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Rosen: My Fundamentalist Education

In the Sixties and Seventies there were at least two movements that involved the founding of Christian private elementary schools. One was a reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, and the schools founded as a result were mostly “segregation academies” [link]: schools that may have had the word “Christian” in their name but really meant “White low-church Protestant.” If you’ve read the Michael Lewis book The Blind Side, you may be familiar with Briarcrest Christian School [link]. It is a matter of public record that Briarcrest was originally founded as a segregation academy. I would argue that there was a second movement that had more to do with the secularization of culture in the United States, including schoolbook fights, values clarification, etc. and where there were no real racial overtones in the founding of the schools, even if the schools themselves were founded at the same time as the judicial aftermath of Brown. I will admit that in some states it’s sometimes hard to tell which schools are which, especially now, forty years later.

Most of the books I’ve found that talk about Christian schools from an outsider’s perspective are like Albert Menendez’s 1993 Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach [link], which takes the view one might expect from a Prometheus Press publication: it is meant to be part straight reporting, part expose, but the author is writing for an audience that shares his outrage at the very idea that someone would be a Christian, not to mention wanting their children to be Christians, etc. The result is just barely readable and may leave a reader wondering who exactly is more bad crazy: the author or his enemies. For the record I get the same feeling reading stuff by people like “Brigitte Gabriel” [link].

So against that backdrop it’s nice to find a book like Christine Rosen’s 2005 memoir My Fundamentalist Education [link, link]. It tells the story of Rosen’s time at Keswick Christian School, St Petersburg, FL in the 1980s. I would humbly suggest that it isn’t nostalgic and it isn’t for the most part judgmental: she just says “this is what we believed; this is what school was like as a result.” This is in a lot of ways the book I wish more people who lived through some number of grades in a small poor Christian school would write.

The story starts with her parent’s divorce and her father’s remarriage; Rosen makes it clear early on that her mother is not coping, and later reveals that her mother is mentally ill. She, her younger sister, and even younger half-sister end up at Keswick, a school that was founded with a commitment to the notion that the Bible is their textbook. Much of the book is devoted to working out what this meant day to day: Scripture memorization, “Sword drills,” memorizing canned evangelistic pitches, and of course particular views on history, science, politics, etc. There are also some stock characters that may be unfamiliar to people who grew up outside the subculture: the violent ex-missionary with the strange sense of justice; the spooky, oddly perky traveling singing team; the preacher who mixes eschatology and politics. Okay, maybe that last one is familiar to people outside the subculture.

This is mostly a very nice memoir: even-handed, frank, and sympathetic. Unfortunately toward the end Rosen falls into a common ex-fundamentalist trap: she suggests that Christianity is something that was okay when she was a child, but now she’s a mature modern and outgrew faith the way she outgrew say knee socks. She comes across kind of condescending and I think that’s a shame. I don’t know how anybody can go from where she was then to where she is now. Public policy has one set of narratives about what the world’s problems are and how they should be solved; fundamentalist Christianity has another, and the two have not much in common.

Still, Rosen doesn’t show any signs in the book of actually despising Keswick or being bitter about her time there, and that puts her memoir ahead of most of the former fundamentalist stories I’ve found. For this reason (and the fact that used copies can be had cheaply from Amazon) I highly recommend this book.

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