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Worthwhile But Flawed
on November 4, 2009
This book is helpful and courageous when it sticks to history, which it mostly does for about 2/3 of the book. There is a lot here that should be mandatory subject matter for anyone who wishes to consider himself a Christian; I say this because most U.S. Christians are shamefully ignorant of the history of their religion. If more Christians had a real understanding of the 2 thousand years of violence and oppression perpetrated on behalf of their faith, they might be less willing to allow their churches and churchmen to get away with the discrimination, hate-mongering, and other abuses currently fostered by so many modern Christian denominations.
However, this book also contains what I think to be a serious flaw. Ms. Ellerbe appears to be personally absorbed within some kind of neo-pagan or pantheistic belief system. This is manifestly obvious by the many passages which reflect such beliefs or concepts. There is nothing wrong with the author possessing such a belief system or otherwise being a student of this kind of thought. It is, however, a misstep for Ms. Ellerbe not to state her orientation openly, and it is a mistake not to properly frame the final third of the book, which relies heavily on her own interpretation and speculation.
By failing to acknowledge the basis of her critique, Ms. Ellerbe risks creating the impression that she wishes to prosletyze her own views in a stealthy manner, rather than overtly.
A large portion of the audience that should read this book, orthodox Christians, will be able to detect Ms. Ellerbe's neo-pagan or pantheistic perspective and will dismiss the whole book out of hand on this basis. Orthodox Christians generally believe (wrongly) that anything pagan is about 1 millimeter removed from outright Satanism.
There are also some highly speculative and interpretive passages that I find to be dubious. For instance, Ms. Ellerbe states that the Newtonian, Mechanistic view of the world that dominated Western thought during the Enlightment was a natural extension of Christian thought. In contrast, many scholars would argue that the evolution and acceptance of the scientific method occurred despite Christianity, rather than because of it.
Also, Ms. Ellerbe has a bias in favor of the belief in magic, and laments Christianity for its role in suppressing human belief in magic. Whether widespread belief in magic is good for human societies is an interesting question to debate, but I think many readers would rather see this topic discussed openly, as opposed to just being told that it is so.
And it is also an open question as to whether or not, on the whole, Christianity really discourages the belief in magic. With its emphasis on miracles, the Resurrection, the deeds of prophets, the Saints' ability to cure illness, etc., it can be argued that Christianity is in fact the mostly widely held magical belief system in the world ever.
In addition, Ms. Ellerbe argues that Christian doctrine is often the ultimate cause of atheism. Once again, this is an interestic topic to discuss, but it is too speculative to state as though it were a fait accompli. It is not hard to detect the fact that Ms. Ellerbe considers atheism to a be a sad condition for a person to live with. Yet many atheists are quite happy and content with their lot.
Despite this book's flaws, Ms. Ellerbe does get the history right, and that is the strongest point. This book might have been a classic if the author had a good editor for this project. Nonetheless, it is important information, and if Christians really knew the truth of their own history, Christianity might no longer be so cynically used in American life. The citizens of the U.S. have a strange and dangerous tendency to conflate Christianity with morality. Christianity is the ultimate get out of jail card for every scoundrel caught in every kind of malfeasance. And Christianity is used as the Cosmic Hunting License, conferring about individuals and groups the moral right to commit the worst possible atrocities in the name of saving souls.
For Ms. Ellerbe to catalogue this history takes much bravery, and if this book had a wider audience she would have to hide out like Salmon Rushdie.