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Jana Riess

In Sickness and in Health

The past and future of Christian Science

Christian Science has attracted a good deal of attention in the last decade, most of it negative. Alarming court cases have featured heart-wrenching stories of Christian Science children who died of preventable illnesses and treatable injuries while prayerful parents and practitioners looked on. Rumors of financial battles and personality conflicts at the Mother Church in the early 1990s did little to elevate Christian Science in the public eye.

Such controversy is not new to Christian Science, which has endured its naysayers ever since Mary Baker Eddy first declared herself healed after falling on the ice in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1866. In the last five years, a number of books have attempted to plumb Christian Science's colorful past and ascertain, from there, its hazy future. Gillian Gill offers fresh perspectives on the faith's unconventional founder; Caroline Fraser exorcises personal demons in an acerbic exposé; and Barbara Wilson establishes a theological and literary standard with an autobiography of her loss of faith.

Gillian Gill's Mary Baker Eddy is the best biography to date. In her preface, Gill suggests that both the hagiographic and the unflattering portrayals of Eddy "are implicitly agreed on one essential point—that she deserved no personal credit for anything important she did." Sympathizers have depicted Eddy as the vehicle for the birth of Christian Science, while detractors consider her "merely very lucky and very unscrupulous." Gill, in contrast, employs her 700-plus pages to evaluate Eddy as a leader whose "main problem was that she had an extraordinary talent for life in the public sphere but was barred from entering it."

On the surface, Eddy's rise to prominence is the quintessential Horatio Alger story, but Gill serves it up with some distinctly feminist twists. Indeed, Gill openly esteems the strength that other biographers censure, seeing Eddy's lifelong struggle against feminine dependence (especially in the forms of frequent illness and destitution) ...

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