I just finished a book entitled My Fundamentalist Education, by Christine Rosen. I was in the library, I saw it, and I grabbed it, or, rather, it grabbed me. The book is primarily about Christine Rosen’s fundamentalist education at Keswick Christian School, but she also talks a lot about the sites of St. Petersburg and her radical Pentecostal mother (or “biomom,” as she calls her).
The Washington Post Book World named My Fundamentalist Education one of the best non-fiction books of 2006. I initially thought that this was going a little too far, even though I must admit that I don’t know what other non-fiction books were out there in 2006. I just thought (at least at first) that her book didn’t communicate anything that is profoundly new. I already realized that there are fundamentalists who think that the earth is 6,000 years old, encourage evangelism to non-Christians, and expect a coming Antichrist to rule the world near the end of time. And then, suddenly, her book started to provoke some interesting reflections.
Specifically, the book caused me to reflect about which adults I trusted when I was a child. As a young girl, Christine Rosen heard conflicting ideas from the adults in her life. At a summer science center, she learned about evolution and the universe being millions of years old. At school, her teachers interpreted Genesis 1 to mean that the earth is only 6,000 years old. Her school and her mother told her to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with non-Christians. Her dad and step-mother, on the other hand, promoted religious pluralism. And some in her extended family wanted nothing to do with church.
I’ve heard some say that adults are oracular in the eyes of young children, meaning that kids look to their elders as authoritative. I wouldn’t accept this claim as an absolute, but I do think that it has some merit. Kids just beginning to learn about the world around them tend to trust those who are older than they are. But what if the adults contradict each other? Which oracle do they believe then?
Christine Rosen tended to trust her school, at least when she was younger, since she abandoned her fundamentalism once she became an adult. As a child, for example, she continued to proselytize despite her dad and step-mom’s rejection of fundamentalism. Why did she side with her school? My impression from her book is that her dad and step-mom were “hands-off” sorts of parents who weren’t rigorously committed to teaching their children a specific ideology. Her school, by contrast, had her memorize Bible verses and actually told her what to believe. Her response to the creation/evolution controversy was more complex, however, for there she tried to find a way to believe that both were correct. In that case, she wanted to accept both oracles (the science center and the Christian school).
Unlike Rosen, I mostly sided with my parents over my school, at least up to the fifth grade (when I became a rebel and questioned both of them). My situation was different from Rosen’s in that my parents were fundamentalist whereas my school was secular (at least for the Bible belt). To their credit, my parents were actively engaged with their kids. They took seriously the biblical command to teach their children while they are sitting down, standing up, and walking about the gates (or, in our case, the fence). And they clearly told me that the majority viewpoint is not always the correct one. In general, my family was rather different from everyone else in our small town. As devotees of a Worldwide Church of God offshoot, we went to church on Saturday rather than Sunday. We didn’t keep Christmas, Easter, and Halloween. Every year, I took off school for a whole week to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. And, during the Days of Unleavened Bread, I brought these bumpy crackers to school. And I believed my parents when they told me that we were following God’s will. They showed me the relevant Bible passages, after all.
And my parents also emphasized that my teachers are not always right. We should respect and obey our teachers, yes, but what our teachers told us was not necessarily the unvarnished truth. One time, a teacher of mine referred to human beings as animals, and I told my mom about it when I came home. My mom replied that people are not animals but are special because they were made in God’s image. She also told me stories about when she was a kid and an evolutionist teacher tried to force his ideas down the students’ throats. And I believed my mom. My parents usually made a lot of sense when they discussed ideas with me.
Right now, I agree with my parents on some things, but I also disagree with them. And, interestingly enough, my parents don’t even believe everything that they accepted when I was a child. People change. But Christine Rosen made me think back to when I was little, as I asked myself what oracular adults I followed at that time and why.