, airplanes) would come and shower the inhabitants of those Pacific islands with all the material goods of modernity””and that magic and ritual practices could make this happen. No special effort was required by the recipients of the “cargo”, other than the faith that the magic would work””certainly not sweaty Protestant entrepreneurship. Two scholars who, cautiously, tend toward such a non-Weberian approach are Birgit Meyer in the Netherlands (Translating the Devil, 1999) and Paul Freston, who has been teaching in Brazil and North America (Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Latin America, 2008). If that interpretation is correct, Pentecostalism is not modernizing at all””in fact, is a carry-over from a pre-modern worldview that actually inhibits modernization.
Both interpretations have data for backup. My view of the matter is quite simple: Given the enormous number of people involved in the Pentecostal phenomenon worldwide, it is very plausible that both types can be found””the busy Protestants working to produce the “cargo”, and those who sit back and wait for the magic to bring the goodies to them.
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