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The Real Mrs. Eddy

To the Editors:

No one would dispute Whitney Balliett’s credentials as a jazz critic, but his emotional critique of Christian Science and Mary Baker Eddy falls short of the facts in his review of God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church by Caroline Fraser [NYR, September 21, 2000].

The reviewer’s notions about Eddy, Christian Science, and the church she founded are based on century-old biases re-churned without examination. And on the reviewer’s own position as an “ex– Christian Scientist.” The review is literally filled with unfairness and inaccuracy.

A new generation of scholars, however, is overturning old biases and assumptions. Dr. Gillian Gill’s biography Mary Baker Eddy (Radcliffe Biography Series, 1998) exposes numerous historical distortions about Eddy which Balliett relies on. Gill—neither an apologist nor a Christian Scientist—offers what one reviewer called an “impeccably researched biography,” and explains why Eddy was recognized as the most influential woman in America in her day.

That Balliett finds Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures “unreadable” is ironic in light of the last chapter—a compilation of accounts by people healed from just reading the book. The fact is that tens of thousands of readers over the last century have found in its pages a practical, spiritual basis for their lives and have been cured of diseases, a significant number of which were medically diagnosed as incurable or terminal.

Eddy was not a “hysteric of classical dimensions.” Nor is there virtually any compatibility between what Phineas Quimby believed (there is little actually written by Quimby) and what Eddy wrote and practiced. Also, Christian Scientists are always free to choose the form of health care they feel is best for their children, without any control by the Church. The Church’s finances today are strong. Further, its published record of healings, far from “seem[ing] archaic and unproved and even dangerous,” is in fact attracting the interest of the medical community in search of answers to its self-diagnosed problems.

This is not to say that the practice of Christian Science is perfect. No therapeutic system, including conventional medicine, has a perfect record. However, today’s readers of Science and Health who’ve been cured of cancer, diabetes, asthma, or HIV, who also read The New Yorker, play jazz, are academicians, members of their local museums and interfaith groups, medal athletes or soccer moms and dads, would find Christian Science something quite different from Fraser’s or Balliett’s view of it.

Gary A. Jones
Manager, Committees on Publication
The First Church of Christ, Scientist
Boston, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

If there were an award for wretched excess in book reviews, surely Whitney Balliett’s review of Caroline Fraser’s God’s Perfect Child would receive it. Both the review and the book reflect the same slash and burn/take no prisoners impulse and for a good reason: Balliett and Fraser are both angry former Christian Scientists, driven by a strong animus against their former faith. Whatever the merits of their personal grievances, the question remains whether they or apostates from other traditions—whether Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, or Mormon—can write with any semblance of balance about a faith they have come to radically resent. Strong convictions can, of course, inform legitimate scholarship. Even so, the great leveler remains respect for the evidence, all of it, and the refusal to indulge in wholesale distortion or omission of facts. It is just here that Balliett’s review, like the book he is reviewing, fails utterly and at the very outset.

In the review as in the book, any reasonable reckoning with Mrs. Eddy’s character and motivation is short-circuited by the uncritical repetition of the whopping absurdity that she was, in Harold Bloom’s unhappy phrase that Balliett quotes, “a monumental hysteric of classical dimensions.” As Gillian Gill’s recent biography Mary Baker Eddy has demonstrated beyond dispute, there is simply no evidence to sustain this myth, propounded early in the century when Mrs. Eddy aroused storm clouds of controversy as a woman religious leader in a male-dominated society.

Why has so eminent a figure as Harold Bloom uncritically bought into and perpetuated this dismissive falsity? Because it is simply part of the culture of American intellectuals and has been, with rare exceptions, since the days of Twain’s attack and the notoriously unreliable 1909 muckraking biography of Mrs. Eddy by Georgine Milmine, which Fraser singles out for special praise. Bloom, Fraser, and the review in question are simply riding that wave and trusting uncritically in the literature it has produced.

In so doing, they totally leave out of account the mountainous evidence of the depth and seriousness of Mrs. Eddy’s spiritual quest. The real Mrs. Eddy, to put it as briefly as possible, endured serious illness and horrific personal loss during the first part of her long life. She was impelled by her own suffering and what theologian Karl Holl called her “earnest Puritan faith in God” to anguish over the issue of how God could cause or permit suffering of the depth that she and others endured. Then, following a trail that led through exploration of the mental basis of disease, she came to a much larger conclusion: that human pain was rooted in dense blindness to God, not his creative will; and that renewed God-experience of biblical proportions makes healing a natural part of living Christianity.

Like Fraser, Balliett dwells in chilling detail on well-publicized instances of losses of children under Christian Science care. These cases have been horrific and should have impelled more genuine and far-reaching soul-searching in the Church than has been the case. Nevertheless, a grisly analysis of cases of children who have died under medical care could also be framed so as to indict medical practice broadly, minus any comprehension of standard medical practice and success.

The question demands to be asked, fairly and without prejudice: Is there real and rational evidence of the healing of serious illness through the practice of Christian Science across the many decades in which members of the denomination have been committed to this work? Balliett and Fraser seem frantically inclined to raise the bar of acceptable evidence so as to exclude any possibility that such healing can occur less, perhaps, because it supports an orthodoxy from which they have been emancipated than that it violates an orthodoxy to which they have subscribed: that when all is said and done, in Bertrand Russell’s phrase, “Omnipotent matter rolls on.”

Yet there is so much in contemporary experience that confutes this orthodoxy from the record of Christian Science healing, despite failures, to spiritual healing in other Christian churches, documented instances of spontaneous recovery which have no medical explanation, and extensive exploration of the mind/body continuum. Sheer intellectual integrity demands that the far-ranging questions raised by these developments should not be cavalierly dismissed, whatever uncharted pathways they may open for medicine, religion, and the future of Christian experience.

Stephen Gottschalk

Wellesley, Massachusetts

Whitney Balliett replies:

Both of these letters—Gary Jones’s seemingly reasonable and Stephen Gottschalk’s roaring and red-faced—are from ardent Christian Scientists. Jones is the Manager, Committees on Publication, of the Mother Church in Boston, and Gottschalk is a former member of the same committee who was relieved of his duties in 1990 after objecting to the Church’s longstanding refusal to allow discussion and criticism of its policies and actions from within the Church. Christian Science is, in Martin Gardner’s indisputable description, a “non-Christian, nonscientific cult,” and cults are famously known, when attacked, to mount their barricades and fire wildly. Indeed, Scientists have been firing self-defensive cannons since Mark Twain blasted the Church in his 1907 book Christian Science, and McClure’s magazine ran a series of critical articles on the Church the same year under the name of Georgine Milmine, a researcher at the magazine whose name was used as an alias for the actual author, the young but already redoubtable Willa Cather. (Caroline Fraser does not, as Gottschalk claims, praise the Cather articles; she simply gives the facts about them. Facts have long rattled Scientists.)

Trying to answer Jones’s and Gottschalk’s letters is like talking to oneself. However, a few thoughts: Caroline Fraser’s calm, brilliant book has upset the Church so much it has taken to calling it “virulent,” “mocking,” “sarcastic,” and “intemperate.” And it has moved Gottschalk to call Fraser and me “angry former Christian Scientists, driven by a strong animus against their former faith.” The truth, though, is that we peacefully agree with the great V.S. Pritchett, who grew up in Science in England and wrote in his elegant memoir The Cab at the Door: “The occasional healings or even the many tragic failures to heal are not the important aspects of this religion. The real objection is to the impoverishment of mind, the fear of knowledge and living that Christian Science continuously insinuates: the futility of its total argument and its complacency. It operates like a leucotomy that puts the patient into an amiable stupor.”

Gary Jones has been working overtime on the barricades since Fraser’s book appeared. He first responded to The New York Times Book Review, calling Fraser’s book “rancorous.” Then he wrote a long rebuttal of Martin Gardner’s review in the Los Angeles Times, again calling Fraser’s book “rancorous.” He mentions, as proof of the efficacy of Christian Science, the supposed healings that appear at the end of Science and Health, Mary Baker Eddy’s codelike, much-revised primer on Christian Science. The accounts, signed only with initials, have never been medically proven. Christian Scientists also boast about the millions of copies of Science and Health sold in the last one hundred years. I wonder how many of their purchasers have actually read this strange and unreadable book. At the end of his letter, he casually mentions that Christian Science has now cured HIV. He then says that today’s Scientists read magazines like The New Yorker, play jazz, are academics, museum members, and soccer moms and dads. In other words, they have become cool middle-class swingers. The Church must have sprung a leak in the last fifty years. When I was growing up in Christian Science, the practitioners I knew had white hair and spoke softly and had pained smiling eyes. Some of them had even had communications of one sort or another with Mary Baker Eddy. They probably listened to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts from the old Metropolitan Opera House, but I doubt that they ever even went to the movies.

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