It is not a profound statement to say that our perceptions arise from the events we experience. How we react to individual and collective crises affect how we experience the myths that shape our lives. Myth-Making and Religious Extremism and Their Roots in Crises, by Arthur G. Neal and Helen Youngelson-Neal seeks to explore how humanity creates collective mythologies. The Neals are both emeritus professors at universities in Portland, Oregon. The good news is the Neals have a firm grasp over their subject matter. The bad news is Myth-Making is a horrendously edited book.
Arthur Neal is an emeritus professor of sociology. Helen Youngelson-Neal is an emeritus professor of economics. The combination brings to bear insights into how we as humans manage our everyday lives. The premise stated on the back pages states, “Myth-making shapes our lives, beliefs, and behavior. Collective myths become plausible explanations for events past and present as each new generation constructs reality anew to make sense of the human condition.” As a historian, my bias is to always historicize. A chronology of events leads to a historical interpretation. Sociology differs in that it looks at mass behavior. Myth-Making tackles topics like life and death, sexual prohibitions, war and peace, and how we interact with animals. The academic discipline is closely allied with anthropology. Both seek to understand what we normally would take for granted.
For me, Myth-Making falls into the category Great Premise, Bungled Execution. The book was based on a series of seminar lectures “on Myth and Myth-Making and The Sociology of Violence.” Unfortunately the book fails to transcend its roots as academic lectures. The essays come across as rambling and disjointed. The dismal editing does not help. The scholarship is solid. It would pass muster as a textbook for an introductory course in sociology, anthropology, or history. Why do we behave the way we do?
But because these used to be lectures, there’s unintentional consequences in the way groups get characterized. In discussions about the afterlife, Christianity is seen as a homogeneous monolithic mass. Taken as a given, this assumption doesn’t even explain the multiplicity of views and perspectives within the Christian worldview. The Neals think the “born-again” phenomenon exists in all denominations. It depends on how one defines it. Does this include infant baptism, adult baptism, revival meetings, faith healing, etc.? This is where generalizations can come across as disingenuous.
The editing situation really drags this book down. There were points where I wondered if English was their first language. There’s an entire chapter riddled with typos. Other chapters are laced with convoluted expressions that don’t make any sense. It’s like they submitted the manuscript to McFarland without looking at it … and McFarland not looking at it. It really is disappointing, given McFarland’s reputation as a publisher of high-quality academic texts. There’s not many occasions where I wonder if there was a line editor and proofreader in the process. McFarland publishes numerous fine academic texts each year. This isn’t one of them.