My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood by Christine Rosen. PublicAffairs, 2005; $24; 231 pages
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
A touching, funny memoir of growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, in a household, school, and town of flourishing Biblical literalism. When Christine Rosen started kindergarten, her ABCs included the Apocalypse, the Bible, and Christ. At Keswick Christian School "the Bible was our textbook," God the guide, and after entering the school gates, nothing was ever quite the same again. Christine learned creation science, dreamed of becoming a missionary to exotic countries, worried about the souls of Jews and Mormons, and experienced unusual methods of sex education. With the threat of nuclear annihilation at the hands of atheistic Russians looming, she also frequently prayed for rapture.
At home, Florida life seemed happily to confirm several literal truths: the story of Moses, with its plagues that afflicted the Egyptians -- from lice, to rivers of stinking dead fish, to hordes of frogs -- might have been describing Christine's back yard.
My My Fundamentalist Education is a brilliant, affectionate, child's-eye journey to Rosen's home, school and small town. Set in a time and place when the Living Bible outsold The Joy of Sex, during a girlhood lived as the Lord intended, among the tropical flora and fauna of Florida, its televangelists, irascible elderly, and itinerant preachers, Christine Rosen and her sister, Cathy, uncover the not always godly but surely divine secrets of a Hallelujah-ya sisterhood.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: Rosen (Preaching Eugenics), a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, knows her King James Bible backward and forward. For this she thanks the fundamentalist school she attended from kindergarten until eighth grade, when her parents finally figured out "what we were learning about television, and movies, and, most important, about men and women." In many respects Keswick Christian School in the 1980s was like fabled Catholic schools of the 1950s: misbehaving students were paddled, girls forced to kneel on the floor to check skirt lengths, boys and girls required to keep a respectful six-inch distance from one another. But to Keswick students, Catholics and even some Protestants weren't true Christians, and it was incumbent upon the children to learn "strict morals and Bible belief" and then to "witness" to playmates and families. Alas, writes Rosen, "by the close of third grade, I found I'd not yet converted a single living soul." While young Christine was absorbing an ascetic worldview, her erratic mother was discovering -- and unsuccessfully trying to interest her daughter in -- Pentecostal fervor. Although today Rosen lives "an entirely secular life," her tone is affectionate rather than critical, and her subtle humor and ironically accurate descriptions will appeal to others with stringent religious backgrounds.
From Booklist: Rosen speaks frankly about her growing disenchantment with patriarchal doctrines that ultimately contributed to her break with Fundamentalism, and she allows that, as a preteen girl, "perhaps I would have done better hearing more about Darwin and less about harlotry." Still, she speaks with moving appreciation about her religious education's great rewards, and as she pursues direct questions about belief -- "How enduring is childhood faith?" -- she makes sharp observations about the experience of childhood and how young people learn about the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Christine Rosen, born in 1973 in Florida, is the author of Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement and a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. She has a Ph.D. in History from Emory University, and her opinion pieces and essays have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Weekly Standard, Commentary, New England Journal of Medicine, and other publications. She is also a frequent contributor to radio and television shows. She lives in Washington, D.C., and is married to lawyer Jeffrey Rosen.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
I asked Ms. Rosen about the title: "I just wanted the title to be a straightforward description of what the book is describing, and that's a fundamentalist education. I use the word 'my,' because it really is just my view of how that experience was. I know it's not a view that's going to be shared by everyone who had that kind of education. As for the divine girlhood I guess that came out of conversations with friends and family and my editor, who felt after reading early drafts of the book that much of what was interesting about it is that daily life seemed divine in the context of going to the school. Because we read the Bible so frequently and because we tried to live it, it really made everyday occurrences have a sort of divine overlay, if you will.
"The education gave me a sense of meaning, even as a very young child. That's what I was trying to capture with that title."
The author lived most of her early years in Florida. "St. Petersburg is a suburban feeling town, a beach town, a tourist town and fairly tropical most of the year. So there are no obvious seasonal changes. It's usually just hot. Growing up as a native in Florida you notice all the retirees and the tourists. There's a constant influx of new types of people. Being in such an enclosed and tiny community at this fundamentalist school, the contrast with Florida was always great.
"I took one trip to Ohio when I was a child to visit relatives, but other than that, I hadn't been out of the state much. The idea of people who lived in unusual locations like Michigan was exciting. My grandparents lived in a trailer park on Sanibel Island, where 'snowbirds,' as they called them, came for the winter. We got to meet people from these other parts of the country and that too seemed exciting."
"How do you explain the difference between Protestant fundamentalists and Pentecostalists and Evangelicals?"
"With fundamentalists, the most important thing is that fundamentalists believe in the inerrancy of scripture and they do take the King James Version Bible as the literal word of God. Evangelicals are a little more accommodating of modern translations of the Bible; they do not insist upon the inerrancy of scripture with the same strength as the fundamentalists do. And then the Pentecostalists, like the fundamentalists, have a lot of restrictions on things, such as dancing or drinking alcohol. But the difference there is that they place much more emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit."
"The gifts of the Spirit?"
"The gifts of the Spirit -- exactly. So things such as speaking in tongues and faith healing, those are the things that fundamentalists don't do but the Pentecostalists do. I think the big difference is that fundamentalists are the most strict about the Word, the text, the King James Version of the bible is the literal word of God, and so it must be taken as such. Whereas, I think both with Pentecostalists and with Evangelicals there's more flexibility on that."
"From what arm of the larger Protestant church did fundamentalists come?"
"In the early 20th Century, they came from several different traditions. Our school was linked most closely to the Southern Baptist tradition. So that would be the denomination that we were closest to."
"How did your parents decide that that's how they would school you?"
"They felt that the public school option for us, the school that we were zoned for, was not a good option. It was in a dangerous part of town, it was not well ranked, there were a lot of problems. So, they started to look for alternatives. There weren't that many choices. There were Catholic schools, and since we weren't Catholic, that was off the list. We were vaguely Protestant so they looked at some of the Protestant schools and Keswick Christian School to them I think was the most appealing because it had the most rigorous academic curriculum. There was a non-Christian, secular private school in town. It was a little more expensive than Keswick and they were less strict on the behavioral stuff; there were kids there who caused trouble often and they just felt that it wasn't quite as safe an environment for three girls as Keswick would be.
"My parents attended a nondenominational church off and on. But they were certainly not fundamentalists. They were, I would say, 'mildly Protestant,' but not necessarily practicing Protestant."
Keswick, I said, gave Ms. Rosen a good, basic 3Rs education.
"True. Especially when I think back to the foundational things that you learn as a kid in elementary school. How to write, how to read, how to spell, how to appreciate music and literature. All of those were things that I learned at Keswick. I had excellent teachers there. Devoted teachers. We had small classroom sizes so we were able to get a lot of hands-on instruction from our teachers. These were teachers that were making less money than they would have been had they taught in public school. So, most were there because they were dedicated to Christian education."
"Have any of the Keswick people seen your book?"
"I'm not sure if they've read it yet. I'm in touch with the current headmaster of the school, and I'm sending him a copy of the book. I did, while I was writing the book, go back to the school and talk to some of the teachers, some of whom had been my teachers, and then some new teachers who are there now and some of the current administrators."
"Are you still a churchgoer?"
"No, I'm not. I'm not. I'm entirely secular now. My husband is Jewish and so we celebrate Christmas and Passover every year. But I don't go to church. In part, because I have not found a church that I'm comfortable in. I read my Bible often and study it. But as to churches I find that either there's too much fundamentalist in me for the evangelical churches and they do things with the Bible that I think are taking too many liberties, and yet since I'm no longer a fundamentalist, there are other churches that are stricter that have views about women, for example, that I can't stomach either. So, it's difficult to find a home."
As a child, said Ms. Rosen, "I took it personally. I felt I knew Jesus personally. And that feeling doesn't necessarily leave. One thing that education gave me was a confidence in knowing that I can always turn to the bible if I need it, and I can always read the bible and study it. I don't need necessarily to do that in a church. Also, I would be going by myself. My husband is not a Christian. So, that challenge is another reason why my faith has become a pretty personal thing and not something that I practice at a church."
"What happens that causes you to turn to your Bible?"
"It's like picking up one of your favorite stories from childhood. It's comforting, in the way that only childhood talismans can be. I still have the same Bible that I used as a child. Every time I pick it up it's just a rush of memory and good feelings about how I was brought up and the education I received.
"I just read it, portions here and there. I wish more people read the bible just simply as a document of civilization. Biblical literacy is in steep decline these days; that's unfortunate because, like Shakespeare, you cannot understand Western culture without a knowledge of the bible.
"The King James Version bible is gorgeously written. It's wonderful language. I think it's a shame that too few people read it in the original King James Version. That was the version that we always used and never questioned why that was the version. It simply was the version."
"Your school was supportive of missionaries."
"Missionaries had an elevated social status. They were treated with great respect and often brought before us as examples of the finest kind of Christian you could be. These were people who sacrificed their lives and comforts and went to dangerous places to bring Christianity and the Bible to the unsaved. The great thing about how we were presented with missionary work, though, was that it was always an adventure. It was considered appealing, especially when you're young -- the idea of going to Africa and saving masses of unbelievers was just dramatically exciting.
"Missionaries came every year and talked to us about their work. Now they often were far less dramatic and romantic in real life than we had read they would be in our books, but many of us, and myself in particular, had quite an obsession with missionaries for a while and the idea of becoming one was a hope that I nurtured for some time. It was my dream.
"What do you do now?"
"I'm a historian by training, and I work at a research institute here in Washington called the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and I research and write. I am an editor at a journal called The New Atlantis. I'm a senior editor there and write about technology and culture and a bit about bioethics. I am lucky to have one of those jobs where I get to decide what I want to think and write about and am left alone to do it."
"And where did you go to school?"
"I went as an undergraduate to the University of South Florida in Tampa. I got my doctorate in American History at Emory University in Atlanta."
"What do you make of Pat Robertson?"
"I certainly don't speak for all Christian fundamentalists, or any Christians, except myself, but I will say that I'm constantly miffed by the fact that those men -- the Jerry Falwells, the Pat Robertsons -- are representatives of conservative Christianity, because I think they really aren't what the majority of conservative Christians are. They are parodies. Pat Robertson has gone off the deep end. Some time ago I think he did. It's irresponsible that he is claiming to speak for Christians. So, I'm appalled by that sort of talk.
"I think it's unfortunate in contemporary culture that it's difficult to tell a story about fundamentalist Christians where they are nuanced individuals with quirks and with good qualities and bad qualities. Already some of the reviews I've received, people have said, 'Oh, you're just making fun of fundamentalists.'
"Which I'm definitely not, but it's something I expected when I wrote the book because it's much easier to just say 'You're making fun of these people and dismiss it,' than to actually grapple with the fact that they're human beings just like everybody else, but they happen to believe certain things that are a challenge to what are secular, rational world views.
"That was part of the challenge in writing this. Publishers were more enthusiastic about a book that either completely bashed fundamentalists, or that completely praised them. That's not the book I wanted to write.
"I was pleased to find a publisher that was enthusiastic about seeing a nuanced portrait of fundamentalists. That was important to me. I did not want them to be a stereotypical group of people that are easily made fun of.
"Some of the descriptions I offer are hopefully humorous, but they're also descriptive. I include myself among those upward, polyester-clad 1970s Floridians. I was one of them too, so I look back on that fondly, and occasionally am embarrassed when I look at old pictures, but I was one of them. I don't feel I've become better than they have. I simply wanted to describe them as they were."
"Are you comfortable with prayer in the public schools?"
"No, I'm not. I am not on the side of the conservative Christians on this one because public education needs to be as neutral as possible towards faith. Now, that doesn't mean that you can't talk about comparative religions in a sociology class, or even talk about intelligent design in an intellectual history class, but I think it's inappropriate to talk about these things in science class, or to impose prayer in public school because it simply will not allow for everyone in the classroom to feel comfortable.
"For the parents who want their kids to learn about intelligent design they have other options. They can teach them at home themselves, they can send them to churches and church groups that will teach them that, they can home school their kids, or they can send them to private schools like Keswick where that is taught. I don't think it's fair for them to demand that this view, which is a minority view, be imposed on the majority of kids in public schools."
"How did writing this book change your life?"
"It began as a conversation with my husband. He was raised in Manhattan. He had never met a fundamentalist. He went to college at Harvard, and then he went and got a master's degree at Oxford and then went to Yale Law School. So, he had an upbringing where he never had to come into contact with a Southern Christian fundamentalist.
"My lovely mother-in-law, when my husband and I were just dating, she cracked me up one day when she said, 'You know, it would just be my worst fear if my son married a Southern Christian fundamentalist.' Saying this, not knowing that that's how I had been raised. So, I told her, 'I was raised a Southern Christian fundamentalist.' She was appalled that she'd said that. I said, 'But I can understand why you have that feeling, and I'd love to sit down and talk to you about what it was really like. '
"So, it changed my life in that I feel it really forced me to think about what I had liked and disliked about the school, what I thought was useful about that education and not useful, and also to try to connect -- having grown up in that environment which most people aren't familiar with, to try to help others connect to it in some way."
"I don't think that most people we know are aware that in the middle of the country, that this is much of what they believe -- what you were taught at Keswick."
"Exactly, exactly. I can't tell you how many times I've been sitting around the dinner table, at someone's house, and have heard someone start talking about 'crazy Christians,' or 'fundies,' or 'Bible thumpers,' in ways that they would never, ever think of speaking about any other minority group in this country. And yet they're comfortable.
"Usually, I keep my mouth shut, but sometimes it gets to the point where I say, 'Well, have you ever met a Christian fundamentalist?' And the answer is invariably, 'No, but I know what they think.' That was another reason I wanted to write this book because you're exactly right. When you live on the coast and you don't ever come into contact with Middle America or Southern America, you don't think about this stuff.
"I think it's much more comfortable to live with stereotypes. Stereotypes exist on the other side too. Conservative Christians have as many stereotypes about secular liberals that need to be made a little more complicated. This book is targeted at the people who don't know fundamentalists and to try to introduce them to this group through this particular story."