NEW ENGLAND MONTHLY
Mind Over Matter
Inside the Christian Science Church
By Alfie Kohn
A young man at the back of the room stands up, his pink shirt sleeves rolled back from his wrists, and everyone turns around to see him and hear his story. He describes how he awoke in the middle of the night several years ago to find that his nephew, with whom he was sharing a bedroom, had developed a nosebleed. At first he was tempted to fetch a towel, but immediately realized that the proper response was prayer. He approached his nephew’s bed in the dark. “I said, ‘Do you know you are the perfect and entire reflection of God?’ and in a sound sleep he nodded and said, ‘Uh huh.'” The next morning the man awoke to find that “there was absolutely no sign of nosebleed on sheets, pillowcases, whatever.”
The man sits down and there is a moment of silence here in the Mother Church, the world headquarters of Christian Science. Since the 3,000-seat “extension” building is being repaired, this week’s Wednesday testimony meeting takes place in the smaller church that adjoins it, the one Mary Baker Eddy built in 1894. On this sultry summer evening, the congregation fills all available space both downstairs and in the balconies. It is a well-dressed crowd featuring a generous sprinkling of white hair, but a good number of younger folks, too, have come to tell of their healings.
A young woman rises and waits for the usher to reach her with a microphone. She thanks the Reader for having read selections from the Bible and from Eddy’s book Science and Healthjust before — selections chosen in advance and offered each Wednesday and Sunday without comment or interpretation, just as Eddy decreed. Then the woman begins: “After some years of wasting my substance on riotous living…” and describes how Christian Science changed her life and how Science and Health led her to God. “Each time I’m in need, He’s there. And He throws His arms around me and kisses me….Once I turn to my Father for all my substance, I’m truly alive.”
An elderly man in a suit that has outgrown him tells how his daughter once had a premonition of disaster before getting on an airplane. Sure enough, there was an announcement about a mechanical problem and the passengers were transferred to another plane. “An indication of the kind of protection we can get from Christian Science,” the man says.
A man in his mid-20s announces he has just returned from Christian Science summer camp, where he served as a counselor. One day a boy slipped off a log and hurt his back. His bunkmates reflected for a while on how he is a “perfect child of God.” Three days later the boy was happily playing Capture the Flag.
A little girl tells how her eyes hurt one evening, whereupon her mother told her to read the Bible lesson. When she got up the next morning, the eyestrain was gone.
A man in the front row says he prayed four times a day because he “felt incomplete” being single. Eventually he realized he “had to give up the idea that I was in charge of my social life. God was in charge.” After he went to a Reading Room to look up the word husband — the man pauses dramatically — “I met her.”
Although the splendid complex of buildings that make up the 15-acre Christian Science Center is at least as familiar a Boston landmark as Symphony Hall across the street, the nature of the Church of Christ, Scientist is understood by few outside its ranks. Christian Scientists are sometimes confused with Scientologists. Most people know they publish a newspaper, they have those Reading Rooms scattered about, and they don’t go to doctors. Occasional news stories describe the lawsuits that are filed when a child of Christian Scientists dies of a curable disease. Otherwise the Church is regarded as slightly peculiar, perhaps a little exotic, when it is regarded at all.
Etched on the wall of the Mother Church are these words of its founder: “…disease is mental, hence the fact in Christian Science that the human mind alone suffers, and the divine mind alone heals it.” Anything that goes wrong — from illness to violence — is not part of ultimate reality but a reflection of the limitation of the human mind. Mortality and matter are themselves illusory. If, say, a child dies, this is not God’s will but the nature of mortality, which is based on error. (Why this nature should be built into our lives by a beneficent God is the wrong question to ask, according to one spokesman for the Church.)
If the problem is alienation from God’s perfect will, then the solution is to return to it. This involves coming to understand how we ourselves are perfect creatures of God’s and how spirit rather than matter is the essential nature of being. It does not involve reliance on answers from the material world. Thus an editorial in last August’s Christian Science Journalindirectly offers the preferred response to the AIDS epidemic: “…the demonstration of what we can understand, expressed in morality and spiritual purification, reverses the threat that disease can exist at all, much less spread, with the truth that God, good, is already everywhere….And the truth is that God, good, never created anything evil, harmful, or destructive.”
“Christian Science!” John Updike snorted in one of his novels. “As if there could be such a thing!” But apologists insist the two words make perfect sense together, that there is plenty of proof of spiritual healings of illness. And Mary Baker Eddy speaks from the grave on the subject. On her enormous, ornate, eight-columned monument in Mount Auburn Cemetery, we read: “The term science properly understood refers only to the laws of God…”
To understand these beliefs it is useful to know something of this woman. In 1821, Mary Baker was born into a rigid Congregationalist household in Bow, New Hampshire, the youngest of six children. She was a sickly, delicate child, easy prey for whatever disease was going around. Her frequent seizures and tantrums had her family convinced she was not long for this world, but a kindly doctor found her symptoms could be partly controlled by mental suggestion.
As an adult, Mary remained ill, sometimes virtually an invalid, reportedly given to taking morphine. She wrote poetry, married and remarried, dabbled in the occult. Then she learned of a healer in Portland, Maine, one Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, and her life was changed. In that pre-Freudian age, Quimby held the unusual view that his patients’ illnesses were related to their beliefs, and consequently he had them discuss their feelings with him. After she improved under his care, Mary could not get enough of him and the method of healing he called “Christian Science.” “Why even the winds and waves obey him,” she wrote. She tried to practice his cures on patients of her own.
In the mid-1860s, Mary moved to Lynn, Mass., divorced her second husband, became more self-reliant, and fancied herself a healer. As Church legend has it, her own healing technique dates not from Quimby (whose influence Mrs. Eddy began minimizing shortly after his death) but from February 1, 1866, when she slipped on the ice at the corner of Market and Oxford Streets, and was cured of her allegedly mortal injury — actually there is reason to doubt it was all that serious — by turning to the Bible. She was a charismatic woman with a flair for the dramatic and, some say, for rewriting past events to suit her purposes. In 1875, she published the first edition of Science and Health and, for a price, offered to make anyone a healer in three weeks. Four years later, she officially founded the Church.
The next years were a jumble of feuds and power struggles with patrons and proteges. Lawsuits and countersuits were filed; newspapers were asked to attack Eddy’s enemies. She asked her disciples to concentrate their thoughts against a former student, a young man of whom she had earlier been quite enamored, when she became convinced he was injuring her with his thoughts. At one point, eight of her most devoted members defected, citing “frequent ebullitions of temper, love of money, and the appearance of hypocrisy.”
When her third husband died of organic heart disease, she attributed it to “malicious mesmerism,” which she and her followers later called Malicious Animal Magnetism and invoked to account for a variety of unpleasantness. When one of her proteges attracted a record-setting 50 pupils, a rule was passed limiting all classes in the field to 30. When a gorgeous $1.2 million edifice was built by the branch church in New York, construction was promptly begun on a $2 million church in Boston.
By the late 1880s the Church was thriving; Eddy earned more than $100,000 from her classes in a six-year period. She labored to distinguish herself from rival mental healers, of which many varieties existed but no others were to survive. A skilled editor rewrote her textbook as it went through five more editions — providing a new source of royalties each time followers had to purchase the updated version. Even with all the improvements, Eddy declared that her book would not be fully understood for centuries.
In 1907, a 34-room mansion in Chestnut Hill was purchased and renovated for Eddy to spend her last days. “Helpers” tended to her idiosyncrasies, preparing “in-case” meals should she reject the food put in front of her. Thumbtacks were hidden around the house so every knick-knack could be replaced in precisely the same spot after dusting.
But never mind the fussiness and eccentricities: before her death in 1910, Mary Baker Eddy proved herself a woman of awesome political savvy. She cut her adopted son out of the movement by accusing him of being “governed by hypnotism.” She specified that only her own book and the Bible could ever be used at a Christian Science service and that in place of pastors giving sermons, there would be only Readers reading. And she wrote a Manual for Church governance, specifying that no by-laws could be added or members admitted without her approval.
The Manual is an extraordinary document. Church members are warned against joining any but approved organizations, looking at “obnoxious” books, speaking ill of Eddy, calling anyone except Eddy “leader,” or using the word “The” before any branch church. They are instructed to announce Eddy’s name before reading anything she wrote. “If she has overlooked a single power, howsoever minute, I cannot discover it,” Mark Twain wrote in a scathing 1907 satire, calling Eddy “a marvelous woman with a hunger for power such as has never been seen in the world before….If she should say, ‘Good-morning; how do you do?’ she would copyright it…” Twain could not get over the fact that her Manual insures that her book was to be the Church’s “pastor” forever after and that it prohibited others from adding their thoughts to her own. “It far and away oversizes and outclasses the best business-idea yet invented for the safe-guarding and perpetuating of a religion.” (See SIDEBAR A: Twain)
The Manual also requires the establishment of a Committee on Publication, essentially a public relations office, to correct errors about Christian Science that appear in the popular press. Each “Committee” is actually one person. (In fact, one man, in accordance with Eddy’s wishes, despite the fact that a majority of Church members were and are women.) In the early years, massive harassment campaigns were orchestrated by the COPs to prevent criticism from being published about the Church. A 1930 editorial in The Nation called it “the best-oiled and smoothest-running publicity — and anti-publicity — machine operated in the United States during the Twentieth Century.” The hardball strategy eventually was replaced by a vigilant but low-key approach designed to win respectability for Christian Science.
Today there are 170 Committees around the world and the Committee in charge is named Nathan Talbot. His office is on the tenth floor of the administration building, the tallest structure in the Christian Science Center. Originally from Idaho, Talbot left the practice of law because he “decided the healing ministry was really where my heart was.” (He says he sees his job not as public relations but as “a kind of healing activity.”) Indeed, he would resemble a TV evangelist but for the mildness of his demeanor. His voice is more soothing than passionate. He has a full face, blue-gray eyes, and long, slender fingers for gesturing. Talbot is a man who does not let himself become angry. Even his phone purrs so softly that you would swear the sound was coming from another office.
Today he is wearing a yellow shirt, a slightly shiny mustard-colored tie, and a green plaid sports jacket. He is talking about the moral philosophy of Christian Science. There is no room for drugs (recreational or medicinal), alcohol, or tobacco — and not because they’re unhealthy, he emphasizes, but because “the Christian Scientist wants to be free from whatever might encroach on his spirituality.” Not only adultery but premarital sex is considered inappropriate. When pressed on the matter, Talbot acknowledges that an unmarried adult Church employee involved in a stable, monogamous, heterosexual relationship would likely be dismissed if that relationship were not chaste. “To me it affects the work they’re doing here,” he says. And someone who drank an occasional beer? “To me it would symbolize he has some problems.” But the response would be less condemnation than a “let me help you” attitude.
Helping others — specifically by carrying on Eddy’s tradition of non-medical healing — is an activity all Scientists are encouraged to practice, as the Wednesday night testimony meetings demonstrate. But some Church members make their living as healers. If they are available on a full-time basis, these professional “practitioners” may list themselves in the Christian Science Journal for a fee.
It is easier to describe what this healing isn’t than what it is. It isn’t a dramatic laying on of hands that makes for good television. It isn’t a matter of simply asking God to cure someone. “It’s a quiet sitting back, turning to God kind of thing,” says Talbot. “You talk a little bit about the nature of God” with the client, pray together, then pray alone for a while. In many cases it’s all done over the phone. (See SIDEBAR B: Practitioner) Anyone can be healed, even those who aren’t Christian Scientists. Even those who aren’t people, in fact. “I think it’d be very natural for Christian Scientists to pray for their pets,” Talbot offers.
Substantiating the success of spiritual healing is a tricky business. The Church publishes stories of such cures, which are similar to those recounted at the testimony meetings, in its publications. It claims thousands of “independent” verifications of people become whole again through prayer — although the verifiers are usually relatives and invariably other Scientists. Talbot says medical corroborations of these astounding cures are so rare because doctors fear losing face with their colleagues. He says hard data are not widely publicized because this would invite a deluge of supplicants interested only in being cured and not in Christian Science itself.
Even a hard-core skeptic would not insist that all of these tales are fabrications. That many people eventually recover from diseases and injuries without medical intervention is undeniable. That many of these recoveries are accelerated because the individuals believe they are going to recover is also clearly true — as the recent surge of interest in fields like behavioral medicine and psychoneuroimmunology confirms. The fact is that faith healing often works: attitude and emotional state affect susceptibility to, and recovery from, disease.
Nevertheless Christian Scientists regularly die from medically untreated problems. This is surely their right. What raises ethical and legal complications, though, are the cases where their children die. In 1967, Harwich, Mass. resident Dorothy Sheridan was convicted of manslaughter when her five-year-old daughter died of pneumonia. (She was defended, at Church expense, by Walter Jay Skinner, now a federal judge.) Rather than appealing, the Church simply got the Massachusetts legislature to change the “proper physical care” statute to include spiritual healing. Thus the law stands today in Massachusetts and in 46 other states.
But the Church’s legal troubles have not ended. Two Scientists’ children in California died in 1984 of bacterial meningitis. Their cases and a subsequent one are on hold while that state’s highest court decides what to do. In 1985, more than 100 unvaccinated students at Principia College, a Church school north of St. Louis, came down with measles, and three died of complications. Then, in the spring of 1986, two-year-old Robin Twitchell developed a high fever in his Hyde Park home. A Christian Scientist practitioner prayed for Robin, but he developed convulsions, lost consciousness, and died after five days — of an obstructed bowel. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office is still considering whether to bring charges.
Church representatives insist that such parents are not intentionally neglecting their sick children; they are giving them care that just happens not to be medical care. For what it’s worth, this is undoubtedly true. They also emphasize, in a tone as near to bitterness as you will hear from a Christian Scientist, that lots of children die in hospitals without anyone’s calling the medical model into question. “When we lose a child, we get prosecuted,” says Talbot. “When they lose one under medical treatment, there’s no question of prosecution.” Of course, the children at issue here have died not of leukemia but of problems that medicine has well under control. Talbot, however, replies that nothing is certain. He cites a recent news story about a child who choked to death on cotton in a dentist’s office.
The new spate of prosecutions may not get anywhere, and the Church in any case evinces no sign of a siege mentality. The laws are on their side — they’ve seen to that. (Three people work full-time in the Committee on Publication’s legislative division, in fact.) They’ve also arranged for insurance companies to reimburse for healings. (From the Mutual of Omaha policy: “The term ‘physician’ or ‘surgeon,’ used in the policy or any attached riders, shall be construed to include an accredited Christian Science practitioner.”) Having won such concessions through effective lobbying, the Church then cites them as proof of the legitimacy of healing sick people through prayer.
In one instance, at least, they seem to have overreached themselves in the legislative arena. In 1971, while Christian Scientists John Ehrlichmann and Bob Haldeman were in the White House, a special act of Congress extended the copyright for Science and Health after it had entered the public domain, insuring that the Church alone would continue to control and profit from the book. Last September, a federal appeals court tossed out that extraordinary law, citing separation of church and state.
On the tranquil 23-acre campus of the Christian Science Benevolent Association in suburban Chestnut Hill, water from the rotating sprinklers is catching the morning sun. The lawns, like the red brick buildings with their ornate wooden doors, are set off from the traffic of Route 9 and shaded by lovely trees.
The material world has its hospitals and nursing homes; Christian Science has the “B.A.” Here is where old women, called guests, are tended to by young women, called nurses. The lounges are furnished with flowered sofas and tasteful curtains and grandfather clocks. The guest rooms are equipped with speakers that play selections from Science and Healththroughout the day. There is an auditorium for religious services, a tiny beauty parlor down the hall, a cafeteria for those who are up to leaving their rooms, and a bulletin board which this week advertises the play Les Miserables.
Just off the reception area, where the reels of a huge tape recorder rotate patiently, sending Mrs. Eddy’s words out through the building, is the office of the B.A.’s director, Frederick Livezey. Mrs. Eddy’s portrait watches over his personal computer as he describes the facility. Livezey is a quiet, bald man with moist eyes who left the Church’s youth division in 1980 to work with those at the other end of the life cycle. “The job needed to be done,” he explains.
As a sanitorium, the B.A. was losing nearly $1 million a year when Livezey took the reins. Since there weren’t enough sick Scientists in the area to pay the bills, he decided to turn part of the building into a rest home, where healthy retirees could pay up to $2100 a month for room and board. Another ten rooms — there are one hundred in all — were set aside for anyone to drop in for a brief period of “rest and study.”
Since the B.A. was built in 1919, 35 other Christian Science nursing facilities have gone up around the country. But Chestnut Hill is one of only three places, the other two being in Princeton and San Francisco, where nurses can be trained. Livezey shows off the classrooms where this takes place. All of the equipment for actual instruction is here: a bed, chairs, a sink, a nightstand, pitchers and basins, garbage cans, and a picture of Mrs. Eddy.
That’s it? Of course that’s it. These are Christian Science nurses. They do not learn to run I.V. tubes or work a thermometer. They do not take an ill guest’s blood pressure or pulse. “We don’t try to examine the body,” says Livezey. “Our task here really is to provide physical care.” The nurses help their patients out of bed and bathe them and bandage their wounds. Livezey walks over to another room, full of beds (“for teaching bed-making, that sort of thing”) and then to a classroom where cooking is taught. And the tour is over.
They wear white uniforms and they make $20,000 a year and they answer to “Nurse!” but they are really like hospital orderlies, aren’t they? “I have to emphasize the spiritual nature of our work,” Livezey replies. “To provide an atmosphere for the patient where he feels healing care.” He remembers one patient who refused to eat until a trained Christian Science nurse snapped into action and sang a hymn. “The patient felt the presence of God and opened her mouth.”
It takes fully three years to become such a nurse, one-quarter of that time spent in one of these classrooms and the remainder working with real patients. Livezey suggests a chat with Jan Sherman, the director of nurse training, for more on this subject. First door on the left.
For a Christian Scientist, particularly a Christian Scientist whose office is filled with Norman Rockwell plates and calendars, Sherman strikes you as one tough cookie. She is a silver-haired woman who keeps her hands pressed together prayerfully while she speaks, but she speaks directly and forcefully. You imagine her intimidating her young charges. She will not divulge her age but says she trained as a medical nurse, before she became a Scientist, in 1939.
Sherman explains who gets to be trained here: strong, healthy young women — and, once in a great while, a man – who have a membership in the Mother Church, “a demonstrable knowledge of Christian Science practice,” stories to tell of personal healings, and $4700 to spare for three years of tuition. Applications for some reason are down these days. This year there are nine first-year students, zero second-year students, and four or five third-year students. While 20 nurses were graduated in October 1986, only eight were sent out into the real world of Christian Science care a year later. There are now perhaps four or five hundred certified nurses worldwide.
Sherman flips through the pages of the curriculum: moving, lifting, arranging pillows, tending to bedpans, ethics, cooking, dressing wounds, and reading aloud. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was added to the course of study some time ago and then mysteriously removed. “We do what any nurse would do, but our medicine is the Divine Mind,” she explains.
Well, let us pursue this reasoning to its logical conclusion. Why do Christian Science nurses dress wounds? Sherman looks up in surprise. “You wouldn’t leave them uncovered, would you? They’re unsightly.” Fair enough. But why are you wearing glasses? This time she hesitates. “I should give myself a daily treatment and throw them away,” Sherman admits. “Faculties are indestructible.” (She pounds her fist into her palm to demonstrate.) “I should but I don’t.”
The fact that Jan Sherman is not alone in relying on this patently material device to correct her imperfect vision (she is in the company of Mary Baker Eddy, for one), and that Scientists routinely permit doctors to set their broken bones and dentists to give them anesthetics, has not escaped the notice of the Church’s critics over the last century. Why Novocaine but not aspirin? Why splints but no surgery? Why obstetricians to deliver children but not pediatricians to cure them?
Stephen Gottschalk has been asked these questions before. As executive editor of the Committee on Publication’s editorial division, the portly, rumpled Gottschalk functions as the Church’s in-house theologian. It is Talbot and his local counterparts who get letters into the daily newspaper when the Church is maligned; it is Gottschalk who writes an essay for Christian Century about how other denominations view Christian Science.
Gottschalk, whose desk, like Talbot’s, is utterly uncluttered, explains that “setting broken bones is putting them in a position where they can heal.” Eyeglasses and the like are “mechanical things [that] make it possible to function.” When he is pressed on the rational grounds of these exceptions, he seems faintly irritated. Tidy, “legalistic” solutions aren’t possible, he declares. It’s “less the logical consistency than the whole vision behind it.”
This vision is broad enough to allow individual Scientists to decide for themselves where to draw the line and when to compromise. It is something of a party line in the Church that there is no party line. Everyone stresses this: no set of rigid requirements, no excommunication for consulting a doctor, individual choice rather than conformity to institutional requirements. Still, those who have left the Church charge that anyone who turns to medical care is regarded with some mistrust by the Powers That Be and is put on probation if he or she holds a Church office. Moreover, a member who consults a doctor is refused the care of a practitioner, which creates a powerful psychological inducement to stay with what is known. In a written brief, Talbot argues that this rule of mutually exclusive treatment methods “stems from [our] concern for the welfare of patients…wouldn’t be in the interest of the patient to try to rely upon both at the same time.”
In 1977, Doug Swan, an Iowa math professor and lifelong Scientist, finally realized that his infant son was dying despite the prayers of a healer. When he and his wife, Rita, broke down and took the child to a hospital — too late, as it turned out — practitioners “refused to pray for my baby” from that moment on. The Swans have organized a group called CHILD (Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty) to press for repeal of state laws that equate spiritual healing with medical care. In debates with Nate Talbot, says Rita, he “always tells me how the Church members love me. I say, ‘I don’t want your love.’ It’s not about love.”
“It’s about saving children’s lives,” says Doug.
At precisely 7:30 on this sultry Wednesday evening, The Reader stands up and faces the congregation and leads them in a hymn, which everyone sings fortissimo, their voices reverberating off the pink walls. “I’ll read from the Bible,” The Reader announces, and he does so with the deliberate pace and exaggerated enunciation of a diction teacher, never lifting his eyes from the book. Then he reads from the Church’s other official text, Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder “and Discoverer” of Christian Science. A silent prayer comes next, lasting exactly sixty seconds, followed by a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and another hymn. The Reader then describes the Church and its services, reading from a brochure in the same dramatic cadence. “Feel free to use the garage during all services and the testimony meeting!” he declaims.
Dan Scharfman, a computer consultant, was enjoying the night air with his wife one Wednesday and happened to wander near the Church. Some ushers approached to invite them in for the testimony meeting. (At all Christian Science events, ushers are stationed every few yards for welcoming purposes.) Scharfman, who knew nothing of the Church, recalls the individuals vividly: “It was like all the substance had been drained out of them and smiles pasted on their faces — like androids or something. Our reaction was: ‘Let’s go out and find some mean people!'”
Almost exactly one hundred years earlier, a reporter for the Chicago Times described an audience come to hear Eddy speak as “sweet-faced, middle-aged matrons, whose features wore a pleasing expression of benevolence.” And Mark Twain, in the course of Eddy-bashing, pauses to reflect: “Personally I have not known a Scientist who did not seem serene, contented, unharassed.”
Whether automatons or people genuinely at peace, Christian Scientists are relentlessly pleasant. They are all rounded edges; the idea of a New York City Scientist seems almost a contradiction in terms. John Rowe, a Monitor reporter and a Scientist himself, praises the helping spirit he has found but admits to feeling some discomfort with “a level of niceness which at times can – how shall I put this — can use more critical thinking.” Intellectual rigor, decisiveness, a taste for irony — these are not the strong points of Eddy’s followers. Listen to them ask questions at lectures: they use fifty words where five are needed, their comments are predictable, filled with empty buzzwords (“healing,” “prayerful”) that set heads to nodding, and when they are finished it is hard to remember exactly what they’ve just said.
Or watch the guards and other staff around the Mother Church: mild and smiling, with whispery voices, they are glad to be of assistance and then they resume reading Science and Health or the Bible — and not just because they think the supervisor is watching. Any ten Scientists chosen at random are likely to be a good deal more serious about their religion than ten Catholics or Presbyterians or Jews.
This is not to say that Christian Science is a cult, a label their severest critics do not hesitate to use. There are no sleep-deprived retreats, no living charismatic leader, no glassy-eyed fanaticism. On the other hand, there isn’t a lot of spontaneity about the whole affair either, what with services in which every word is known in advance and silent prayers that last sixty seconds and not sixty-one. I once wrote that if one asked two members of a sect to name something on which they disagreed, and they could find nothing, then one could fairly apply the word cult. It was rather disconcerting, then, following a lengthy theological discussion with Nate Talbot one afternoon, to hear him volunteer the news that any other Christian Scientist I might talk to would say just about the same thing on any of the issues. (Indeed, another Scientist offered the opinion that disagreement was pointless: “I’m not sure that [it] progresses one” were her exact words.)
The charge that Christian Science is a Mary Baker Eddy cult — that she has been fitted with superhuman qualities and her every word invested with magical significance — this seems undeniable no matter how the Church may deny it. You can see how the rumor got started that a telephone was installed in her grave. Maybe it is just coincidental that the First Reader at services reads from Science and Health while the number two position is assigned only to the Bible. But lecturers do not speak incessantly of Eddy just because she required them to do so in her Manual (although she did). And an outsider notices that she is referred to not only as “Our Leader” — the capitalization is audible — but often in the present tense. In the lobby of the administration building are photos of Our Leader, with her large eyes and tight smile, and also of her house and even of her pens and pencils in silhouette. Twain referred to “Eddy-Worship,” and though Nate Talbot protests, “I can’t really say I see people deify her,” he starts a sentence a few minutes later with: “I think Mrs. Eddy states it well when she puts it this way…” as he plucks a handsomely bound volume of her prose from between two ivory horsehead bookends on his desk and flips it immediately to the right passage. On another occasion he gently refuses to divulge the size of the Church’s membership. (An informed guess would put it in the low six figures.) “We’re not a statistically oriented church,” he says. “Numbers aren’t that big a deal.” Well, in that case, why keep them secret? He shrugs helplessly and gestures to Eddy’s manual, which forbids the disclosure.
The lead article, unsigned, in the April 1889 issue of the Christian Science Journal spells it out: “Now a word about the horror many good people have of our making the Author of Science and Health ‘equal to Jesus’….If Science and Health be a Revelation of God, the person through whom it has been given is a Messenger of God….To-day Truth has come through the person of a New England girl…giving from the cradle indications of a divine mission and power….Not one word of Science and Health is written from theory, or speculation, any more than the words of Jesus were uttered from that basis. Were this the case, it would not be Science.”
Anyone who assumes that today’s Christian Scientists find this sort of thing embarrassing need only look at a Journal from 1970. Forget Science and Health: even the Church Manual, with its Machiavellian plan of governance, is divine. “Study of the Manual proves that none of the By-Laws are man-made requirements but are God’s requirements.” This presumably includes Article VIII, Section 27, which reads: “A member of the Mother Church shall not haunt Mrs. Eddy’s drive when she goes out, continually stroll by her house, or make a summer resort near her for such a purpose.”
What Scientists do find embarrassing is evidence of the religion’s decline. It is true that various public figures can be counted among the faithful: not only Ehrlichmann and Haldeman of Watergate fame, but also CIA honchos Stansfield Turner and William Webster. In terms of sheer numbers, we don’t know what has happened to the size of the membership — Eddy saw to that – but other measures are available and they don’t look good for the Church. Talbot’s acknowledgment of a “gradual decline for some years” may understate the case. A generation ago there were about 11,000 practitioners listed in the Journal; today there are fewer than 4,000. Since 1967, 25 Christian Science churches and societies in the six New England states have folded. Says one member who requested anonymity: “The Mother Church will be around a long time simply because it has a lot of money,” but where there were huge, thriving churches, “today there are these clutches of older ladies.” An overstatement, perhaps — some congregations are youthful and thriving — but Mark Twain’s fear that Christian Science will “conquer the half of Christendom in a hundred years” may now safely be laid to rest.
In 1908, an 89-year-old Mary Baker Eddy ordered the creation of a newspaper called the Christian Science Monitor whose charge was “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind.” In the early years it was intended principally for Boston-area readers. Today the paper is recognized as one of the very best in the country. True, it does not cover breaking news well, given its mid-afternoon copy deadlines and the fact that almost all subscribers receive it by mail. But anyone who has seen the Monitor cannot help but be impressed with the breadth of its coverage of world events, the balanced and carefully reasoned treatment of controversial issues, and the quality of its news analysis.
But relatively few people do see the Monitor. It may be an editor’s pride and joy, but it is a publisher’s nightmare. Circulation now stands at around 175,000 — about a third of the Boston Globe‘s and a tenth of USA Today‘s. For the last quarter-century it has been operating in the red, with last year’s deficit alone approaching $20 million. Less than a third of its meager revenues come from advertising (with most papers, the proportion is more like two-thirds), and the great majority of the ads it does manage to snare are from local retailers. Even though a full page costs less than $5,000 — a quarter of the Globe‘s rate for national advertisers — the cost-per-thousand is high and the demographics are horrible. The average reader is in her late 50’s.
The Monitor is put together in the least remarkable building of the Christian Science Center, a four-story structure to the left of the Church itself. For a while, a frisson of fear ran through the newsroom as the Church floated the idea of giving up on the paper or turning it into a weekly. But the grassroots membership would have none of that. (“You lose the Monitor, you lose the one thing that gives you credibility,” says one staffer at the paper.) For the time being, the Monitor‘s future seems secure. More than secure: it continues to operate as though it were owned by Gannett. Its printing plants in New Jersey, Illinois, Florida, and California were converted to satellite technology in 1984, leaving only the one in Beverly, Mass. to run the old-fashioned way. Salaries have gone up 25 to 35 percent over the last four years. Two new foreign bureaus, in Nairobi and Bahrain, are joining the 14 already in existence. And reporters say they’re under no pressure to keep expenses down. “I’ve never seen so much money in my life,” Washington columnist Godfrey Sperling, Jr. told the New York Times last spring.
Kay Fanning, the Monitor‘s editor, is sitting in her office one morning when managing editor David Anable walks in with a mock-up of the next day’s feature page. “Oh,” she says, smiling but genuinely disappointed, “you didn’t run my sea otters very big.” Anable explains why the animal photo had to be shrunk and she protests, “But they are so cute!”
It would be unfair to suggest that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fanning, hired away from the Anchorage Daily News in 1983, is responsible chiefly for bringing sea otters to the Monitor‘s readership. But it is true that the paper, under her direction, now has a Home and Family section, as well as more photos, more indexes, more modern graphics, and clearer labeling than it did before. There’s less lengthy analysis and more human interest. There’s a soft, “read me first” story on the front page every day. Twirling her glasses in her hand, Fanning declares that the paper is now “more active.”
The first woman to be elected president of the prestigious American Society of Newspaper Editors, Fanning is “working like mad to bring the age [of readers] down” and is not at all displeased that the proportion of non-church members reading the paper — still just slightly more than half — is on its way up. “Christian Scientists aren’t interested just to heal their own problems but to address world problems,” she says. “We really want to live in the real world.”
But the religious agenda of the Church colors the way its paper covers that real world and the parts of the world it elects to cover in the first place. There are no murders, no sex, no gossip (“injure no man”) on its pages, nor are there ads for liquor or tobacco. Stories are given an upbeat spin whether or not their subject matter calls for it. An editorial in the 75th anniversary issue put it this way: “We don’t believe it is accurate journalism to shower readers with a daily worry list” when news about “loving kindness” could be reported instead.
Fanning delicately distances herself from this credo and admits that she often feels more strongly about an issue than she can express in the paper. But while she did scrap the Monitor‘s policy of referring to death as “passing on,” she makes no apologies for refusing to “dramatize” the AIDS crisis by describing the suffering that results. And while “we have not shied away from pointing out that Oliver North lied, we try not to be terribly unkind. We try to show the other side.” The other side of the Oliver North story? “That his intentions were probably patriotic.”
The Church’s Board of Directors does not edit the newspaper, Fanning emphasizes. They sign off on the editorial page every day and occasionally veto a cartoon, but otherwise exercise a light touch. “It’s always a one-way conversation” in the weekly meetings she has with the Board — meaning she talks and they listen.
With the single exception of a daily religious article, which is labeled “Daily Religious Article,” a reader comes across no direct evidence that this is a church newspaper. “It’s somewhat ironic,” says legal columnist Curtis Sitomer. “We carry the name of a religion but we don’t really write a lot about religion.” One may wonder then why Christian Scientists insist on propping up the paper at such expense. Critics call it a public relations tool for the Church, while advocates see it as a straightforward way of doing good. In either case, as one reporter puts it, “the Monitor is what connects the Church to the broader world.”
Apart from its product, the Monitor‘s newsroom seems strikingly secular and irreverent to a Christian Scientist. More than any other part of the Church, says New England reporter John Rowe, “It’s the least absorbed in the institutional culture of Christian Science. The atmosphere is not churchly.”
Still, everyone on the editorial staff is a Scientist, aside from some stringers in the field and a handful of exceptions hired for their specific areas of expertise. It’s not as if reporters can be observed pausing in front of their VDT screens to pray. But an outsider familiar with other newspapers senses something slightly aberrant about the operation. For starters, the air is free of cigarette smoke and profanity. Reporters from most papers have a favorite after-hours watering hole; at the Monitor it used to be Brighams [a local ice cream parlor]. Never mind cocaine — you can get a dirty look in this newsroom for publicly indulging in Coke (the caffeine, you see).
None of the cartoons tacked up on the partitions around the desks are salacious, and in any case they’re outnumbered by art postcards. No one here would look out of place in another newsroom, but neither would they look out of place at the Young Republicans Club. With a few conspicuous exceptions, the men’s hair is just a little shorter, and the women’s appearance just a little starchier, than you’d expect to find at a newspaper. The notices on the bulletin boards tell of softball games and pool parties, but also of “The Mother Church and Its Activities.” And if you look hard enough, you’ll find another notice, entitled: “Objectives for paper ’87-’88.” It urges that more prominence be given to foreign news, and it exhorts writers — in blessed contrast to a certain other national newspaper — to hold down the parochialism and avoid using “We” to refer to U.S. citizens.
Then comes the memo’s discussion of values. “More and better metaphysical/ inspirational meetings for editors, departments, and entire newsroom” are called for. (These occur from time to time, according to reporters, but none have been held lately.) And the notice continues: “Keep healing goal in mind during selection and treatment of topics. Avoid prophesying disaster….There is no topic of substantial public interest that cannot be covered in the Monitor but seek guidance prayerfully as to how and when difficult subjects are to be treated.”
One recent difficult subject involved the Monitor itself, which made news for firing a reporter because she was a lesbian. Chris Madsen, who had worked at the paper for seven years, acknowledged her sexual preference in December 1981, refused to be “healed” for it, and was canned the next month. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts dismissed most of her $1 million suit on the grounds that the First Amendment allows the Church to exercise its religious freedom by running its newspaper however it chooses. But it remanded to a lower court the lesser issues of invasion of privacy and breach of contract, and those matters are still in litigation.
Madsen was fired while Kay Fanning was still in Alaska. “It was too bad that it happened the way it did,” Fanning says. Today, the issue of sexual orientation “never comes up around here. If we have people here whose sexual preference is not heterosexual, I sure don’t know about it.” Were she to learn that one of her reporters is gay, she says she “certainly wouldn’t roast the person” but refuses to rule out firing him or her — assuming the decision is indeed hers to make.
That the Church can effortlessly subsidize its newspaper to the tune of $20 million a year makes one curious about the wealth of this institution. Don Bowersock, who wears two hats as the treasurer of the Mother Church and the chairman of the Publishing Society (which oversees the Monitor and various religious journals), is the man to see. He came to these jobs by way of Arthur D. Little and Gulf Oil, and he is cordial but guarded, a man clearly accustomed to giving orders.
The Church, he says, gets its money from individuals through gifts and legacies, from branch churches, and from investment income. The latter keeps five money managers busy. Bowersock won’t break down the income by source, but he will say the total in fiscal 1987 was in the neighborhood of $120 million – nearly double what it was two years earlier. And the market value of the Church’s various endowment funds is more than twice that amount.
Then there’s the land. The Church and its wholly owned subsidiaries own the Midtown Motor Hotel, an office building, and some shops and apartment houses in the vicinity of the Center. Bowersock won’t reveal their total worth, but the City of Boston says the annual property tax bill exceeds $1.3 million. This, of course, excludes the prime, tax-exempt Church buildings themselves, which replaced a slew of apartments for low-income people in the 1960s, to the distress of those who lived there.
The Monitor, then, is small potatoes. In fact, much larger potatoes are sitting in a low, windowless building that runs the length of the overflowing reflecting pool at Christian Science headquarters, just across from Bowersock’s office. This is where the Church’s broadcast operations are housed.
In 1984, the Church went into the radio business and now distributes two news programs to 200 American Public Radio stations. In 1985, the Church went into the television business with a syndicated half-hour show, “The Christian Science Monitor Reports,” which now reaches 94 stations and some overseas. In 1986, the Church bought a television station of its very own — Boston’s channel 68, WQTV. In 1987, the Church went into the shortwave business, installing the world’s most powerful non-government transmitter in Scotts Corners, Maine and a second in the South Pacific; a third, in South Carolina, is expected to be operational next year .
It’s nothing short of an empire and, yes, there’s some nervousness among the folks who still work for — what do you call that printed thing again? ah, yes — the newspaper. “Boys with toys,” grumbles one writer about the Church’s fascination with broadcasting. “Sometimes we feel like the ugly stepsister at the Monitor.” Another reporter watches uneasily as the sexy new radio and TV operations not only attract attention and money but also drain off some of the best of the newspaper staff. Eventually, he warns, it could mean the end of the Monitor.
This view may be alarmist, but there is no question that people and dollars are making their way to the snazzy facilities a stone’s throw from the Monitor building. John Hughes, once the paper’s editor, now heads up the radio division. Business editor and former Mideast correspondent John Yemma has just been named editor of a new daily television show. Others on the newspaper staff regularly excuse themselves from the newsroom so they can quite literally broadcast their reportorial talents.
The equipment is, as they say, state of the art. The Church no sooner plunked down $7.5 million for WQTV than it poured another $600,000 into the station. In July 1986, a for-profit entity called The Christian Science Monitor Syndicate was spun off to oversee the marketing end of these various broadcast operations. The new shortwave transmitter in South Carolina alone ill set the Church back a cool 15 million. And then there’s the 24-track recording studio, the radio production facilities, and more. “All these are commercially viable activities,” Syndicate director David Morse emphasizes in an interview over his car phone. “That’s very important. They are viable business propositions.”
But if the facilities are flashy, the people using them are not. They are understated, decent sorts who seek prayerful healing instead of medical care when they get sick. (Of course not everyone in the building is a Christian Scientist: the FCC doesn’t allow discrimination in hiring where the public airwaves are involved, and besides, there aren’t enough Scientists in Boston with the skills needed to run a broadcasting empire.) The Board of Directors may find it exhilarating to reach 100 million listeners; they may be amusing themselves as much as blessing all mankind. But regardless of their motives, they are hardly turning out music videos. The shortwave operation features a two-hour religious program on the weekends, and every morning at 6:30 WQTV offers the week’s Bible lesson that corresponds to the following Sunday’s service.
The news programming, too, reflects the sort of sober, responsible, quality work you would expect. “The Christian Science Monitor Reports,” which is broadcast locally over channel 68 on Sunday evenings and distributed worldwide, has the best production values money can buy. The editing is tight and the analysis of current events is as thoughtful as the medium allows. Refreshingly, the correspondents are not blow-dried or even particularly telegenic; they are reporters rather than performers. This, of course, does not prove any more irresistible to advertisers than does the print Monitor: most of the commercial breaks are filled with public service announcements for the United Negro College Fund, Oxfam, and the Peace Corps.
As long as the Church has paid for these snazzy facilities, it figures they might as well be exploited for religious activities, too. Should the Board of Directors of the Mother Church desire to communicate with the membership, for example, they do not hesitate to make a high-tech, grand scale, whiz-bang job of it.
Take the Global Lecture Preparatory Meeting of last September. The feeling was that while 3,000 lectures on Christian Science are delivered each year around the world, presumably to spread Mary Baker Eddy’s word to the general public, the only people listening are already Christian Scientists. “We are mainly talking to ourselves in formats that are largely outdated,” Director Harvey Wood admitted in a closed session to members. It is a statement remarkable for its candor and directness in this organization.
So: 500 sites are outfitted with satellite dishes, including 14 in Africa, 25 in Europe, and seven in South America. Letters are sent to every member in the world, inviting them to attend. Nate Talbot invites me, too. He says he feels bad that I am not permitted to sit in on classes or healing sessions or Sunday school activities, and he doesn’t want me to conclude the Church is secretive.
I find the satellite dish, off the Cambridge Common, and join a rapt audience in the church to watch an in-house TV show entitled “The Challenge: Universal Indifference.” It features catchy intro music, flashy computer graphics, and slick montages. The indifference in the title is dramatized by a series of interviews with passers-by in Boston who are asked to identify Mary Baker Eddy and fumble to place the name. “Anything to do with health? Food? Anything like that?” asks one woman.
Then Harvey Wood appears on the screen, all smiles, speaking so slowly as to seem patronizing. “Funny? Yes. But also educational. People right within blocks of the Mother Church have little regard for Mary Baker Eddy,” he says, wheeling around on his stool. “Very seldom is our audience at lectures the general public. Why, we’re pleased if we get ten percent.” Clearly it is time for changes. The other Board Members have their turns, quoting from Eddy and the Bible to emphasize the importance of installing permanent satellite link-ups to Reading Rooms, making videotapes of services, and having lecturers appear on cable TV.
Before the old-fashioned lectures are history, I figure I ought to check one out. As it happens, there is a talk scheduled at the Cathedral of the Pines, a non-denominational outdoor chapel near Rindge, New Hampshire. The lecturer, Jack Thornton, drives up from his home in Marblehead in his gray Mercedes 300E. He has two Board-of-Directors-approved lectures in his repertoire which he gives 80 times a year. One is called “Take Possession of Your Body.” The other one, which he is delivering today, is called “Freedom from Fear and Terror.”
About 150 people, the majority well into their 50s, are sitting on folding chairs and brown wooden benches, listening intently to Thornton’s voice, which is everywhere, thanks to speakers mounted high in the trees. It is a methodical, rhythmic voice, with exclamation points after every few words as if his listeners do not understand English very well.
“God! And not man! Is the primal cause! Y’see: There can’t be more than one Supreme Being! Or there wouldn’t be any!” For 45 minutes Thornton says nothing about healing and makes only passing reference to Eddy. Then he tells a story about a woman who was terrified to find “unnatural growths in each of her breasts” — terrified, that is, until she came upon Science and Health and found joy. Yet the growths persisted until a year later, at which time she had a second spiritual breakthrough. “All I had to do was turn from [the fear] and I’d be free,” she realized. Still the growths did not disappear. Then, a third epiphany: she should include others in her prayers. At last her condition improved. Thornton smiles at us. “Claim your right to be free from fear and terror,” he concludes.
In the reception line after his talk, there are hearty handshakes and grins. One woman says she wants to ask him a question, and proceeds to explain that she has unpleasant visions and voices in her head. This does not faze Jack Thornton. “It’s mesmerism and that’s all it is,” he assures her. “There’s only one Mind and there’s no other one. You’re on the right track.”
How much of this style is Thornton’s and how much is common to Christian Science lecturers? A few weeks later, one Nancy Pihl from Philadelphia is scheduled to talk at the church in Andover, Mass. Pihl, it turns out, lectures 144 times a year. Her topics are: “Changeless Goodness: God’s Plan for Man” and “Terrorism: What We Can Do About It.”
On a rainy evening, 60 women and 17 men turn out to hear God’s plan for man. Pihl begins by announcing that she got her start as a musical comedy singer, and you can well believe it. Her voice suggests Ethel Merman’s and it’s easy to imagine it breaking into song after the next anecdote. She is a hefty woman with frosted hair, an indulgent smile that one uses with children, and broad gestures of the sort that speech coaches recommend. After each gesture, her hands come to rest in front of her, with fingertips touching and pointed toward the floor. She speaks slowly, her voice descending reassuringly at the end of each sentence as if she has reached the finale.
“If things aren’t going well, then we can look a little further,” she says. “Because it must not be God’s plan.” She tells a story about a widow with children who had no education and no insurance. Her debts piled up. “But even though this woman hadn’t been a student of finance, she was a student of the Bible.” (Big smile.) When meetings with lawyers became too complicated, she would leave the room and take out the Bible. Then the woman’s daughter took sick and coughed a lot. She was down to her last $75. Pihl continues with the story for fifteen minutes before the woman is finally rewarded for learning “the importance of total reliance on God,” and then segues into another story. The concluding sentence of the evening finally arrives: “So what is God’s plan for man? Changeless, spiritual good.”
SIDEBAR A: Twain
“This last summer, when I was on my way back to Vienna from the Appetite-Cure in the mountains, I fell over a cliff in the twilight and broke some arms and legs and one thing or another….There was a village a mile away, and a horse-doctor lived there, but there was no surgeon. It seemed a bad outlook; mine was distinctly a surgery case. Then it was remembered that a lady from Boston was summering in that village, and she was a Christian Science doctor and could cure anything. So she was sent for….
“‘One does not feel,’ she explained; ‘there is no such thing as feeling: therefore, to speak of a non-existent thing as existent is a contradiction. Matter has no existence; nothing exists but mind; the mind cannot feel pain, it can only imagine it.’
“‘But if it hurts, just the same–‘
“‘It doesn’t. A thing which is unreal cannot exercise the functions of reality. Pain is unreal; hence, pain cannot hurt.’
“In making a sweeping gesture to indicate the act of shooing the illusion of pain out of the mind, she raked her hand on a pin in her dress, said ‘Ouch!’ and went tranquilly on with her talk….’The fundamental propositions of Christian Science explain it, and they are summarized in the four following self-evident propositions: 1. God is All in all. 2. God is good. Good is Mind. 3. God, Spirit, being all, nothing is matter. 4. Life, God, omnipotent Good, deny death, evil, sin, disease. There — now you see.’”
It seemed nebulous; it did not seem to say anything about the difficulty in hand — how non-existent matter can propagate illusions. I said, with some hesitancy:
“‘Does — does it explain?'”
‘”Doesn’t it? Even if read backward it will do it.’
“With budding hope, I asked her to do it backward.
“‘Very well. Disease sin evil death deny God omnipotent God life matter is nothing all being Spirit God Mind is Good good is God all in All is God. There — do you understand now?’
“‘It — it — well, it is plainer than it was before, still –‘
“‘Could you try it some more ways?’
“‘As many as you like; it always means the same….’
“‘Nothing exists but mind?’
“‘Nothing,’ she answered. ‘All else is substanceless, all else is imaginary.’
“I gave her an imaginary check, and now she is suing me for substantial dollars.”
— Mark Twain, Christian Science
SIDEBAR B — Profile of a practitioner
Judith Prough, the only Christian Science practitioner in Andover, Mass., is an intense woman in her late 50s with short blond hair. She became a Scientist at the age of 19, during which time she was “pretty much a basket case.” (Most Christian Scientists tell a similar story of finding solace in the Church’s view of human perfection during a difficult period in their lives.) Prough maintains steady, almost hypnotic eye contact — leaning forward until she is practically resting on the table — while describing how she heals her “patients.”
“The minute the individual starts to speak, any comment that is a statement of anything but the Truth of Perfect God and Man you don’t accept,” she explains. “The minute they say, ‘I got up this morning and my sight was blurred,’ I say, ‘We have perfect eyesight.” It is not necessary to convince the patient of this or even to say it out loud. “Mental reversal” is sufficient. “You never accept anything but perfection — the correction is the treatment.”
Prough charges $7 for an average session, and most cases require three or four treatments. This can be done entirely over the telephone, but even after hanging up she is still at work. “I try to maintain a consciousness that can see nothing but perfection. I take it with me to the grocery store.”
“Christian Science is much more a science than a religion,” says Prough. “We’re applying God’s law, God’s science. It’s just like applying the laws of math.” It is significant, she adds, that Mary Baker Eddy uses the word science more than 1,000 times and religion only 40 times.
During any given week, she may treat a dozen or more people, with complaints ranging from back pain and difficulty with breathing to the stress caused by business rivalries. Also: “homosexuality, AIDS, adultery, drugs — you name it. It’s not an ivory tower business,” Prough smiles.
As for losing a patient, she says, “the only time a patient passed on was a case where the individual was ready to move on.”Copyright © 1988 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page. www.alfiekohn.org — © Alfie Kohn