God in the Details
A writer's remembrance of a Christian curriculum.
Apr 10, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 28 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
As a student at Keswick, she lived in a double world. Outside school, while her parents' friends sipped scotch on the rocks and thought nothing of pop music and dancing, she drenched herself in secular literature at the public library, and she learned about millions of years of evolution in the summer classes offered at the local science center. Inside school, alcohol was condemned as the devil's drink, dancing, rock music, and even most television shows were off-limits, and the science consisted of creation science.
Exacerbating the sense of dislocation was the reappearance of Christine's mother in the children's lives, early and often. The two sisters were obliged to spend alternate weekends in the series of rundown apartments their mother occupied as she hopped from job to job, indulged in violent swings of mood and enthusiasm, and displayed "an appalling track record with pets" who typically ended up dead within weeks. (It turned out that she suffered from mental illness, a fact that the adults concealed from the children.) Eventually the mother married a furniture salesman named Pete and took up an exhibitionist version of Pentecostalism that included faith healing, speaking in tongues, and falling to the church floor in dead faints after being "seized by the Spirit"--all while her daughters, dragged along to the services, writhed with embarrassment. They retaliated by calling her "Biomom" behind her back and insisting that Pam was their true "Mom."
Rosen's book ends abruptly when her parents pull the girls out of Keswick after Christine finishes the eighth grade. The trigger wasn't the anti-evolutionism, or even some of the odder teachers there. (There was a "Mr. Whitman"--name undoubtedly changed--who had apparently spent too many years as a missionary in sub-Saharan Africa, and who specialized in bizarre torments, for example, forcing Christine's sister, Cathy, to shave off half his mustache in front of the class in retaliation for her reporting that he had paddled some of his students for minor infractions.)
What triggered the parents' action was Keswick's decision to forbid the students to buy after-school treats at a nearby 7-11 to protest the chain's refusal to stop selling Playboy and other magazines containing pictures of naked women and other "harlotry." The smut boycott didn't sound like a bad idea to me, but it jolted Christine's worldly parents into awareness of "just how vast was the gulf between what we were taught at home and what we were learning in school."
The children were sent to another Christian school in St. Petersburg, but Rosen gradually lost not only her attachment to fundamentalism but also her religious faith entirely. She now lives, as she says, "an entirely secular life." She does not explain how this happened, and the lapse is perhaps the weakest aspect of her book. But it is clear that she came to associate Christianity with polyester and helmet hair, with the bizarre shenanigans of Biomom and Mr. Whitman, and with what she perceived as pervasive anti-intellectualism and militant "separation," as she calls it, from the larger world.
Rosen felt forced to choose: faith versus science, memorizing the Bible versus reading widely in history and other disciplines, Amy Grant versus Led Zeppelin. The ethos at Keswick during the late 1970s and early '80s was undoubtedly at least partly to blame--and as Rosen reports, it has moved with the times and become a wealthier and far more sophisticated school over the last two decades, fully accredited and boasting state-of-the-art computers and biology and chemistry labs. Still, Rosen has held onto her King James Bible and, as she says, "if you haven't read the Bible, you have missed an opportunity to experience something of extraordinary beauty and power."
That, as she also says, made her fundamentalist education ultimately worthwhile.
Charlotte Allen is an editor at Beliefnet and author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.