Historian reflects on getting, losing religion
My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood
Our Rating A
Author: Christine Rosen
Publisher: Public Affairs
Genre: Biographies & memoirs
Author and historian Christine Rosen doesn’t consider herself religious. She lives an entirely secular lifestyle with her husband in Washington, D.C.
But wait. Can this be the same Christine Rosen who, as a child, attended Keswick Christian School, in St. Petersburg, Fla., during the ’70s? Who nurtured the idea of becoming a glamorous missionary? Who was so engrossed in the King James Bible that she tried to convert every Jew, Jehovah’s Witness, Buddhist and Seventh-day Adventist she met into her own faith?
In her insightful and heartfelt book, My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Childhood, Rosen affords readers a rareglimpse of Christian-fundamentalist indoctrination through the eyes of a child.
Rosen and her sister Cathy entered intensely Bible-centric Keswick to avoid attending a rough neighborhood pubic school. “God Is My Co-Pilot!” and “Jesus Saves!” bumper stickers were common sights in the Keswick parking lot as dutiful parents dropped their children off. From kindergarten, where the teacher drilled Bible verses into Rosen’s memory, through middle school, she easily identified with the Bible stories told in class.
“Moses seemed real and approachable because much of what he encountered was familiar to me,” Rosen writes. “He was responsible for leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, thanks in large part to a convincing series of plagues, many of which prompted shudders of recognition from a Florida native.”
Hordes of frogs, hail and lice were all too familiar sights to Floridians, who also routinely encountered scorpions, stingrays, snakes, fire ants, mosquitoes, alligators, opossum, armadillos and raccoons. Even the water turning into blood of the Bible was recognizable: “Every year brought red tide – the bloom of ocean algae that turned the balmy Gulf of Mexico into a reeking charnel house of dead fish.”
The Bible soon became indispensable to her.
“It was helping me to make sense of the world I already knew,” she says, noting that it was replete with examples of people acting on unusual impulses – appealing, considering that children inevitably find themselves at the mercy of adult whims. “To a curious and credulous child, the Bible rarely disappointed.”
Rosen’s deep love for the Bible was solidified in the second grade when a motivational speaker visited Keswick. The lecturer engaged the students in his “Walk Thru the Bible” seminar, using performance art and hand gestures to tell stories of major biblical events.
Later, much to the annoyance of friends and neighbors of other faiths – and armed with “Walk Thru the Bible” gestures – Rosen began to witness to people whose religious beliefs were not included in the “for all who believe” part of Keswick’s pledge to the Christian flag.
“By the close of the third grade, I found I’d not yet converted a single living soul, and this started me wondering whether, in fact, I did have the best story to tell about salvation,” Rosen says.
During the summer, Rosen and her sister attended a two-week workshop at the Pinellas County Science Center, where Rosen was introduced to the theory of evolution.
Back in school,”I was a little surprised, then, when our science lesson began with our teacher asking us to open up our Bibles and read from Genesis: ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth.’ ” Rosen says. Rosen was told that evolution was something dangerous, not exciting, as the summer teachers had conveyed.
Rosen’s time at the school ended with eighth grade, when her parents began to feel that the school’s hard-core Christian philosophy was diverging from their own. By that time, she writes, Keswick seemed to want to wall its student body off from mainstream culture and all its evils.
They wanted to “create an alternative society for us, one based on strict morals and Bible beliefs,” she says.
Now an adult and scholar, Rosen says the King James Bible is no longer her strict blueprint for life, though she notes that those who haven’t read the Bible have missed experiencing something of extraordinary beauty and power.
She reflects fondly on her Keswick experiences.
“Growing up in a particular religion is like a person’s daily experience with gravity,” she writes. “It is always there, but it is something you tend to notice only if you stumble.”
Thankfully, Rosen never gets too heavy-handed or preachy in her captivating memoir. Taken on its own terms, My Fundamentalist Education is a surprisingly entertaining book that will rekindle memories (good and bad) of anyone who ever attended any religious school, Sunday school or vacation Bible school.
Laurence Washington is co- publisher/editor of Blackflix.com and teaches journalism at Metropolitan State College of Denver.
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