My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood by Christine Rosen. PublicAffairs, 2005; $24; 231 pages
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
A touching, funny memoir of growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, in a household, school, and town of flourishing Biblical literalism. When Christine Rosen started kindergarten, her ABCs included the Apocalypse, the Bible, and Christ. At Keswick Christian School "the Bible was our textbook," God the guide, and after entering the school gates, nothing was ever quite the same again. Christine learned creation science, dreamed of becoming a missionary to exotic countries, worried about the souls of Jews and Mormons, and experienced unusual methods of sex education. With the threat of nuclear annihilation at the hands of atheistic Russians looming, she also frequently prayed for rapture.
At home, Florida life seemed happily to confirm several literal truths: the story of Moses, with its plagues that afflicted the Egyptians -- from lice, to rivers of stinking dead fish, to hordes of frogs -- might have been describing Christine's back yard.
My My Fundamentalist Education is a brilliant, affectionate, child's-eye journey to Rosen's home, school and small town. Set in a time and place when the Living Bible outsold The Joy of Sex, during a girlhood lived as the Lord intended, among the tropical flora and fauna of Florida, its televangelists, irascible elderly, and itinerant preachers, Christine Rosen and her sister, Cathy, uncover the not always godly but surely divine secrets of a Hallelujah-ya sisterhood.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: Rosen (Preaching Eugenics), a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, knows her King James Bible backward and forward. For this she thanks the fundamentalist school she attended from kindergarten until eighth grade, when her parents finally figured out "what we were learning about television, and movies, and, most important, about men and women." In many respects Keswick Christian School in the 1980s was like fabled Catholic schools of the 1950s: misbehaving students were paddled, girls forced to kneel on the floor to check skirt lengths, boys and girls required to keep a respectful six-inch distance from one another. But to Keswick students, Catholics and even some Protestants weren't true Christians, and it was incumbent upon the children to learn "strict morals and Bible belief" and then to "witness" to playmates and families. Alas, writes Rosen, "by the close of third grade, I found I'd not yet converted a single living soul." While young Christine was absorbing an ascetic worldview, her erratic mother was discovering -- and unsuccessfully trying to interest her daughter in -- Pentecostal fervor. Although today Rosen lives "an entirely secular life," her tone is affectionate rather than critical, and her subtle humor and ironically accurate descriptions will appeal to others with stringent religious backgrounds.
From Booklist: Rosen speaks frankly about her growing disenchantment with patriarchal doctrines that ultimately contributed to her break with Fundamentalism, and she allows that, as a preteen girl, "perhaps I would have done better hearing more about Darwin and less about harlotry." Still, she speaks with moving appreciation about her religious education's great rewards, and as she pursues direct questions about belief -- "How enduring is childhood faith?" -- she makes sharp observations about the experience of childhood and how young people learn about the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Christine Rosen, born in 1973 in Florida, is the author of Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement and a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. She has a Ph.D. in History from Emory University, and her opinion pieces and essays have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Weekly Standard, Commentary, New England Journal of Medicine, and other publications. She is also a frequent contributor to radio and television shows. She lives in Washington, D.C., and is married to lawyer Jeffrey Rosen.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
I asked Ms. Rosen about the title: "I just wanted the title to be a straightforward description of what the book is describing, and that's a fundamentalist education. I use the word 'my,' because it really is just my view of how that experience was. I know it's not a view that's going to be shared by everyone who had that kind of education. As for the divine girlhood I guess that came out of conversations with friends and family and my editor, who felt after reading early drafts of the book that much of what was interesting about it is that daily life seemed divine in the context of going to the school. Because we read the Bible so frequently and because we tried to live it, it really made everyday occurrences have a sort of divine overlay, if you will.
"The education gave me a sense of meaning, even as a very young child. That's what I was trying to capture with that title."
The author lived most of her early years in Florida. "St. Petersburg is a suburban feeling town, a beach town, a tourist town and fairly tropical most of the year. So there are no obvious seasonal changes. It's usually just hot. Growing up as a native in Florida you notice all the retirees and the tourists. There's a constant influx of new types of people. Being in such an enclosed and tiny community at this fundamentalist school, the contrast with Florida was always great.
"I took one trip to Ohio when I was a child to visit relatives, but other than that, I hadn't been out of the state much. The idea of people who lived in unusual locations like Michigan was exciting. My grandparents lived in a trailer park on Sanibel Island, where 'snowbirds,' as they called them, came for the winter. We got to meet people from these other parts of the country and that too seemed exciting."
"How do you explain the difference between Protestant fundamentalists and Pentecostalists and Evangelicals?"
"With fundamentalists, the most important thing is that fundamentalists believe in the inerrancy of scripture and they do take the King James Version Bible as the literal word of God. Evangelicals are a little more accommodating of modern translations of the Bible; they do not insist upon the inerrancy of scripture with the same strength as the fundamentalists do. And then the Pentecostalists, like the fundamentalists, have a lot of restrictions on things, such as dancing or drinking alcohol. But the difference there is that they place much more emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit."