Book Excerpt: 'My Fundamentalist Education'

Christine Rosen's childhood in a Christian fundamentalist school had nothing to do with dangerous extremism.

She said it wasn't perfect, but she looks back on her youth with fondness, even if most people she grew up with took the Bible literally.

Her memoir focuses on the 13 years she spent in Florida, where God's power and wrath steeped everything in a holy shroud that she didn't always understand.

You can read a chapter from the book "My Fundamentalist Education" below.

Darlings of Divine Providence

Statement of faith number 4: "We believe in the fallen and lost estate of man, whose total depravity makes necessary the new birth."

The short drive from our house on Jungle Avenue to Keswick Christian School took us over a causeway, where pelicans perched, past an old cement factory and the Veterans' Park, and along a stretch of neighborhood called the Colonial Village.

Like many subdivisions in the area, it attempted a hopeful fa├žade, with a brick wall and worn, Colonial-looking signage marking the entrance. But if the sign was to be believed, the early American settlers lived in row after aluminum row of mobile homes.

As we pulled into the school on the first day, you could hear the crunch of our van's tires on the main driveway, a pothole-riddled composite of sand and the crushed remains of seashells. I noticed the playground first, and it seemed promising -- a fabulous, sandy expanse with large, half-buried truck tires, monkey bars, and a jungle gym from which a child was dangling, like a piece of overripe fruit, ready to drop to the sand below. There were swing sets that seemed to go on forever, with rusty chains and wooden seats that looked like they would leave splinters and flaking red paint on the back of your thighs. I wanted to run over and climb up the large metal ladder that was stuck into the ground and leap off of it until my feet stung. Next to the playground was an old log cabin, looking slightly worn, and a collection of low-slung, cream-colored concrete-block buildings with jalousie windows. Oak trees weighted with the gray, dripping density of Spanish moss dotted the grounds.

The other cars pulling into the driveway weren't fancy, but many of them had "God Is My Copilot!" and "Jesus Saves!" bumper stickers or strange little fish symbols affixed to them. Another van was parked in front of us, and a stream of little people were emerging from it: one, two, three, four, five, six children in all, and all with the same striking white-blond hair. Barreling in behind us was a white Cutlass Supreme, from which only one child emerged, a skinny girl with dirty-blond hair, about Cathy's age, who looked mildly embarrassed as she pulled her book bag out of the backseat. The woman in the driver's seat had dangly earrings and teased hair and was talking to the girl, who said, "Okay, Mom, I know!" a few times before slamming the car door and hurrying toward her classroom. As the Cutlass turned to head back out of the school gates, I saw that it, too, had a bumper sticker: "If you're rich, I'm single!"

Even I could sense that first day that Keswick was a place flirting with financial insolvency. The high-pitched whine and crackle of the intercom that startled me that morning brought the principal's voice, which welcomed us to our first day of school, then encouraged families to purchase Burger King coupons; a portion of the sales benefited the Parent Teacher Association.

"You can use your coupons for an occasional evening out," he urged, and the school would get 50 cents of every dollar spent on greasy burgers and fries. "Remember BK!" my teacher enthusiastically reminded us every day thereafter. We went home that week with flyers pinned to our shirts urging Keswick families to consume large quantities of V8 juice and Franco-American gravies, so that the labels from the cans could be steamed off and redeemed by the school for cheaply made audiovisual equipment; soon Cathy and I were sending our own sodden stack of tomato and cream-of mushroom soup labels by the kitchen sink at home.

The school had taken its name from a holiness movement that originated in Keswick, the principal town in England's Lake District, in the late nineteenth century. The Keswick faithful's defining tenets were separatism and outward markers of piety, a worldview that required a "strenuous and visible morality," as one historian described it. The school was affiliated with the Moody Bible Institute, one of America's oldest fundamentalist Protestant institutions, based in Chicago, which has trained generations of missionaries, ministers, and Christian educators since its founding in 1886. Moody added to separation from the world a corresponding commitment to winning souls to Christ. "I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel," Dwight L. Moody once said of this form of evangelism. "God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, 'Moody, save all you can!'"

Keswick began not as a lifeboat but as a thirteen-acre chicken farm -- a dilapidated property containing little more than oak trees, some diseased citrus, that very log cabin next to the playground, covered in tongue-in-groove cypress, and a garage, where the owner housed the more aggressive birds he used for cockfighting.

In 1953, a recently widowed mother of two children named Ruth Munce bought the property, hoping to transform it into a private school where "God would be the sum of the equation, the Bible a textbook." The chicken house became the senior classroom, the log cabin the lower school, and the Grace Livingston Hill Memorial School was born.

Munce was Christian royalty of a sort; her mother, for whom she named the school, was the woman who pioneered the Christian romance novel and wrote more than one hundred of them before her death in 1947. Ruth Munce, writing under the name Ruth Livingston Hill, was known to have kept the fledgling Memorial school afloat by publishing her own Christian romances, earnest salutations with titles such as Morning Is for Joy and The Jeweled Sword. The school grew modestly during the 1960s and 1970s, and in 1978, just about the time I arrived to begin my first day of school, it became part of the Moody Bible Institute and changed its name to Keswick Christian School.

Besides the impressive playground, the school campus included a gymnasium and a conference center, complete with chapel, hotel, and swimming pool, where missionaries "on furlough" came for meetings. In midwinter, with its large pool and plantings of palm trees and azaleas, it must have seemed like a tropical oasis to visitors from up north. But a closer look easily located the fraying and worn; the algae-stained edges of the pool, the moldy carpeting in the corner of the elementary school office, or the music room where the only attempt at creating good acoustics was mustard-colored shag carpeting stapled to the walls. Keswick families were not wealthy; my classmates' shirts were sometimes a little out-at-the-elbows. But the uniforms we wore ensured that most differences in circumstance and class remained muted. We had been advised to sew white patches over any logos that might mark one student's shirt as superior in brand to another. Our class awareness was of the childish variety that equates worn shoes or cheap pants patches with poverty and a house with a trampoline with great wealth. This suited St. Petersburg, where old money can be hard to find, unless it is tucked away, with mothballs, under an aging relative's mattress.

Wealth meant having a house like the one a girl in my kindergarten class lived in. Her father, a home builder, was a mini-tycoon in the dawning age of the McMansion and he built his own oversize dream house as a showplace of his unique talents. At her birthday party that year, I wandered, awestruck and envious, through the gigantic structure. There was a grand entrance hall, and off that was the "fancy formal" sitting room, with plush peach carpet, white leather couches, a lacquered white baby grand piano, and one entire wall tricked out to mimic the Manhattan skyline, complete with a mirror that featured a superimposed sketch of skyscrapers and real twinkling lights. The sunken living room, shag-carpeted, featured a hulking early-generation large-screen television set and two aquariums with piranhas. A lagoon- like swimming pool with a built-in waterfall and slide completed the picture of high living.

Most Keswickians were not this flush, however, and were a different class of people than the mainline Protestants in St. Petersburg, whose churches were downtown. The Keswick mothers unloading their kids at school every morning were women with home permanents, not salon coiffures, and they wore vinyl mock-croc pumps and polyester-blend dresses from Sears. Families drove sensible American cars and probably took a camping vacation once a year. They would have stuck out at the high Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches, where fresh flowers decorated the altar every Sunday and where many of the older female congregants still wore white gloves with their Sunday best.

Nevertheless, my kindergarten classroom was cheerful and crowded, even though there were only twenty kids in it. There were brightly colored cubbies and green cots stacked in a corner and several small round tables surrounded by tiny nicked green stools. We didn't stay in our classroom for long; we walked to chapel and to the cafeteria and to the art room and the playground, and whenever we did we collected the acorns that fell from the oaks. We used the hollows of the trees to store those found objects that children have a preternatural ability to unearth. By the end of the school day, I was filthy -- the upper half of my legs grimy with playground sand and the lower half protected by white knee socks that had turned a dirty gray. The smell of small humid bodies was a constant, with temperatures in the 80s, and the inevitable exertions of kindergarten quickly rendering us into grubby, ripe gangs.

The Florida climate was a physical presence that pervaded every moment of those first school days. You felt it in the humid classrooms, where wall-unit air conditioners wheezed and rattled and dripped throughout the day. You experienced it firsthand in gym class, which was held outside at ten every morning and seemed a brutal affair, even for a child as eager to be outdoors as I was.

By midmorning it was already hot, the air thick with humidity. The gym teacher made us run the perimeter of the school campus, following the chain-link fence to a bank of punk trees, with peeling white bark and a pungent scent, that marked our school's borders. V-shaped weeds, which grew high and fast in the field where we ran, slapped against my legs, leaving small black seeds that would itch for the rest of the day. By mid-run, panting and pink, a stinging stitch developing in my side and my school-issue gym uniform soaked with perspiration, I would begin reciting the books of the Bible I'd been learning to memorize, convinced that if I could just make it through half of the Old Testament, I would survive the run. Inevitably, by the time I reached Judges, one of my punier wheezing classmates would collapse with the tell-tale crimson color of heat exhaustion, and we would help carry her to the school office, where one of the secretaries would slap a damp paper towel on her forehead and have her lie down on a cot next to the mimeograph machine for an hour.

Nature constantly encroached. In displays of elementary school machismo, little boys caught brown anole lizards, forced open their little mouths, and clamped them to their ears, where they would dangle as accessories until our shrieking convinced them to end the lizards' suffering. When, one day, I was the first person to turn on the lights in the bathroom outside my classroom, I was treated to the sight of several cockroaches scurrying into the floor drain. Large fire-ant mounds rose in the fields where we ran and dotted the playground. The courtyard of the elementary school building, overgrown with ferns and weeds, became boggy after thunderstorms, and the liquid offerings of its centerpiece, a pink fiberglass water fountain, bore the sharp taste of chlorine and were as warm as a bath.

Few of my classmates made a strong impression on me in those first weeks. There was a bed wetter who was forced to drag his soiled cot outside to be hosed off after every nap time, and a missionary's daughter who talked a lot about her parents and the jungle but seemed awkward and out of place indoors. Outside our classroom was a large metal barrel, painted blue, that hung horizontally on two lengths of chain. Its top and bottom circular sections had been removed to make a kind of barrel swing. One of the greatest thrills of my kindergarten life was squeezing into the barrel with two other children and being pushed into a high arc by my classmates, the sound of small hands slapping and echoing within the rust-smelling, claustrophobic interior. It was here that I made my first friend at Keswick.

As I crawled into place in the barrel, I glanced over to see a boy wedging himself, with some difficulty, into the spot next to me. This was unheard of, a transgression of a sacred yet unspoken kindergarten boundary of play: separation of the sexes. Seeing my suspicious glance, the unflappable boy had the wit, despite the cramped quarters, to introduce himself, and we were friends from that day forward.

He was Manuel DeAbaya, the son of Filipino parents who doted on him and anyone lucky enough to befriend him in school. His mother, a stocky, clucking woman with broad, brown forearms, would make delicious exotic things encased in layers of papery-thin deep-fried dough and send them to school with Manuel, where we would devour them. At his house after school, she would hover near a table full of treats, smiling and emitting encouraging murmurs until we'd polished off the entire tray of them. Manuel and I quickly became inseparable, walking next to each other in our boys' and girls' lines to the cafeteria, pushing our cots together during nap time, and sneaking the newspaper off of our teacher's desk to try to read to each other. Soon Mama DeAbaya was looking on me with the certainty of a woman who knew I was born to be her son's arranged bride.

Our days became a predictable routine. We had learned three things on that first day of school, things that would become part of my daily life for the next thirteen years. Pointing to the American flag, which I recognized, our teacher taught us the pledge of allegiance. But when she turned to the other flag that flanked the chalkboard, I didn't know what to make of it. It was a tired polyester thing, white, with a square of purple in the top left-hand corner.

Embedded in the square was a cross of deep red. It was, she said proudly, the Christian flag, and every morning from that day forward, I placed my right hand across my heart, fixed my eyes on that cross, and pledged allegiance "to the Christian flag, and to the Savior, for whose Kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again, with life and liberty for all who believe." This avowal became as natural an act as breathing.

And when my teacher held up a thick black book and explained that it was God's word, we learned to pledge to it too. "I pledge allegiance, to the Bible, God's Holy Word. I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path and will hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God." These words, once hidden inside a heart, are impossible to dislodge, and memorization ensured that they would be ever at the ready.

Before I had even mastered reading, I committed to memory my first Bible verse, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." I learned songs about the Bible -- "The B-i-b-l-e. Yes that's the book for me! I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-i-b-l-e!" --and continued to memorize the order of the books of the Old and New Testaments, practicing with Manuel, who was a far better memorizer than I was, on the playground every day.

We memorized everything that year -- Bible verses, a Protestant version of the catechism, the names of the presidents, and lots and lots of poetry. Poems and Prayers for the Very Young, which included selections from Emerson, Robert Browning, Victor Hugo, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Blake, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was, after the Bible, our most frequently used textbook. The stern stanzas of Kipling's "If," the more didactic strains of Frost's "The Road Not Taken," even the discombobulated rhythms of "The Jabberwocky"-- "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe"-- soon were as familiar to me when I was six as John 3:16.

The other verses we memorized were the touchstones of Scripture that lay behind Keswick's nine separate credos that made up the "Statement of Faith," the document that outlined the central tenets of the school's mission, a kind of Moody Magna Carta. The "Statement of Faith" was signed by every teacher and endorsed by every parent who enrolled a child at the school. It was not displayed, like the cardboard Ten Commandments that adorned the walls of most classrooms. But it was everywhere present. The "Statement of Faith" emphasized the importance of the Bible ("We believe the Bible to be verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit in the original manuscripts, and to be the infallible and authoritative Word of God"); the Holy Trinity, the Virgin birth, deity, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as the presence of Satan ("We believe in the personality of Satan, called the Devil, and his present control over unregenerate mankind"). It outlined our duty to share the Gospel with unbelievers, and described the gift of salvation. It was the foundation of the school's approach to education.

"The Christian home and the Christian school share responsibility for the progress of the child," the report card I took home that first quarter stated in boldface lettering, and the emphasis was decidedly on the spiritual. "Dear Parents," it read, "It should be kept in mind that in Christian Education the spiritual development is equally important but because of its nature cannot be reduced to a grade." Bible was the first academic subject listed on our report cards, and a separate section on "Social and Moral Development" included categories such as "Shows reverence for God and His Word," "Respects authority," and demonstrates "Respect for property." Grades were not given glibly: "Not every student can achieve excellence (A) in his academics," the report card stated. "As a parent you must be cognizant that an average grade (C) is perfectly acceptable and is the grade most often given to a student. . . . May God use you and us to fulfill His best for your child as we look to Him, the author of eternal wisdom."

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.

But Keswick was in many ways separate and very different from the world I had known up until then, the world of Grandma and Grandpa and home and Cathy and Cindy and swimming and ballet dancing. Keswick seemed intent on teaching me about more serious things, and it faced all the plagues, tempests, and uncertainties that Florida could throw at it with stubborn defiance. Driving into the gates of the school every morning was a bit like entering an alternative universe. We defied the climate by wearing clammy polyester uniforms that emphasized modesty more than comfort; we defied the culture by refusing to accept the latest offerings of popular entertainment; we defied the disorder and anxieties of modern life by turning to the Bible to learn where we came from and what would happen to us in the future. And the commitments we were expected to make to that world were new and unusual, and meant rejecting things that nearly every grown-up I knew did with regularity: smoking, drinking, dancing, cursing, and card playing. My new world was one of nonalcoholic grape juice communions and full-immersion baptisms, a world of hymn singing and pledges to Scripture. It was a world whose end, I learned, was prophesied in the Bible.

This was a world far removed from the mild Methodist devotion of my infant baptism, yet I conformed to it quickly. On my report card that year, my teacher wrote, "Chrissy is doing a beautiful job memorizing Scripture and poetry," and in the boxes marked "spiritual and emotional development," she noted, "seldom displays fear or timidity" and "usually listens and responds to Bible lessons." In fact, I'd taken to Scripture like a saw palmetto to Florida soil. I thrived in it even though I couldn't possibly understand everything about it.

But my teacher must have had an inkling that the roots I was putting out might not yet be deep enough, because her final remark about my first year at Keswick was more ambiguous: "She voices the opinion now," she wrote in her smooth cursive, "that everything should go her way." If I did think everything should go my way, it was thanks in large part to what I had learned that year. I had learned who God was. I had learned how the world began and how it would end. I knew what I had to do to get to heaven and what might send me to hell. I knew all of this by the time I was six years old.

The foregoing is excerpted from "My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Childhood " by Christine Rosen. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission.