- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 31, 2005


By Christine Rosen

Public Affairs, $25,

174 pages


“Exotica, human and otherwise, are a permanent part of a Florida childhood,” Christine Rosen says early on in this extremely engaging “Memoir of a Divine Girlhood.” She does not say so explicitly, but chief among the exotica was the fundamentalist Christian education she received at Keswick Christian School in St. Petersburg.

That was in the 1970s and 1980s. Ms. Rosen no longer considers herself religious, much less a fundamentalist. She leads a secular life as a married woman, history Ph.D., author (“Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement”) and fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., but she looks back on her childhood with great fondness.

That is a subtle strength of “My Fundamentalist Education.” It would have been easy to write a mocking criticism of what to most Americans is the hothouse world of conservative Christian education. Instead the author simply tells how it seemed to her then. Any moments of humor, and there are more than a few, arise completely out of the situation.

Christine and her sister Cathy were sent to Keswick by her father and stepmother because they did not trust the public school in their neighborhood. Keswick took its name from a holiness movement, marked by separatism (from mainstream society) and outward signs of piety, that originated in Keswick, England, in the 19th century.

“Driving into the gates of the school every morning was a bit like entering an alternative universe.” There was a pledge of allegiance not only to the American flag but to the Christian flag and to the Bible. There was lots and lots of memorizing, particularly of the Bible, which was a daily academic subject and the students’ inseparable companion.

She conformed quickly and happily, and by the age of six “knew what I had to do to get to heaven and what might send me to hell.” She loved the Bible and Jesus. Fortunately, “Christian central casting had found a white-robed, kindly looking fellow with a nonaggressive, trim beard and gentle eyes who succeeded in looking both manly and sexless” and who, of course, “heartily approved of America.”

Two subtopics related to Keswick are woven into the memoir. One is Florida, and the other is Ms. Rosen’s biological mother. Both are clearly beloved, but neither escapes sharp comment. “Florida,” Ms. Rosen writes, “is … a place that encourages a thoughtless aping of sophistication.” The Ringling Museum of Art, for instance, is a “typical Florida conflation of high art and low kitsch.” Not even one of the most high-profile segments of Florida’s population is spared. “Florida’s elderly aren’t cuddly,” Ms. Rosen states flatly. The women you could find loitering about outside supermarkets, complaining about prices. “The men were a little nicer.”

As for Ms. Rosen’s mother, she was an embarrassment to her and her sister. The girls had their reasons. She had left them and their father for, first, a guy named Chuck, then a guy named Pete (whom she married). They took to calling her Biomom. About the time Biomom got Pete, she also got religion, in the form of Pentecostalism — theologically quite different from fundamentalism — and insisted on dragging her daughters to the boisterous healing services, which they found, well, embarrassing. Biomom also moved house often, and was gripped by “mild persecution scenarios.”

But Biomom had her reasons, too. No one knew it at the time, but she suffered from mental illness, as Ms. Rosen explains at the end. After years of learning about the End Times and the Antichrist, wondering why her witnessing to the unchurched bore no fruit (“since once you knew about Jesus how could you believe anything else?”), and dreams of becoming a missionary (“I imagined myself clad in white linen skirts and a straw hat”), Christine came increasingly in contact with the outside world, to the detriment of her self-contained one. In her determined search for answers to such questions as the origin and age of the planet, she was growing too smart for her own fundamentalist good.

More to the point, her parents, who had never shared the fundamentalist worldview, began to wonder what she was learning and doing. Eventually they removed the girls from Keswick and sent them instead to an evangelical school. Still, we can be glad, as Ms. Rosen is, that she had the experience, for along with her we have learned a lot, not least about odd biblical maladies. The next time someone irks you, you can yell at them, like young Christine, “I hope you get the botch!”

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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