GOD'S CHOICE: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School. By Alan Peshkin. University of Chicago Press. 349 pp. $24.95.

FUNDAMENTALIST CHRISTIANS have always had difficulty reconciling their belief in the absolute truth of the Bible with the pluralism of American culture and the open-endedness of science. As William Jennings Bryan put it during the Scopes trial of 1925, "It is better to trust in the Rock of Ages than to know the age of the rocks; it is better for one to know that he is close to the heavenly Father than to know how far the stars in the heavens are apart."

Consequently, education has been at the forefront of the confrontation between fundamentalists and the opponents that they have come to categorize as "secular humanists." The rift between conservative Christians and public schools, which began to widen during the 1950s with the introduction into many schools of integration and sex education, became a chasm during the 1960s and '70s with the banning of school prayers and the growing incidence among public-school students of alcohol and drug abuse.

The response of fundamentalists to the changes in public education has followed the pattern of their responses to secular culture as a whole. Fundamentalists, who have found themselves increasingly to be strangers in a strange land, have typically taken three different strategies in response to the gap, as they see it, between Christ and culture -- censorship, separatism, and conversion. They have fought to remain separate from secular culture even as they have endeavored to convert their enemies and to eradicate those aspects of the culture that they perceive as sinful.

In God's Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School, Alan Peshkin has studied one of the Christian schools born of that separatist impulse in American fundamentalism. Peshkin spent some 18 months at a Christian school he calls "Bethany Baptist Academy," an adjunct of "Bethany" Baptist Church, interviewing students, teachers, and parents, living in the home of church members and observing the interactions between church and school. As his subtitle indicates. Peshkin found that Bethany operated not only as a clear alternative to public education, but as a "total" institution that surrounded and pervaded the lives of its students.

Prior to undertaking his study of a small fundamentalist school in Illinois, Peshkin had written two books about the way schools in America reinforce community values. Moreover, as he tells it in the introduction to God's Choice, the experience he found most relevant to studying students at Bethany was his work in South Asia and West Africa. For Peshkin, a scholar and a Jew, immersion among fundamentalists was to become as far remove from home as his work among alien tribes. Says Peshkin, "For me to embark on a journey of discovery . . . in the realm of a fundamentalist Christian school and church is to begin an adventure like that of the writer Paul Theroux."

INITIALLY, Peshkin, like any good anthropologist, endeavored to place himself in the background and learn the ways of this strange tribe, even as his subjects tried constantly to convert him. He found himself amazed at several things about Bethany, particularly at the way in which the Bible could be made relevant to everything a student did, including cheerleading and walking down the hall. In an unwitting irony, Peshkin comments on the propensity of fundamentalists to quote scripture as their ultimate authority, even as he himself quotes chapter and verse from various authorities in his own field to bolster his analysis.

The authoritarian structure at Bethany led Peshkin to compare the school to other "total" institutions, including prisons and mental hospitals. In one particularly poignant case, a freshman named Doris, who had not been "born again," at least according to school standards, was constantly reprimanded by teachers whose comments on her compositions concerned the state of her soul as much as the state of her grammer. One teacher told Doris that her "bad attitude" showed in the way she walked.

On the other hand, Peshkin found a certain amount of "deviance" among students, including kids who continued to listen to rock music and attend movies despite Bethany's prohibitions against such activities. Secular culture, he discovered, managed to intrude into the daydreams as well as the afterschool activities of even the most angelic Bethany students. On a bathroom wall, Peshkin found odes to Bo Derek and other forbidden femme fatales.

Peshkin discovered, to his surprise, that Bethany students were not brainwashed automatons. He found, in fact, that Bethany's cheerful, generally hard working students could offer an example to public education of the benefits of certain programs emphasizing student appearance, discipline, safety, and moral standards. The real cost to Bethany students of denying the "artistic, literary, social, and religious riches" of a pluralistic society, he says, is in "what they do not become, what they cannot enjoy, what they fail to comprehend."

When Peshkin, however, drops his stance of objectivity to make his final conclusions about Bethany, his tone changes drastically. A rather dry academic study becomes impassioned and eloquent. All those months of holding his tongue while Bethany's students and teachers tried to "save" him clearly took their toll. If Bethany's leaders, he says, believe that "The Devil's crowd is after our kids," he himself believes that Bethany's "fundamentalist crowd is after me and my kids -- after the world's kids . . ." It is to Peshkin's credit that despite Bethany's overt antagonism to Jews and to other religious groups he would still grant the school, and others like it, the right to exist.