My Fundamentalist Education
A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood
by Christine Rosen
PublicAffairs, 232 pp., $24
IN 1978, five-year-old Christine Rosen's father and stepmother enrolled her and her older sister, Cathy, in the Keswick Christian School in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the family made their home. This lively and affectionate book is Rosen's account of the years she spent at Keswick, an institution where memorizing the Bible and taking it literally was the core of every subject in the curriculum, Darwin's theory of evolution was anathema, and the other students arrived in automobiles adorned with fish symbols and bumper stickers reading, "In Case of Rapture, This Car May Be Unmanned."
(Disclosure: I met Mrs. Rosen once, at a book party that she and her husband, writer Jeffrey Rosen, had given for another writer, and I found her to be a charming and gracious hostess.)
Christine had been baptized as a baby at a Methodist church, at the behest of her mother, shortly before the mother abandoned her lawyer-husband and both daughters to "move in with a guy named Chuck whose house was furnished entirely with bean-bag chairs," as Rosen writes. Nonetheless, by the time Christine reached kindergarten age, no adult or child in the household, not her father or Pam--his legal secretary, whom he married after the divorce and whom the girls adored--nor the grandparents who took care of the children between the divorce and the remarriage, had set foot inside a church in years.
During the prime praying hour of 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning, you were likely to find us not sitting devoutly in a house of God but lounging outside in aluminum chairs in Grandma and Grandpa's backyard in the nearby burg of Gulfport, the adults nursing Bloody Marys and Cathy and me, with inflatable water wings strapped to our chubby limbs, swimming in the small kidney-shaped pool until our fingerprints puckered and our hair turned green from overexposure to the chlorinated water.
Nonetheless, the public school closest to the family home lay in a neighborhood of liquor stores and barred windows, so the kids were enrolled in Keswick, whose shabby, concrete-block campus had once been a chicken farm, whose uniform for girls was a black, green, and yellow polyester jumper, and whose teachers regularly held what were called "sword drills," in which the students raised their Bibles in their right hands, waited for the principal to call out a citation to a chapter and verse, and then plunged the Bibles to their laps in a race to see who could find the verse quickest.
Christine thrived on it all. In sweat-dripping, under-air-conditioned classrooms she memorized verse after verse from the King James Bible, the only version of the Scriptures deemed reliable by Keswick authorities, and so augmented her youthful vocabulary with exotic archaisms such as "kine" for cattle, and "murrain" and "scab" for the diseases with which they were afflicted. By age six she knew that Adam and Eve had been "beguiled," not simply tempted, by the serpent, and she yelled, "I hope you get the botch!" at a neighbor boy who was teasing her from his bicycle.
She yearned to become a missionary when she grew up, so she practiced proselytizing on neighbors and friends and was disappointed when her Jewish playmates Josh and David responded, "Shut up already about Jesus!" when she tried to convert them over a Monopoly game. When the fifth-grade Bible lessons turned to the End Times and the Book of Revelation, she started seeing the Antichrist everywhere and, egged on by her teachers, reading signs of the Last Days into such geopolitical phenomena as starvation in Ethiopia and the Soviet Union's nuclear saber-rattling.
Rosen has a light touch, and she casts a fond and sympathetic eye on a mode of religious formation that most people at her level of education (she has a doctorate in history from Emory) regard with contempt and horror. She vividly evokes the stifling heat (with matching humidity), the raggedy low-slung landscape, and the creepy superabundance of less appealing life forms that render most of the state of Florida essentially uninhabitable for nine months out of the year: "Tourists imagine pristine beaches, but our shores were more like a morgue--the carcasses of horseshoe crabs, mullet, and jellyfish were scattered amid the slimy, dark brown seaweed, broken shells, and discarded soda-can tabs."
Rosen has an observant eye for the cheesy souvenirs, the teased hair, and the leather-skinned retirees of Florida's unglamorous outback.
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.