Helen Ellerbe

Original Sin

Janet Orsi

At peace: Helen Ellerbe dedicates her book to freedom and dignity.

Probing the dark side of Christianity

By Gretchen Giles

I am fascinated by the role that religion plays, and how religion is such a powerful tool, and how when it is misused, it can really crush a person’s spirituality,” says Helen Ellerbe softly, sitting among the floral sofa cushions of her San Rafael home. “And spirituality is really something that can be one of the most empowering phenomenons there is–to have a personal relationship with the divine, with the sacred. You can move mountains when you’re in touch with that. [I’m interested in] how that relationship can become confined and put in a box called religion and then used as a political tool.”

Tall, sweet-faced, and sitting in a home filled with her handmade dolls and hand-painted furnishings, all vibrantly adorned with the colors of the sunrise, Ellerbe doesn’t look like a candidate to have written The Dark Side of Christian History (San Rafael: Morningstar Press, $12.95), a searing indictment of the past actions of the Catholic Church. And it’s not exactly what she set out to do.

Five years after she was first prompted to research the history of the church by a friend’s assertion that Christianity had done more good than harm, Ellerbe’s bleak, well-written account is into its second printing. “I was looking for this book,” she says. “I really had no intention of writing this book.”

What struck her immediately in her research was the lack of information on the less savory side of Christian history–witch-hunts, inquisitions, the forcible conversion of non-believers, and the banning of the arts during the early Middle Ages. Ellerbe acknowledges that there is a growing library of academic and theological works on this subject, but her book–which she will discuss April 5 at Sonoma’s Readers’ Books–is written for the lay person. And it is written by someone with a firm grip on her own spirituality.

“People who I have found trying to write an expansive Christian history generally write from an atheist’s standpoint,” says Ellerbe, who was raised Episcopalian. Speaking for the atheist, she continues, “The problem with the church has been that it bought into all of this supernatural, magical garbage, and that this is all a bunch of hogwash. If you were coming from a more rational, scientific standpoint, you would never have believed all that in the first place. Well, that is not the standpoint that I take in this book. In many ways the church built the foundation for the Age of Enlightenment and for the Newtonian world view of physics.”

Tracing the rise of the Christian church from the century after Christ’s birth, Ellerbe states in the Preface that her intention was never to give a balanced view of Christian history, but rather to chronicle only those little-examined events “which hurt so many and did such damage to spirituality.” Ellerbe believes that the synthesis of the church as a powerful leader came from a small core of Orthodox Christians who strove to have “a strong church that would be symbolic of a strong, tyrannical God–that was very much in keeping with their belief structure, and I think that that is part of the reason why they ended up prevailing.”

And prevail they have. In her concise and one-sided telling of almost 2,000 years of history, Ellerbe persuasively chronicles how the church sought to divorce humanity from the earth, to exorcise the pantheon of natural spirits whom man had long worshipped, teaching parishioners to despise their bodies and sexuality, admonishing against bathing and other pleasures of the flesh, burning or slaughtering all who opposed church dictum or who lived outside societal norms, denying education and the arts, subjugating female power and ancient healing knowledge, and–at one particularly low time in the Dark Ages–even killing those commoners who possessed a Bible.

“When I first started the research on this book,” Ellerbe comments, “I already knew a great deal about Christian history and its dark side, but I was not aware of the extent of it, so I went through a period of really being horrified when I started putting everything together.

“But the thing that I value the most from having written the book is the sense of peace that I’ve come to about the role of religion. It has been ugly–there’s no question–and yet, understanding it and knowing what’s happened has allowed me to avoid totally shutting down when I hear anything about the church.”

Surprisingly, reaction from clergy has been mild. “I was really frightened of the reaction of the church when I first started doing research,” Ellerbe admits. “And I was very angry as I put more and more [information] together, and I realized that this many people were hurt and this many lives were lost, all in the name of God. It’s one thing when you kill someone because you want their property; it’s another thing to go do that in the name of God, and to say that you are working on God’s behalf. There is something so abhorrent in that.

“This isn’t about blaming Christians, you know,” she asserts. “I don’t feel that I’m getting that kind of reaction at all. I don’t mean to condemn the Catholic Church more than [other faiths]. It just has a longer history.”

Helen Ellerbe will read from and sign The Dark Side of Christian History on Good Friday at 7:30 p.m. Readers’ Books, 127 E. Napa St., Sonoma. Free. 939-1779.

From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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