Attack on church creates heat, but no light

GOD'S PERFECT CHILD By Caroline Fraser Metropolitan/Henry Holt 561 pp., $30

Caroline Fraser launches her 500 page attack on Christian Science by confessing, "For reasons that I hope will become obvious, I did not seek, nor was I given, access to the archives of the Christian Science Church."

This openness about her lack of interest in the church's historical records is a clear indication that "God's Perfect Child" isn't a dispassionate search for the truth about Christian Science as it has been practiced by five generations of families. Instead, it is a frontal assault on the idea that prayer can have a healing effect.

Without any apparent irony, Fraser complains that partisanship has long distorted writing on Christian Science. She then presents an attack so virulent that it can't be of constructive use to the church she purports to describe or the public she hopes to enlighten.

Problems of method and tone run throughout. Setting aside a journalist's objectivity, the author claims her childhood enables her to deliver an intimate portrait of the church. But she describes a home that bears little relationship to the typical Christian Science family.

She claims her strict father "was offended by seat belts" because they implied accidents could happen. Fraser asserts that her mother secretly gave the children medicine "out of a bottle she kept hidden in the pocket of her raincoat."

From this household that few Christian Scientists would recognize, Fraser presents what she claims is an insider's expos of a worldwide religious movement "content to live a veiled existence." One can almost hear the "Hard Copy" theme music rising in the margins.

Throughout the book, anyone who has anything negative to say about Christian Science or its Founder is presented as an authority; anyone who has anything positive to offer is dismissed or reviled as an apologist. Consequently, in the book's first two sections, a sensational biographical sketch of Mary Baker Eddy, Fraser prefers the work of several outdated ad hominem polemics to last year's scholarly biography by Gillian Gill (Perseus).

One chapter of celebrity gossip even runs through a list of people rumored to be interested in the teachings of Christian Science. This puts Fraser in the strange position of mocking Ginger Rogers's faith in Christian Science while approving a punk rock musician's criticism of it.

As she moves into her discussion of church practices since Mrs. Eddy's death in 1910, the author's bias repeatedly colors descriptions of otherwise ordinary and normal Christian behavior: A parent praying with her son before bed, for instance, is "rehearsing" theology. A woman trying to find inspiration from the Bible is "compulsively reading the 91st Psalm."

Much of the book takes readers through a thicket of administrative minutiae involving internal church affairs over the past century. Stories about a few disaffected members who had little or no influence on the lives of most Christian Scientists are exaggerated to the level of theological crises.

Despite her claim that Christian Scientists "do not deserve to be mocked," Fraser presents such a derisive description of the church's theology that it can't help but mock anyone who would believe in it.

Complex religious issues, such as the ontological existence of the material world, the divinity of Jesus, and the nature of atonement, are simplified to the point of absurdity, spiced up with sarcastic guffaws, and passed off as official doctrine.

Fraser's real animus, however, seems to be her anger at parents who rely upon Christian Science treatment to heal their children.

Adherents' reports of physical healing are dismissed as anecdotal, but anecdotes of failure are quoted - in grisly detail - as representative.

Legislators, theologians, and doctors willing to consider the efficacy of Christian Science healing are portrayed as either sinister or duped. The church's weekly and monthly published reports of healing - now totalling 60,000 - she brands as mistaken, fraudulent, or the result of natural recovery.

A child's death is always a tragedy. The book's angry, unrelenting focus on cases where children have died under Christian Science care is about as useful as judging a children's hospital only by the cases it loses. The book's evident bias makes it difficult to draw useful conclusions about the practices of Christian Science parents or the appropriateness of state laws recognizing their First Amendment rights.

In the final section of the book, Fraser broadens her attack to include anyone willing to consider the healing effect of prayer.

It's difficult to imagine Louis Farrakhan's infamous remarks on Judaism being given the critical approval Fraser's book has received recently. While many avenues of bigotry have been closed during this century, it is sobering to see how ready some in the literary community are to embrace an intemperate attack on a small Christian church whose goal, like that of this newspaper, is "to bless all mankind."

*Reviewed by the editors.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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