Book Excerpt: 'My Fundamentalist Education'

It wasn't until the end of my first year at Keswick that I finally began to understand just how important this melding of the spiritual and the educational was, and to begin to see what it was supposed to produce in us. One afternoon, as we were filing out of our classroom toward the playground, I heard yelling, banging, music, and general mayhem coming from the direction of the gymnasium. It was a high school pep rally, my teacher explained. They were getting excited about that night's basketball game. Manuel told me that when we got older we could learn to play musical instruments and sit next to each other and play in the pep band during games, and he seemed inordinately excited at the prospect.

But it wasn't the noise and music that I found mesmerizing. It was what they were saying. I could hear them stomping their feet on the wooden bleachers, clapping in unison, and yelling, over and over and over again, "Go Crusaders, GO!" "What's a crusader?" I asked. "You know," my teacher said, "the Crusader in the gym. Our mascot." The Crusader was the person painted on one large wall of the gymnasium; I stared at him on the rainy days, when we were exiled to the gym for games of tag and duck, duck, goose. He was an aristocratic-looking man clad in armor, atop a charging horse. In his left hand was an imposing shield, in his right a lance, and his helmet was emblazoned with a large cross. I hadn't realized that we were supposed to be Crusaders.

But then it made sense.

I had memorized a verse that year, from Ephesians: "Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." Like the Crusader, I was supposed to put on armor and fight. Like that lone warrior, I was to learn to arm myself with knowledge of the Bible to protect myself against the dark forces at work in the world, forces that still seemed vague and far away to a kindergartner.

The Bible, which that first day of school had been unfamiliar and strange, by the end of the school year had become my indispensable companion. It was helping me to make sense of the world I already knew. The Bible stories I heard every day -- stories about burning bushes, plagues, and other freakish expressions of God's power over nature -- seemed sensible in a place where we shared our world with sharks, scorpions, stingrays, snakes, fire ants, mosquitoes, alligators, opossum, armadillos, and raccoons.

Every year brought red tide -- the bloom of ocean algae that turned the balmy Gulf of Mexico into a reeking charnel house of dead fish. People's homes were swallowed up, overnight, by sinkholes -- the phantom menace of life at sea level -- and trailers and trees were tossed yards by the buffeting of hurricane-force winds, the evidence of nature's swift, destructive force. Not as common but still frequent were the stories of some hapless retiree being dragged into a lake and devoured by a fourteen-foot alligator. But such things happened all the time in Scripture, and even echoes of the exotic creatures I saw in Florida could be found in the Bible. Alligators, my teacher reminded me, are just like the leviathan described in Psalms.

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