Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book Review : Paranormal America.

As anyone who happened upon Jeffery J. Kripal's Authors of the Impossible knows, there has been an increase in books detailing the interaction with what is otherwise broadly known as the paranormal and mainline religious beliefs. This area is of interest to me as it relates to a book I'm currently working on. In general, these books are typically designed for a popular audience and with a sociological analysis in mind. Paranormal America by Christopher Bader, F. Carson Mencker and Joseph Baker follows the general trend. Those desiring a theological or anthropological treatment of the topic will, by and large, be disappointed. This is not to say the book is without its merits. As more of a sociological enterprise, Paranormal America works with recent polling data in an attempt to create a profile of the average American likely to believe in some variety of paranormal phenomenon and the manner the degree to which belief in this phenomenon effects religious observance. If taken at face value, the authors' research demonstrates that many popular assumptions regarding belief in the paranormal are not necessarily true. Belief in the paranormal extends across all socio-economic backgrounds. The economically impoverished are likely to believe in paranormal phenomenon on account of being financially alienated from the cultural status quo. Meanwhile, the wealthy are likely to believe in paranormal phenomenon both from a desire to be on the "cutting edge" of belief and to exercise their economic influence in the formation of a new belief. The authors' also highlight that religious practice does not negate belief in the paranormal. If the data presented in the book is to be believed, rigid religious adherence excludes most forms of paranormal belief, sans the belief in demonic or angelic activity. The book presents several cases (past and present) in which the belief in certain alleged paranormal phenomena (typically UFOs) has been influenced by the broader Christian belief in the country, perhaps as an indicator that religion is in the process of being reinvented to better match the expectations of a post-industrial age.

Those interested in the "headier" anthropological and theological questions/perspectives on the subject will likely be disappointed by the book. There's plenty of sociological data but I for one am more interested in the religious, cultural, and theological themes that surround the alleged experience of and apparent interest in the "paranormal." On that front, Kripal's aforementioned Authors of the Impossible does a better job, though it is not at all comprehensive and it suffers the limitations of being written directly for a popular audience. The strength of the book is its survey data. If trusted, the data indicate that no religious denomination in the United States is not without a notably percentage of adherents who believe in paranormal phenomenon that, likely, are outside of or contradict the doctrine of the denomination. If the category of mainline religious observance rises (as opposed to rigid religious observance, then were are likely to see an increase in the percentage of religious adherents who's conception of reality and maybe even the divine is in part shaped by belief in phenomenon outside the purview of their denomination.

In the end, Paranormal America is another baby step in analyzing the post-twentieth century, post-industrial age, spirituality stew in which we find ourselves simmering.