After hearing an interesting NPR interview with Christine Rosen, author of My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood, I thought her book would describe why she left “fundamentalism.” Other books do that: Leaving the Fold is a collection of testimonies of former “fundamentalists” who end up everywhere from milquetoast Christianity to bizarre spiritualistic cults. What Leaving the Fold lacks and what I hoped to find in My Fundamentalist Education is a tempered view of fundamentalism that recognizes good among the bad. In that regard Rosen’s book seemed promising: to NPR she said that fundamentalism had encouraged her interest in reading and her curiosity about the world.
But Rosen’s book was disappointing. Not because she presents a lop-sided attack against fundamentalism–the opposite is the case; her childhood experience seems mostly positive, if quirky–but because she has almost no analysis at all. At the close of the last chapter, her parents are about to transfer the twelve-year-old to another, non-fundamentalist Christian school, and then we learn in the epilogue that today she no longer considers herself religious. That’s quite a change from the little girl who once memorized numerous Bible verses and wanted to save the souls of all her friends and family. What happened? Rosen doesn’t tell us.
Instead, we get over two hundred pages about life at Keswick Christian School in St. Petersburg, mixed with stories about visits every other weekend to “Biomom,” her term for her divorced mother. As someone who’s had a fundamentalist education, I think her portrayal of school sounds about right, and she makes an important distinction among evangelicals in general and fundamentalists and charismatics in particular (though without elaborating on the distinctions). Some descriptions seem exaggerated, such as her exceptional reverence for Jews (though I agree one is not likely to find antisemitism among evangelicals) and her classmates’ nightmares about the End Times. I credit most of those exaggerations to the perspective of a pre-teen.
Part-way through the book, the descriptions start to get tedious. I kept thinking: Rosen, we get it. You studied the Bible–a lot–and everyone at Keswick was at least a little weird; now draw some conclusions. For example, in a chapter titled “Here Comes the Son,” Rosen talks about fundamentalist eschatology, the study of the End Times. Rosen is a historian by training, so one might expect her to compare the theology of movies like A Thief in the Night, shown to her school, to the similar, recent best-selling Left Behind series. Or she might say something about Christian eschatology throughout history. She doesn’t. Also, Rosen notes the tension between the creationism Keswick taught and the theory of evolution, which she first learned about in a secular science camp. Why did the latter win out in her mind? We’re left wondering.
From clues scattered throughout the book, readers can speculate about the forces that brought about her conversion away from fundamentalism. For one thing, her father, step-mother and grandparents, seemingly not religious themselves, did not support her fundamentalist views. So perhaps they influenced her thinking. Also, Rosen hints that fundamentalists just aren’t very smart: reading a story about a fundamentalist trying to evangelize a doctor, the young Rosen thinks the doctor comes off looking intelligent and his would-be proselytizer, boorish. At another point her school librarian is befuddled at the mention of evolution. Maybe Rosen wants us to see her change as a matter of steadily increasing enlightenment.
Wall Street Journal reviewer Alan Crawford has another idea: class pride.
Twelve years old then but in her early 30s today, Ms. Rosen is a vivid writer with an enviable memory for the revealing detail. But what she remembers about her Keswick years suggests that her biggest objection to fundamentalism and fundamentalists was less moral and theological than aesthetic.
Keswick mothers, she writes, “were women with home permanents, not salon coiffures, and they wore vinyl mock-croc pumps and polyester-blend dresses from Sears.” Teachers, both male and female, were also partial to polyester. The female musicians who performed at the school smelled of Aqua Net, and the missionaries who came to share their stories invariably had “out-of-date clothes” and “badly cut hair.”
The pews in the school chapel were “upholstered in an unfortunate pea-green color,” and the Good News Bible Club that she joined met “in a musty, decaying house painted in a disturbing lime green color.” The “old, disheveled lady” who hosted the club “served stale cookies and tepid Juicy Juice.” This woman also “had the sort of girlish crush on Jesus that only a disappointed spinster who’d spent too many years leading children’s Bible studies could nourish.” She read to the children with her Bible balanced on her knees and her “thick socks rolling down her legs.”
Sometimes these unattractive and unsophisticated people could also be downright embarrassing. The local Jehovah’s Witness missionary had a “strange smell,” for example, and one of Keswick’s Bible teachers was a legless Vietnam veteran “whose biblical knowledge was impeccable, but his nonscriptural musings were infected with malapropisms.” He said “reprehend” when he meant “comprehend.”
Such descriptions may well be accurate, and they also betray the extent to which social class can influence religious beliefs–one’s own and one’s attitudes toward those of others. Only on the penultimate page of “My Fundamentalist Education” does Ms. Rosen acknowledge that her Keswick experience “gave me a profound respect for my fellow human beings”–not evident from her descriptions of them–and afforded her serious academic benefits. The peculiar rigor of the school’s approach, for example, “taught me the value of reading, the usefulness of memorization, and the importance of speaking and writing clearly.”
These are, of course, precisely the qualities that many public schools are struggling to inculcate in their students, all too often with little success. Had Ms. Rosen explored how Keswick managed to accomplish this considerable feat, and what it felt like to be a child learning to love the written word in this eccentric environment, she might have made a greater contribution to the literature of American education. She might also have offered a way for people on one side of the so-called culture war to better understand those on the other. As it is, “My Fundamentalist Education may be regarded, because of its unkind tone, as another salvo in that struggle, which is probably not what the author intended.
I think Crawford is about right: Rosen seems interested more in the trappings of fundamentalism than in being one herself. When she describes her religious experiences, it usually strikes me that she’s missing the point. For example, when she “hustled [herself] to the front of the chapel to join the many other ‘just-in-case’ supplicants at the altar” (p. 126), it was because she imagined that otherwise she’d suffer the fate of Patty, the decapitated protagonist of A Thief in the Night. The adventurous life of missionaries allured her, and she wanted to save friends and family from Hell, but as far as I know nowhere does young Rosen claim to have had faith in Christ herself. Even her repeated bathtub “baptisms” seem to have everything to do with Biomom’s superstitions. Other remarks are uncharacteristic of fundamentalists. For instance, she writes that “the only inclination to vice I could identify in myself was a longing for my own at-home video-game arcade” (p. 124). Part of being a fundamentalist involves expecting Christ to save you from your sins; that’s tough to do if you don’t think you are a sinner.
By excluding her analysis and leaving us to guess why she left fundamentalism (or whether she actually was a fundamentalist), Rosen left out much of what could have been the most interesting part of the book.