Sunday, February 18, 2007

Book Review: The Dark Side of Christian History

The Dark Side of Christian HistoryI have mixed feelings about Helen Ellerbe’s The Dark Side of Christian History which attempts to document the sins of the Christian Church during the Dark Ages, the Medieval Period, the Reformation, and the Inquisition. There is no doubt that the Christian Church, throughout its history, has been guilty of political maneuvering, sexism, oppression, racism, witch hunting, and misrepresentation of God. Documenting these aspects of Christianity is not new and are important to consider. The problems I have with Ellerbe’s construction of this history are related to her causal explanations, some of her questionable historical claims, and simplistic approach. Ellerbe argues that the origin of all the sins of Christianity result from
... the belief in a singular supremacy, the belief that divinity is manifest in only one image. The belief in a singular God differed radically from the widespread belief that divinity could be manifest in a multiplicity of forms and images. As people believe that God can have but one face, so they tend to believe that worth or godliness among humans can also have but one face. Different genders, races, classes, or beliefs are all ordered as better-than or less-than one another. Even the notion of two differing opinions existing harmoniously becomes foreign; one must prevail and be superior to the other.
This is the fundamental premise on which Ellerbe builds her view of Christian history. It is obvious, when one considers the good side of Christianity, that the consequences of this belief do not necessarily lead to the evils documented in her book. Not only that, one needs to question whether her view is an accurate statement of Christian theology.
Ellerbe admits that her book is one-sided in the sense that there are many good aspects of Christianity. However, to suggest that all the sins of the Christian church are the result of this one idea ignores the complexity of that very history.
The further one reads in the book, the more evident the subtle tendency toward a pagan view of divinity becomes. She accuses Christian theology to be against the earth (which, in its best forms, isn’t). In addition, Ellerbe believes that there was a time when people lived in peace without conflict. This is a highly controversial claim and has, as far as I know, been discredited. And enough conflict has occurred in other religious traditions (including non-Christian ones) to show that Christian belief is not a sufficient condition for conflict.
In addition to this, when Ellerbe enters into a discussion of science she reveals a very simplistic understanding of things like quantum theory and Newtonian science. It is very common for critics of orthodoxy to appeal to such things. However, like much writing in this area, Ellerbe demonstrates a misunderstanding of science and, in particular, quantum physics - the principles of which have a limited application.
Ellerbe is correct in suggesting that, by denying evil, harm is done. Christians must look to their history and learn from it. But The Dark Side of Christian History is a very biased look that needs to be read with caution. It would be advisable to check the historical, philosophical, and religious claims before putting too much weight on them. In my view, the book is worth reading but with a good degree of caution. It would be better, perhaps, to read something like Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley alongside Ellerbe’s book.


  1. I just found this so I suspect I’m a bit late. But your review made me chuckle. The book must have bothered you. Your several referrals to “the good side of Christianity” are revealing. Considering the body count, the child molestations, the beatings, the cultural genocides, the fascist capitulations of your faith – the good sides don’t stack up. Al Capone had some good sides too but they don’t make up for the others stuff. Accept it.

    Then you seem to be worried about paganism. You cite the author’s “subtle tendency." Does this mean what I think it means? That she never said she was a pagan but because she didn’t discount them you lumped her in?

    And then the part that made me laugh the most: “when Ellerbe enters into a discussion of science she reveals a very simplistic understanding of things like quantum theory and Newtonian science.” You spend the rest of that paragraph and the next repeating yourself but never once giving an example. I’ll bet you 50 bucks that you have no idea what quantum physics even is.

    You end, of course, by recommending that people read a church history written by a member of the Denver seminary. Now there’s an objective viewpoint!

  2. You wrote above that, "It would be advisable to check the historical, philosophical, and religious claims before putting too much weight on them." The person who commented below complained about never once seeing an example used in the review so I have one. For an english class I am taking, I was to read a selection of Helen Ellerbe's book called "The Witch Hunts: The End of Magic and Miracles." In this selection it quotes, "Women are often understood to be impediments to spirituality in context where God reigns strictly from heaven and demands a renunciation of physical pleasure. As I Corinthians 7:1 states, "It is a good thing for a man to have nothing to do with a woman." I took out a Bible to see for myself and I Corinthians 7:1 states: "Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry." It goes on to say in I Corinthians 7:2, "But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband."

    So I too believe it would be advisable to check the historical, philosophical, and religious claims before putting too much weight on them. I also agree that it is advisable to read a Church history written by someone with a different viewpoint on everything, so you can see both sides of the arguments.

  3. Helen Ellerbe has written a courageous book.
    Only people caught up in the false spirituality
    of Churchianity would feel the need to nit-pick on her manner of writing. I found it refreshing in its portrayal of the sort of dysfunctional mankind that needed salvation from its own psychosis. Not much has changed since the persecution of the early Essenes.

    The proofs we need to test Helen's claims are in our gut, where the Kingdom resides. My gut tells me that Churchianity as we know it is living on borrowed time. It failed in its mission because it just wasn't attuned to what real religion is all about. It simply lacked the spirit.

  4. Born in very pre Vatican 2 in '31 I witnessed the fear instilled by the Catholic Church, "Outside the Church there is no salvation." All my life I believed that God was up there somewhere constantly looking at only me and judging every move, and with me constantly worrying about going to hell. After so many wrong moves and decisions in my life I came to the conclusion after considerable resistance by my brainwashed conscience, that I should study some history of the Church that had been withheld from me and not just continue to pray, pay and obey blindly. After some 70 years of blindness to the truth I found and opened myself up Ellerbe's book and was astounded at what truths were held from me out of the fear instilled in me to merely question and learn the truth about things.

    The Church was brutal in keeping the flock under control, from the first century. Today's lack of credibility of the bishops is no different. Justify, make excuses, deny, cover-up, hide and place blame elsewhere seems reminiscent of things Ellerbe has researched and told us about. I only wish I could have begun the cleansing of my total Catholic brainwashing at the time I was ordered to memorize the Baltimore Catechism, and didn't have the free will to know the real truth behind the almost hidden Catholic Church history, hidden because we were afraid to even go there.

    I believe the biggest shocker was to read that even at the beginning of the 20th century, and what could have been in the mind of Adolf Hitler to "cleanse". This, by Pope Leo XIII, was written only a few years before I was born. Popes, at times, can say things that later make the masses wonder what planet they are on or in what way is this man's religion similar to that of Jesus'. Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) Roman Catholic Pope from 1878 to 1903, who wrote the first modern papal statement on social and economic theory said:
    "The death sentence is a necessary and efficacious means for the Church to attain its end when rebels act against it and disturbers of the ecclesiastical unity, especially obstinate heretics and heresiarchs, cannot be restrained by any other penalty from continuing to derange the ecclesiastical order and impelling others to all sorts of crime ... When the perversity of one or several is calculated to bring about the ruin of many of its children it is bound effectively to remove it, in such wise that if there be no other remedy for saving its people it can and must put these wicked men to death."
    -- Pope Leo XIII, advocating death to all heretics and teachers of false doctrine -- showing that the end justifies the means even in the twentieth century, in Lloyd M Graham, Deceptions and Myths of the Bible (1975), p. 468, quoted from Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History.
    "The first thing we do," said the character in Shakespeare's Henry VI, is "kill all the lawyers." Perhaps there is an appropriate statement to be made about our unholy popes, cardinals and bishops in these times.

  5. Last comment is a very typical demonstration how someone uses the history and distorts the sources in order to attack the christianity...
    The sentence about death sentence is not written by the Pope but by Marianus de Luca, a canonist lawyer. Thi is clearly stated in Lloyd M Graham's book (in Ellerbe's I don't know).
    Why this clumsy attempt to call personally into question the Pope?
    Anyway, as I can't find this Marianus' quote in any reliable historical work (Ellerebe and Lloyd M Graham are not historians) I can't confim it.

  6. well, I just gave a look to the Ellerbe's book.
    Ellerbe writes as if the argument about death sentence was by Pope Leo XIII.
    I cant' understand how someone could give credit to a book with such errors very similar to a forgery.

  7. Ellerbe's book is so well-researched that she repeats the myth of the midwife witch, even though that was debunked five years before she put a pen to paper.

    (see here