Days of Grace
MY FUNDAMENTALIST EDUCATION
A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood
By Christine Rosen
PublicAffairs. 231 pp. $24
Children are natural fundamentalists. After all, when you're 4 and learning something new from parents and teachers every day, you take pretty much everything on faith -- that the sky is blue, that the Earth is round and that electronic bar-codes are the mark of the beast as prophesied in Revelation.
This is the central theme of Christine Rosen's delightful and compelling My Fundamentalist Education , a memoir of her first eight years of school at a fundamentalist Christian academy in Florida. "The narrative of the rapture and Armageddon suited childhood," Rosen writes. "I didn't know what I was having for dinner that night, so why should I expect to know when Jesus was coming back?"
Readers disturbed by the ease with which children can absorb religious beliefs may be tempted to view Rosen's book as a survival story -- one girl's escape from the clutches of fundamentalism. But to those of us who grew up in and around fundamentalism (while I didn't go to a Christian school, I lived through 18 years of Baptist church, Sunday school, youth group, retreats and camp), the tale rings true in a way that is at once simpler and more profound than that. Rosen, now a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, didn't become a right-wing fanatic; nor did she break from the church in dramatic and rebellious fashion. She presents instead an account of what it's like to be immersed in fundamentalist ideas as a child, slowly sort out your own beliefs and eventually learn to balance faith and inquiry.
For most of her childhood, Rosen lived in St. Petersburg, Fla., and attended Keswick Christian School with her older sister. The achingly earnest Christian culture that permeated Keswick will seem alien to many readers. But as Rosen makes clear, for a child who was open to every new experience, it didn't present any conflicts with the popular culture she enjoyed at home (except when she had to explain to a neighbor why Barbie and Ken couldn't sleep in the same bed).
Rosen moved seamlessly between a world filled with Marie Osmond dolls and "Free to Be . . . You and Me" records and one in which calico fabric Bible cozies are the must-have fashion accessory and a song about Ananias and Sapphira (who "both dropped dead" after plotting to cheat the church in a story from Acts) is the coolest tune on the playground. Serious entertainment in this world comes in the form of missionary slide shows ("every fundamentalist foot soldier to the tropics apparently carried a Kodak as well as a Bible"), touring Christian singing groups ("on cue, they would cock their heads, smile brilliantly, and flick their individual microphone cords before cooing, 'JEEEESus, Oooh Oooh, JEEEESus' ") and the creepy, nightmare-inducing films that were forerunners to the apocalyptic "Left Behind" series.
The movies were just the first half of a one-two punch: Sermon after sermon reminded the students that they were responsible for the souls of their playmates if the Rapture came before they got around to sharing the Good News. That's a pretty hefty burden for an 8-year-old, and it was enough to turn Rosen into a pint-sized, Jerry Falwell-like proselytizing fiend. She witnessed to her ballet classmates, working hard to perfect her sales pitch, and pestered Jewish friends about their souls until they yelled, "Shut up already about Jesus!" "By the close of third grade," Rosen laments, "I found I'd not yet converted a single living soul."
But Rosen wasn't just motivated by fear. She threw herself into learning Bible stories and basketball with equal gusto. Just as other kids might set their sights on becoming a doctor or a fireman or a rock star, Rosen dreamed of being a missionary and prepared by reading books like From Arapesh to Zuni: A Book of Bibleless Peoples .
So she was not relieved but discomfited when questions about fundamentalist beliefs and teachings began to worm their way into her world. While investigating potential conversion targets, Rosen developed a sympathy for Mormons and their tales of persecution, despite the fact that she was supposed to think of them as cult members. A summer spent at science camp -- while the rest of her classmates were making Noah's Ark out of tongue depressors at Vacation Bible School -- introduced her to geology, astronomy and theories of evolution that were hard to submerge once she returned to a school that taught creation science. "Couldn't Adam and Eve and Darwin and geology happily co-exist?" she wondered.
What set Rosen apart from her classmates -- and eventually led her to reject fundamentalism -- was her home life. Her non-fundamentalist parents enrolled her in the Keswick school but also in science camp. They taught their daughters that girls could do anything and pulled them out of the school when it became clear that very different gender roles were being promoted there.
It's possible to survive and -- yes -- thrive with a fundamentalist background as long as it is tempered by a questioning spirit. In an all-too-short conclusion, Rosen reflects on those years as having given her a "feeling of warm, cradled comfort." She notes that she's left her fundamentalist education behind. She is married to a Jewish writer and no longer considers herself religious. But aside from a few concluding paragraphs, she doesn't explore how that upbringing shaped her views and personality today. That's unfortunate; the sketches of her girlhood are so beautifully crafted and evocative that they deserve a weightier coda. Even so, Rosen's memoir is an affectionate but uncompromising work that may be one of the best descriptions of faith through a child's eyes yet written. ·
Amy Sullivan, an editor at the Washington Monthly, is writing a book about religion and the left.