Carlene Cross’ Fleeing Fundamentalism (Alconquin: 2006) is a good book. Actually, it’s a lot more interesting than I anticipated it to be. When I first read the inside jacket of the book cover, I got this summary: Carlene Cross was raised in a fundamentalist family in rural Montana, and she followed her brother to a Bible college. There, she met and married a charismatic student named “David” (not his real name). David became a successful pastor, and she was expected to fulfill the role of a meek and submissive pastor’s wife. When David demanded total obedience from her and began to revisit old sins, she left him, the church, and the fundamentalist Christian faith of her childhood. Consequently, the church condemned and ostracized her. As she made her way into the secular world, she discovered that it was not as corrupt and evil as she expected it to be.
So I anticipated a bitter account of Christian hypocrisy and the subordination of women. And, on some level, that is what I got. But I also got a lot more. I got adventure, scholarship, and Carlene Cross’ reflections on her personal growth. I learned about welfare, and I thought about education and spirituality.
Overall, the character of David really baffled me. As Carlene talked about his gifts and success as a preacher, I wondered what his real name was and if I’d heard of him. But, also, he behaved in ways that I did not expect. When I read the inside jacket, I expected him to be a hypocritical preacher who had multiple affairs and relished his power within fundamentalist Christianity. Actually, he didn’t have any affairs, though he did have a problem with alcohol and pornography. Interestingly, when he and Carlene met in Bible college, he strictly walked the straight and narrow. He was practically a monk. He never asked girls out or touched them, even though he had plenty of admirers. He treated women as equals, which Carlene says was rare at her Bible college.
And, when Carlene is leaving the church, her husband leaves with her. He doesn’t hold on to his position of power and influence. The turning point comes when Carlene questions the doctrine of hell in her church, much to the consternation of the congregates. I expected David to rebuke her and beat her over the head with his Bible. Actually, he said that he didn’t believe in hell either, and he that thought his old fire and brimstone sermons were immature.
We learn throughout the book that David had a rough childhood. His parents abused him, and he sought solace in alcohol and pornography. But, for some reason, Bible college was a place of refuge for him, an area that allowed him to draw closer to God and become clean. It was his monastic experience. When he returned to the stresses of the real world, however, he relapsed. So David managed to baffle rather than outrage me, mainly because he acted in ways that I did not expect.
Contrary to the summary in the jacket, the congregates did not exactly ostracize Carlene after she left the church and her husband. As she plotted her divorce, she was fully expecting them to do so. She feared that she would have no social support system if she left David, so she went back to school to get a good job so she could raise her children. When she finally did divorce him, there were people in the church who actually reached out to her, and they were glad to see her at social gatherings. But, as she admits in her book (with regret), she turned her back on them in her eagerness to leave fundamentalism and start a new life.
Carlene Cross is a scholar, for she has an M.A. in communications history from the University of Washington. She wrote her thesis on Teddy Roosevelt and the media. So the book has a slight scholarly aura. When she does research to discover the “true” history of Christianity, however, she tends to rely on the Elaine Pagels-Bart Ehrman-Gerd Ludemann kinds of scholarship, the types that treat Christianity as a conspiratorial power play. She appears well-versed in American history and philosophy, but her research into religion is a little one-sided.
She did have interesting thoughts on education, though. When she went to a community college, she loved the openness in her classical history class, as the professor encouraged students to challenge his ideas. Carlene contrasts that with her education at Bible college, which she considers to be indoctrination rather than a free exchange of thought. Carlene is speaking from her perspective, but mine is a little different. In my experience, a secular education is not necessarily more open than a religious one. Not only are there secular professors who try to indoctrinate students with their worldview, but there are many academics who are committed to the correctness of their research, so they’re not overly tolerant of other ideas. And, on the other side, there are religious teachers who actually welcome a good challenge. But Carlene does well to specify her idea of a good classroom experience, and I’ve had good ones in secular and religious settings.
As far as her spiritual development goes, she seemed to flirt with goddess religion at one point. She was reading books about how the goddess religion was once dominant and got overthrown by these patriarchal tribal invaders, who replaced the goddess with their male deity. (I remember discussing this idea in a class when I was an undergraduate, and I remember that there are scholars who dismiss it, though I forget their specific arguments.) Later, as she experiences love from her children and reflects on the kindness that strangers have shown to her, she begins to see atheistic materialism as inadequate, as she embraces the possibility of a spiritual dimension. She eventually encounters the Gnostic Nag Hammadi texts, and she concludes that self-discovery rather than adherence to a book is the best spirituality. For her, people should heed the Gnostic admonition to look within, for those who are not at peace with themselves usually aren’t at peace with others. She dislikes religions that claim sole access to the truth because that leads to division and hostility. She concludes that “the ability to forgive and find common ground [is] the only means of turning our battered lives into a song.”
Although I have mixed reactions to Carlene’s spirituality, I must admit that there are touching moments in her self-discovery. At the beginning of the book, she mentions that she was ashamed of her rural Montana background when she was young, since it didn’t strike her as erudite or sophisticated. Later in her life, as she struggled with her life and spirituality, she came to admire her frontier heritage because it was tough in the midst of adversity and in touch with the land. This reminds me of a scene in Roots: The Next Generation, in which Alex Haley’s elderly aunt inquires, “You mean after spending all these years traveling the globe, you’ve finally found what you’re looking for right on this very porch?” Often, who we are and where we’ve been can contain more answers than we might think.
The book also taught me about welfare, since Carlene had to go on it for a while after she left her husband. Carlene gets a rough caseworker, whose gleefully reminds her that her benefits will soon be cut. I never figured that a welfare caseworker would be a Republican! And I actually admired some of what she did. She told Carlene about cheap places to buy food, while promoting the Goodwill as a place to shop. And that’s the way it should be. People who are receiving tax money should try to stretch that buck as far as it will go. Plus, the Goodwill has a lot of good stuff.
But I also had to reconsider some aspects of welfare reform, assuming that Carlene’s depiction is accurate. According to Carlene, the government does not like for single mothers to receive welfare when they are in school, since it wants them to work. Personally, I’d be a lot more flexible. There should be a time limit for welfare, since it shouldn’t be a way of life. But I’d give recipients the choice of working or going to school, since both are steps to getting on their feet.
So the book was surprisingly an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I didn’t agree with all of it, but it’s fun to read other people’s stories and reflections.