March 07, 2006,
I've been reading Christine Rosen's wonderful new memoir, My Fundamentalist Education. Actually, I'm rereading it, since I was lucky enough to see My Fundamentalist Education in manuscript. (I'm thanked in the acknowledgments.) Christine Rosen is a remarkably accomplished young public intellectual, with an important book on the history of eugenics in America, and a slew of fascinating articles in publication such as Policy Review and The New Atlantis on everything from the prospect of artificial wombs to the cultural meaning of iPods and cell-phones. Under her maiden name of Christine Stolba (see and here, and since (see here and here), Rosen has authored many a piece over the years for NRO. Today, Rosen is a secular conservative. Yet now we learn that as a child she attended a school in Florida that was an outpost of strong Christian fundamentalism. Rosen's memoir of her religious girlhood gives us a fascinating glimpse of the fundamentalist life: a world that for all the controversy it stirs today is still poorly understood by most Americans.
Rosen supplies us with a child's-eye-view of fundamentalism. This book isn't a mature intellectual defense of fundamentalism, any more than it's an attack. My Fundamentalist Education is a light-hearted, frequently hilarious memoir the fundamentalist life experienced with the naivete and piercing honesty of a curious, bright young girl. I don't doubt that readers determined to despise fundamentalists will use some of what Rosen reveals to inflame their hatred. Yet sensible readers will see this gentle, thoughtful, funny, warts-and-all portrait for the loving tribute that it is.
It's all here. The exotica of fundamentalist life comes through, for example, in Rosen's description of her reaction (and the reactions of her classmates) to their first lessons about the Rapture. And the core of fundamentalism, the centrality of the Bible and the belief in Biblical inerrancy, is brought across here as a way of life, not just an idea. We learn about the Bible as a physical object for these kids, a companion, a contest, a seed of the imagination, a repository of sexual secrets. The Bible was the "fundamental" text of Rosen's girlhood, and despite her secularism, it's easy to see that the holy book retains a powerful hold over Rosen all these years later.
By the way, remember that vicious wave of anti-Semitism that swept across the country in the wake of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ? Neither do I. And after reading My Fundamentalist Education, I understand why. Ideally, of course, a pious fundamentalist brings souls to Christ. Rosen's parents' were best friends with a Jewish family, and the story of this sincere little girl's intermittent attempts to introduce her Jewish friends to Jesus between long games of monopoly, UNO, and Sorry is a riot. Actually, it turns out that among fundamentalists, impulse to spread the Good News happily coexists with a special admiration and reverence for the Jewish people. Rosen's school even had time to vary its steady diet of Gospel performances with a student production of Fiddler on the Roof. I don't know that Mel Gibson will be filming an adaptation of Fiddler in Yiddish, But I now understand why Gibson's audience hasn't started any pogroms.
It may be hard to believe, but this book is even more timely now than when I first read it. Since then we've had the intelligent-design trial and The Chronicles of Narnia. Well, Rosen shows you how the conflict between evolution and creation, and the Narnia series, shaped the life of one young girl. From a decades-old childhood direct to today's headlines. Few memoirs are so fortunate in their release date.
Chaste as this book may be, it's got an awful lot of fascinating sex. The "brick baby" birth-control method will leave you laughing, while it brings home the delightful frankness about the human condition that is fundamentalism's great strength. Like it or lump it, you won't be bored by Rosen's tales of surprise "skirt checks," "hand checks," the "six inch rule," and the irresistible allure of even the most modestly clad cheerleaders. How and what do fundamentalists teach their children about homosexuality or feminism? It's a bit more complicated than you might think.
There's plenty more in My Fundamentalist Education, and all of it is delivered through the magnificent concreteness of Christine Rosen's memory. In our deeply divided polity, readers will undoubtedly draw radically different lessons from Rosen's account. Many will emerge with greater respect for religious traditionalists. Others, I fear, may not. Read My Fundamentalist Education for yourself and see what you think.