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Rennie B. Schoepflin. Christian Science on Trial: Religious Healing in America. Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. x + 301 pp. Tables. $39.95 (0-8018-7057-7).
Unlike the many scholars who have treated Christian Science primarily as a religion, Rennie Schoepflin argues that it is better approached as a "medico-religious hybrid," a form of mind cure and a system of medicine. This is how Christian Scientists characterized themselves, though the vagaries of public and legal receptivity sometimes led them to emphasize one over the other. Schoepflin focuses in particular on a number of controversial court cases in which the group's right to exist and practice unhindered was publicly debated. In examining these battles—with physicians, judges, and lawmakers—Schoepflin provides a window onto the group's self understanding and the world's response. He also makes clear why physicians viewed them as a threat. The focus on trials opens out onto larger cultural themes, especially those regarding the place of religious healing and spirituality in American culture.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the book is Schoepflin's attempt to give us glimpses of Christian Science practice through a reconstruction of the therapeutic encounter. Here he takes the subject of religious healing seriously, striving for a presentation that strikes a balance between a simple retelling in the language of [End Page 243] practitioners themselves and a critically informed translation of what takes place during treatment. What did healers do, how did they do it, and how successful were they?
Christian Science believes that human beings are always well. Disease is an illusion; God created perfect creatures and operates in the world to keep them so. Because illness does not really exist, treatment consisted primarily of praying and reading passages from founder and prophet Mary Baker Eddy's major work, Science and Health. Schoepflin insists, however, that practitioners "offered patients religious healing couched in the forms and language of medicine" (p. 60); indeed, one patient testified that "I took them [the words] as medicine, same as I would take a drug from a doctor that I didn't know anything about" (p. 66). Given his description of the therapeutic encounter, however, this argument, though interesting, is unpersuasive. Moreover, Schoepflin's sensible anthropological approach never reveals the extent to which Christian Science healed, nor does his ethnography of the healing process explain why people chose Christian Science over other forms of healing. How did its clients' day-to-day encounters with health and disease contribute to assumptions of its efficacy?
Certainly Scientists viewed themselves as an alternative to regular medical practice, and they had few qualms about urging clients to abandon regimens prescribed by regular physicians. They distinguished themselves from faith healers as well, by arguing that successful cures did not depend on the attentiveness of the sick person but solely on the power of the healer's understanding of the tenets of Christian Science. This aggressive stance helps illuminate the sect's battles with physicians, especially in the twentieth century, when new technologies of preventive care and cure afforded them a more effective therapeutic armamentarium.
The book's subtitle promises too much. Though Schoepflin points out that Christian Science was part of a resurgence of spiritual healing at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, he focuses solely on Christian Science. We learn little about its relationship with other groups. Yet he shows that at many times in its history, its doctrinal boundaries were porous.
In the twentieth century, Christian Science developed a powerful political lobby that successfully secured its right in many states to be considered "an alternative to medicine," with religious exemptions from compulsory vaccination for schoolchildren (p. 199). More recently, the survival of the church has been threatened by a backlash against this lenient approach, generated by the controversial deaths of several children and a renewed concern with child abuse and parental responsibility in the 1980s. Throughout this...