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A Review of Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook

by David Biebel, DMin

Today's Christian Doctor - Summer 2001

The first book report I ever wrote (Was it sixth grade?) probably went something like this: The book was good. I liked it. The end.

Now that I’ve read several thousand more books, even written a few myself, my review of Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook is this: This book is great. You can’t have my copy. You should buy one for yourself, your waiting room and each of your exam rooms. The end.

Depending on your practice, within the foreseeable future any number of patients are going to pause on the way out of the exam room, hand on the doorknob, to ask one question or another about alternative medical therapies. For example, one patient might want to know what you think of the "hallelujah diet," which her friend believes to be divinely inspired. Another might ask about chelation, which her mother swears by, or carrot juice enemas. Another might inquire about magnet therapy for her back pain, or light therapy for her depression. Some may want to know what you think of actress Suzanne Somers taking an extract of mistletoe, instead of chemotherapy, for her breast cancer.

Many will request your professional opinion about any of hundreds of herbal supplements or remedies—from aloe to zinc—which they’ve heard about from friends, seen advertised on TV, or encountered on the internet where there are currently 577,395 alternative medicine Web pages listed.

More importantly, since your patients know that you seek to integrate your faith with your practice, how will you respond when patients inquire about therapies with components that are distinctively unbiblical or anti-Christian?

The Book’s Organization

The book has four sections, the first three of which provide background information and both theoretical and theological bases for evaluating specific alternative therapies, herbal remedies, vitamins and dietary supplements.

Part One offers a brief overview of issues related to alternative medicine and a look back at conventional medicine.

Part Two addresses the subject: "God, Health, Healing, and the Christian." This section, which discusses "The Christian Principles of Health," "The Christian Explanations for Illness and Suffering," and "How to Pursue Good Health—the Basic Principles" is must reading for any believer who wishes to develop a deeper understanding of the interface of faith and health.

In Part Three, the authors provide general guidance on how to evaluate alternative medicine through the chapters "What You Need to Know About the Alternatives," "Alternative Medicine and Children," "The Gurus: Fraud, Quackery, or Wisdom?" This section’s final chapter "How Science Tests Therapies and Remedies" is basically a layman’s guide to understanding the scientific method—solid gold.

But, for me, the most intriguing and revealing portion of Part Three was the chapter "Taking a Closer Look at ‘Christian’ Therapies"—intriguing because many Christian authors might avoid this potentially contentious topic; revealing because it demonstrates the authors’ absolute commitment to scientific and biblical truth.

"Christian therapies are frequently based on personal experience," they acknowledge. "Widespread promotion of the therapies sometimes begins with members of the clergy, lay theologians of note, or others with ready access to the media….

"These Christian therapies are said to be biblically justified. Some fit into the theology of the particular denomination to which their proponents belong. They sound good. Unfortunately, some are not medically sound…. Good intentions are not enough when making recommendations that affect people’s health. And then labeling the therapy as ‘Christian,’ or ‘God’s own,’ or ‘biblically supported’ raises a host of other concerns.

"Christians are, and should be, concerned about their health. We want our book to help Christians choose alternative therapies wisely. . . ."

As one example, the authors focus at the end of this chapter on "The Genesis 1:29 Diet," sometimes called "God’s Ideal Diet," "God’s Original (or Optimal) Diet," or "The Hallelujah Diet"—to which they return later in the alphabetized analysis of popular alternative therapies. The main tenet of the Genesis 1:29 diet is that humanity, at least in its most undefiled form, was designed to be vegetarian. While admitting that humans would be wise to consume a more plant-rich diet, the authors carefully and clearly show, from both Old and New Testaments, that humans are not commanded by God to abstain from meat. "Our point," they affirm, "is not to attack one Christian therapy or another (but) to give a broad overview of concerns we have with promoting certain therapies as ‘Christian’ or ‘biblical.’ We as Christians are blessed with God’s biblical guidance and the direction of the Holy Spirit. We are blessed with many therapies, and the Bible and the Holy Spirit can guide us as we select the ones to pursue. But we should be very cautious about labeling any therapy as ‘Christian.’

"Before accepting any ‘Christian teaching,’ carefully compare it to what the Bible actually teaches…. Detailed examination of claims may require learning about how the Bible should be translated and interpreted, a study that will bear a wealth of fruit for your spiritual vitality…. This type of study, practiced by the early believers at Berea, was commended and complimented in Acts 17:11 ‘Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true….’

"When scientific misinformation and confusion are promoted as part of a ‘Christian’ therapy, Christianity can be ... discredited....  In addition ... Christians facing serious health problems who aren’t aware of all the facts may actually be harmed by these therapies if they neglect effective treatment for their condition."

Part Four—comprising more than 50 percent of the book’s pages—examines first specific popular alternative therapies and then herbal remedies, vitamins and dietary supplements, with each grouping listed alphabetically for easy reference. Each listing is organized as follows: What it is, Claims, Study Findings, Cautions, Recommendations, Treatment Categories, Further Reading.

This compendium is followed by a very creative "table of therapeutic efficacy" which uses smiley faces (from one to four) and frowning faces (from one to four) to summarize the authors’ "best estimate" as to the relative benefit or harm of a particular alternative therapy for any particular indication.

Thus, under "back pain" the reader would find: chiropractic, massage therapy, Shiatsu massage—four smiles; biofeedback, meditation—two smiles; two frowns for acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, magnet therapy, megavitamin therapy; three frowns for colonics and homeopathy; four frowns for iridology, Qigong, Reiki and shamanism.

Or, for arthritis the reader would find: capsaicin—four smiles; evening primrose oil—three; willow—two; selenium—one smile; magnet therapy—one frown; aloe, black cohosh, craniosacral therapy, megavitamin therapy—two frowns; colonics, homeopathy—three; chaparral, iridology, Qigong, reflexology, Reiki, shamanism—four frowns.

The Scripture index and general index with which the book concludes are most helpful for reference and cross-reference of topics, terms and related materials.

Why You Need This Book

When (this is not an "if" question today) your patients ask about alternative therapies, you’ll want to have Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook within reach for at least these reasons:

You want your patients to have confidence that you are not withholding information about alternatives that might be helpful (or healthful) to them. On the other hand, you probably won’t have time to deal at any length with a specific question while patients are waiting in your other exam rooms.

You may not feel well enough informed about a particular alternative therapy, supplement or remedy to offer an expert opinion. On the other hand, you definitely want to avoid the appearance of being just another representative of the medical-pharmaceutical establishment, which is, these days, often the focus of distrust and resentment freely expressed by laypeople and professionals, alike.

For example, CMDA’s CEO Dr. David Stevens recently appeared on a Christian TV program with an estimated audience of over 100 million. One of the other guests, an academic orthopedic trauma surgeon, was there to promote her collection of videos on "God’s principles for health."

"This doctor stated that if viewers would follow her principles, their cancer, Alzheimer’s or diabetes would disappear," Dr. Stevens recalled. "She went on to say that ‘pills are poison’ and that radiation and chemotherapy don’t cure, but cause cancer. Her most startling statement was that germs don’t cause disease any more than flies cause garbage. After the show, the studio audience mobbed this doctor, asking for the address of her Web site.

"If the church ever needed a book to help them sort out the good, the bad and the ugly of alternative and complementary medicine," Dr. Stevens added, "we need it now."

Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook is that book. Providing your patients access to it will demonstrate that you are concerned, with all the misinformation and disinformation flying about, that they be able to find trustworthy answers to their questions in the only comprehensive, scientifically based, medically reliable, biblically sound reference on alternative medicine available today.

You might even allow a patient to borrow a copy until his or her next appointment, at which time you will be glad to discuss any lingering questions not addressed by the book—a relatively safe position since the 512-page encyclopedic volume leaves almost no relevant stone unturned.

The Book’s Purpose

Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook is a labor of love (with an emphasis on labor) by its authors. Dr. Donal O’Mathuna—with a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry and a masters degree in theology—traces his interest in alternative medicine back to his days in pharmacy school. "I loved hearing  about herbs that had been used for long periods of time," he said. "Further investigation of these herbs often showed that they contained ingredients used in modern pharmaceutical drugs. We always found dozens and dozens of different chemicals. I always wondered what all those other things might do when people took lots of herbal remedies for long periods of time. When I started to notice the increased interest in alternative medicine, I became concerned that people seemed to ignore the need for scientific testing of the remedies before using them," Dr. O’Mathuna added. "Sometimes people were just wasting their money, but in some cases people lost their lives because they had taken herbal remedies that contained dangerous plants.

"At about the same time I noticed a movement away from belief in truth," Dr. O’Mathuna said. "People wanted to ‘create their own reality.’ What they really wanted was to be left alone to do or believe whatever they wanted. When this approach found its way into healthcare, all of a sudden it was inappropriate to claim that a treatment worked or didn’t work—regardless of the evidence! When I first raised concerns about some new alternative therapies, the response was not, ‘Let’s examine the evidence’ but ‘You need to be open to trying new things.’

"Even Christians adopted this mindset, opening the door to numerous therapies that are steeped in religions that are not Christian," Dr. O’Mathuna said. "Some Christians even believe that if they rename these spiritual forces ‘the Holy Spirit,’ this renders them harmless. We disagree. If something is based in spiritual forces that are not of God, renaming them doesn’t change their nature. We pray that our book will help people discern what is good within alternative medicine without falling prey to what is spiritually or medically dangerous."

Co-author Walt Larimore, M.D., concurs. "There is so much misunderstanding and so many misperceptions in the medical and in the Christian communities about alternative medicine," Dr. Larimore said. "We wanted to take an evidence-based approach to the subject, seeking truth about these different therapies and options. We wanted the reader to be aware of the claimed benefits, the proven benefits and the risks of each option. We’ve dug and dug, using resources from around the world, to find the highest quality evidence regarding whether particular therapies, herbs, vitamins or supplements are potentially helpful or harmful.

"There may be those who disagree with some of the conclusions of this book," Dr. Larimore said. "However, we believe that these disagreements will center more on the reader’s belief about a therapy—as opposed to objective evidence. For example, while some may wish to dismiss all alternative therapies as bogus, fraudulent or the product of Eastern Mysticism, this is certainly not the case. Some of these therapies work, some do not. Some do nothing, some help, and some can be harmful, even deadly—physically or spiritually. We’ve worked hard to dissect each therapy scientifically and spiritually, then let the truth-chips fall where they may.

"Most books of this nature have significant sections that are out-of-date when they are published," Larimore added. "However, Zondervan has bent over backwards to help us keep our information current to the day of printing. This, we believe, enhances the credibility and usefulness of the book, making it unique in its field."

Conclusion

So there you have it—an up-to-the-minute, hot-off-the-press, medically reliable, biblically sound, exhaustive, comprehensive and understandable resource on the hottest medical topic of our day. It doesn’t get any better than this. But it does get a lot worse.