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Record Type: Review   ID: 67

Wondrous Events: Foundations of Religious Belief

McClenon, James

 Sociologist James McClenon has had a parallel interest in parapsychology throughout his career. He is interested in spontaneous psychic experiences, and in the past decade has become interested in related anomalous experiences such as firewalking and miracles. More recently, he has grouped several different kinds of psychic and other anomalous experiences under the rubric of "Wondrous Experiences, which in some respects is similar to exceptional human experience, except the letter is broader. As a social scientist, he is interested in the social impact of these experiences and also in how sociological theory and research can shed light on them, including those that are part of the subject matter of parapsychology, though little studied by parapsychologists. He also has conducted several cross-cultural surveys of "wondrous events." I have considered his term wonder felicitous, because there is an element of awe or the numinous exceptional human experiences. I was disappointed, on reading this book, that he had chosen wonder for another reason (also relevant to exceptional human experience) because of the element of "not knowing" in the definition of wonder. The use of the term event, it seems to me, is not aa apt as experience. "Event" does not seem to apply to déjà vu, for example. In any case, even in the case of firewalking or poltergeists, when we deal with narratives, as McClenon and I both do, the only thing we have to work with is the narrator’s recollection of what he or she experienced. For this reason I chose to deal with exceptional human experience, even though that includes some types that appear to be phenomena, such as levitation, poltergeists, psychokinesis, healing. As I, like McClenon, deal strictly with the phenomenology of phenomena/events, I think experience is the better term. The overlap in subject matter between "wondrous events" and "EHEs" is evident from McClenon’s definition: "Wondrous events are defined as phenomena thought to exceed scientific explanation. Examples include extrasensory perception, apparitions, out-of-body and near-death experiences, spiritual possession, pain and heat immunity, psychokinesis ... , poltergeists ... , miraculous healing, and contact with the dead" (p. 1). As a sociologist, McClenon does not attempt to prove that wondrous events occur as reported. "I present theories, test hypotheses, and reach conclusions applicable within the sociology of religion, belief, and folklore" (p. 3). He does view wondrous events as "sociologically real," however in that "they have real effects on those who experience them and their societies" (p. 7). I have taken the same approach in regard to the broader category of exceptional human experience. McClenon summarizes the arguments he sets forth as follows: (1) "Wondrous events are sociologically real. Some types have universal features that shape folk belief. (2) Wondrous events provide a foundation for belief in spirits, souls, life after death, and anomalous powers. They also have qualities that stimulate skepticism. (3) Those with the greatest capacity for experiencing wondrous events often engage in ceremonial performances. They produce wondrous events for audiences, often triggering belief and psychosomatic healing. (4) Many of the processes surrounding wondrous performances can be explained within sociological paradigms" (p. 6). In addition to reporting on data he has collected from others, McClenon also takes a participant-observer approach in writing the book, including first-hand participation in some wondrous events. Following Hufford, McClenon believes his cross-cultural studies support Hufford’s "experiential source hypothesis," in which characteristics of wondrous experiences are based on elements of the experiences themselves regardless of culture. In the space of an abstract we can only list the chapter headings, but this book is well worth reading—even more than once. It should be read by social scientists—anthropologists and sociologists in particular, anyone interested in anomalous (exceptional) experiences, and, of course, anyone involved with exceptional human experiences. The 12 chapter titles are: Wondrous Events and Social Science; Surveys of Anomalous Experience: A Cross-Cultural Analysis; A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Wondrous Event Narratives; Haunting and Poltergeist Cases: Constructing Folk Belief; Psychic Practitioners and Wondrous Events; Performing Wondrous Events: ESP, Psychic Surgery, and Firewalking; Wondrous Events and Audience Attraction; Wondrous Events and Religious History in Medieval Asia and Europe; Near-Death Experiences in Medieval Europe, China, and Japan; The Scientific Investigation of Wondrous Events; Wondrous Events in a Small Group: A Field Study; and Wondrous Events and the Future of Religion. In an appendix he presents his 11-item Unusual Experience Questionnaire.
Publisher Information:Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. 282p. Bibl: 257-276; Chap. notes: 251-256; 18 illus; Index: 277-281; 1 questionnaire; 7 tables
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