ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Christine Rosen's memoir of her elementary education is a clear-eyed, happy reminiscence of a world that we're more accustomed to hearing about in polemics, pro and con. It's called "My Fundamentalist Education." She spent the early 1980s in a Christian elementary school, reading the Bible, trying to convert the neighborhood kids and observing mainstream American culture from behind an elaborate protective curtain of religion. Christine Rosen is an historian who has written in the past about eugenics. In this book, she writes without anger or apology about ideas that she has left behind, the ideas behind Keswick, her old school in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Dr. CHRISTINE ROSEN (Author, "My Fundamentalist Education"): Keswick Christian School started in the '50s by a widow actually named Ruth Munce who wanted to start a Christian school where, according to her, the Bible would be the textbook. And around 1978, which is about the time I started kindergarten, Keswick affiliated with the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. And it was not accredited. It was quite small. And the property itself was an old and rather bedraggled chicken farm in St. Petersburg, Florida.
SIEGEL: And when they said that the Bible would be `the text' for your education, they didn't mean just any Bible.
Dr. ROSEN: No. The King James Version was the only version of the Bible that was considered appropriate. We called it--and this is the first Latin phrase I ever learned--Textus Receptus, the Received Text, the only proper version. And I do remember in second or third grade there was a boy who came in, a transfer student, and he was asked to read a passage from his Bible to sort of welcome himself to our community. This was something everybody could do with no trouble, if you were a good fundamentalist kid. He was very nervous, but he started reading from his Revised Standard Edition Bible, which substituted the word `virgin' in the story of the Virgin Mary for `young woman.' And that... [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The Revised Standard Edition of the Bible substituted the phrase `young woman' for the more common `virgin' in the Old Testament prophesy associated with Mary, not in the New Testament story of Mary.]
SIEGEL: And you knew enough to gasp at that.
Dr. ROSEN: Absolutely. Our teacher immediately hustled his Bible right out of his hands and gave him a classroom King James, and he read from that ever since.
SIEGEL: Tell us about the Pledge of Allegiance that you said at Keswick.
Dr. ROSEN: Well, we started the day, first, with a Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, which many students do in their classrooms today. Follow that, though, however, with a pledge to the Christian flag. The Christian flag, for people who've never seen one, is--it's really simple. It's a white flag, and in the top left-hand corner, in a purple box, is a big red cross. It's what it looks like. And so we would, after pledging to the American flag, turn to the other side of the classroom, where the Christian flag was, and say, `Pledge 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.'
SIEGEL: Somewhat derivative pledge here of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Dr. ROSEN: Exactly. And I think the key phrase we learned there was the last one, `for all who believe.' This was what was emphasized and why we were encouraged to bring into that community as many people as possible. All the unbelievers were the ones who we wanted to have join us.
SIEGEL: Then you'd have an activity in assembly, I guess, called the sword drill.
Dr. ROSEN: Yes. The sword drill actually was one of my favorite things about school. Every Thursday we would have a chapel service, and the highlight of chapel was the sword drill. Now the sword, of course, is our Bible because we learned that the Bible was our sword of the spirit. And the principal would stand at the front of the room, we'd raise our swords--our Bibles--in our right hands and wait for the principal to say a verse. Soon as he did, you'd hear this collective `whomp' as everybody pulled their Bibles into their laps, furiously thumbing to find the verse. First student who found it would leap up, and then their honor was to read this verse in front of the whole assembly. Of course, it was an exercise in encouraging us to memorize the order of the books of the Bible because you had to think quickly, and you had to know where Acts and Romans fell and to find the verse. But it was really spiritual competition, honing our swords of the spirit.
SIEGEL: And it was fun for you to do this.
Dr. ROSEN: Oh, it was great fun. I loved it.
SIEGEL: I'd like you to recount an episode that you write about, which is your summer in science camp, which I guess is a kind of a turning point for you.
Dr. ROSEN: It was. The summer before fourth grade, my parents decided to send us to a science camp that was in our neighborhood. It was a secular institution. Kids from all over the town came. And I went to geology workshop, learned about the age of the Earth, learned about how things--the Grand Canyon was formed, learned about fossils; and took a biology workshop, learned about evolution, learned about someone named Darwin, learned that we were descended from monkeys. It was thrilling to me, just the--it was very hands-on, scientific training. And for a little kid, it was extremely fun.
But when I got to school in the fall, our science lesson began with the Book of Genesis: `In the beginning, God created the Earth.' And this was our text. Now we did also have a science textbook, but it also taught us creation science. And this was the beginning for me of a questioning process, where I had loved and trusted the Bible up to that point without any questions. But suddenly the stuff I was so enthusiastic about learning that summer didn't mesh with what I was hearing in the classroom. And so that started me trying to read more broadly, asking questions, many questions probably that disturbed some of my teachers. But they did, I will say, their best effort to help me, to guide me within the limited range of books that were in our library, none of which were enthusiastic about evolution. They had titles with things like "Evolution: The Fossils Still Say No!" So I didn't find answers in our library, but I did eventually in the public library.
SIEGEL: You had the true creationist schooling.
Dr. ROSEN: Yes.
SIEGEL: I mean, whatever we read about now in the conflict between evolution and creationism, your elementary school stood by the creation story of the Book of Genesis as...
Dr. ROSEN: Absolutely.
SIEGEL: ...absolute truth.
Dr. ROSEN: Absolutely. And we didn't even learn intelligent design. We learned strict creation science.
SIEGEL: What's the legacy of all this for you? Now you lead an essentially secular life at this stage. You're a historian with a PhD from Emory University. What's left of it for you? What remains? What's the residue?
Dr. ROSEN: Well, I think part of what inspired me to write this book was a conversation with my husband, Jeff, who was raised a secular Jew in Manhattan and with his family. My delightful mother-in-law told me when we were dating once, just in passing, `Oh, you know, it would be my worst nightmare for my son to marry a Southern Christian fundamentalist.' And I realized I don't think she knows any Southern Christian fundamentalists. And even though I'm not one myself, I wanted to explain what that culture gave me, good and bad, because I think there are a lot of assumptions about fundamentalists.
And so to tell the story from a child's-eye view--the legacy for me: It taught me to, first of all, love language, love reading, memorization, music; a respect for human nature, for right and wrong. But mostly I would say for me, it encouraged my intellectual curiosity. It didn't stifle it. Now that hasn't been the case for everyone who's experienced this kind of education. I certainly recognize that. But what I think Keswick was trying to do was give us the Bible as a textbook but not discourage us from continuing to question what it meant throughout the rest of our lives. And in that, they succeeded, probably a little too well for some of us because our questioning led us away from fundamentalism. But I appreciate that that was what they were giving us--is that intellectual bedrock.
SIEGEL: Christine Rosen, thank you very much...
Dr. ROSEN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: ...for talking with us.
Christine Rosen is the author of "My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood." And you can find an excerpt from Christine Rosen's memoir at our Web site, npr.org.
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.