This is the printer-friendly layout. Click here to find the online format.
My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood
by Christine Rosen
(231 pages, $24.00, hardcover)
reviewed by Dave Andrusko
Years ago, when it came time to enroll my oldest in middle school, I’d like to say that I weighed the pros and cons in a fashion that made Solomon look like an impulse shopper. Truth be told, I drove by my neighborhood public school, chiseled out absurd conclusions from a mini-quarry of inadequate information, and, in a quasi-panic, enrolled my daughter in a fundamentalist Christian school for safekeeping.
In many ways, that school was very much like Keswick Christian School, lovingly described by Christine Rosen in My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Childhood. In retrospect, I realize that I labored under the same ill-informed stereotypes about public schools that many people carry around about “fundamentalist” schools.
To be sure, some graduates of schools like Keswick emerge with enough baggage to fill an airport carousel. Others barely need to open an overhead bin. Christine Rosen falls into a third category: She thrived.
Rosen’s dad and stepmother chose Keswick largely because the public school she and her sister Cathy would have attended was in a part of town “where everyone had bars on their windows and commercial activity was limited to pawnshops and liquor stores.”
So why such a decidedly unacademic book from the author of the very well-received Preaching Eugenics, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., who also serves as senior editor of The New Atlantis and whose byline crops up in places as far apart as The Weekly Standard, The New York Times Magazine, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Commonweal?
In an interview given after the book was published, Rosen said that when she and her Jewish husband-to-be were dating, his mother told Rosen, “You know, it would just be my worst fear if my son married a Southern Christian fundamentalist.”
“I was raised a Southern Christian fundamentalist,” she calmly told her future mother-in-law, who was appalled by what she had just said. Rosen assured her that she could understand “why you have that feeling” and offered to have a chat.
In many ways that’s what this book is: a chat that helps disabuse the typical reader of some of the worst boilerplate shibboleths. For example, Rosen tells us that “reason and faith developed together” at Keswick. Counter to the conventional wisdom, the guidance that came from Scripture “taught me to examine, to question, to criticize—even if this questioning eventually led me away from fundamentalism.”
Likewise, Rosen’s hilarious explanation of the school’s approach to “sex education” makes it clear that while she was “scared out of her wits about premarital sex,” that “didn’t translate into a fear of sex. I had simply learned to respect its power.”
Rosen politely demurs from those who see their experience at schools like Keswick as a straightjacket from which they must spend a lifetime struggling, Houdini-like, to escape. “I experienced it more like comfortable swaddling—it protected me from all that was cold and harsh while I was still vulnerable.”
Eventually, her parents pulled the sisters out. They hadn’t “realized just how vast [was] the gulf between what we were taught at home and what we were learning in school.” Their education began after the parents learned that Keswick had decided to boycott 7-11 for stocking Playboy. The following year the girls were attending an Evangelical Christian school.
Rosen says she no longer considers herself religious, let alone a fundamentalist. “In the end, I found I could not do the many things I wanted to do in the world if I continued in a faith whose first principle is separation from it.” Keswick sought to create an “alternative universe” by “wall[ing] us off from mainstream culture and all of its evils. The only trouble was, the longer I spent inside the closed world, the more eager I was to see what was on the other side of that wall.”
But Keswick’s legacy is deep and wide. I heard Rosen interviewed on NPR, the Ur of anti-fundamentalism. The host asked Rosen about a pledge they took each day—the “Pledge of Allegiance to the Christian Flag.”
All these years later, her instant recall reinforced a conclusion found in her book—that this “avowal” had become as “natural an act as breathing.” She writes, “These words, once hidden inside a heart, are impossible to dislodge, and memorization ensured that they would be ever ready.”