One of the things I hate is snobbish treatments of fundamentalist Christians, easy targets for New York and Washington sophisticates.

Former IWFer Christine Rosen’s wonderful new book, My Fundamentalist Education, A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood, isn’t just another entry in the I Grew Up Ignorant but Saw the Light genre.

It’s Christine’s story of going to a fundamentalist school in Florida as a child, and-surprise, surprise-the good education she received. No, she’s not a fundamentalist (they’re pretty rare in Christine’s now-native Cleveland Park), but she has not turned on the people who made her memorize vast portions of one of the greatest achievements of the English language, the Bible. In short, this is not the Protestant version of a The Nuns Rapped Me on My Knuckles memoir.

The school was Keswick, which, as Christine recounts, had taken its name from a town in England’s Lake District where this brand of fundamentalism developed. “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.” Keswick was affiliated with the Moody Bible Institute, a fundamentalist institution, and the property for the school had been purchased by Ruth Munce, a writer of Christian romance novels.

It was a school that put emphasis (as has been noted) on memorizing:

“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 slthy 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 saga features Christine’s mother (“Bio Mom”), who abandoned the family when Christine and her sisters were quite young and became a religious devotee, the beloved stepmother, Pam, and Christine’s father, a lawyer, who was not particularly church-going-and, of course, her Keswick schoolmates. I won’t spoil it by telling you any of their stories.

Christine is a friend of mine, but I think I’m objective enough to say that what I so liked about this book is its account of an intellectual coming of age, and its fondness for a kind of education and a kind of person the intelligentsia scorns today. That’s why Alan Pell Crawford’s review today surprised me so much:

“Ms. Rosen is a vivid writer with an enviable memory for the revealing detail. But what she remembers about her Keswick years suggests that her biggest objection to fundamentalism and fundamentalists was less moral and theological than aesthetic.

“Keswick mothers, she writes, ‘were women with home permanents, not salon coiffures, and they wore vinyl mock-croc pumps and polyester-blend dresses from Sears.’ Teachers, both male and female, were also partial to polyester. The female musicians who performed at the school smelled of Aqua Net, and the missionaries who came to share their stories invariably had ‘out-of-date clothes’ and ‘badly cut hair.’

“The pews in the school chapel were ‘upholstered in an unfortunate pea-green color,’ and the Good News Bible Club that she joined met ‘in a musty, decaying house painted in a disturbing lime green color.’ The ‘old, disheveled lady’ who hosted the club ‘served stale cookies and tepid Juicy Juice.’ This woman also ‘had the sort of girlish crush on Jesus that only a disappointed spinster who’d spent too many years leading children’s Bible studies could nourish.’ She read to the children with her Bible balanced on her knees and her ‘thick socks rolling down her legs.'”

I read the same book Crawford read, but I thought that these descriptions were good-you don’t have to be stylish to be appreciated in the world of this book. In fact, the book ends in a passage (also approvingly noted by Crawford) with an assessment of Christine’s fundamentalist education. Christine is reading comments made as a child in the margins of her Bible:

“Reading those comments now, I am struck by their respectful yet questioning tone, and their combination of engagement with the text and the first glimmerings of skepticism. This was the attitude my teachers at Keswick fostered. They wanted the Bible to be the most familiar but also the most surprising of textbooks, and they wanted the reading and studying of it to be a lifelong commitment. I do still read my Bible, and when my eyes come to rest on the scribbled questions and quaint confusions of my younger self, I remember that the last verse I memorized at Keswick captured well the hopes that the school had for its students, even if some of us, in trying to fulfill them, left fundamentalism behind. The verse was John 8:32: ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

As Crawford rightly observes: “These are, of course, precisely the qualities that many public schools are struggling to inculcate in their students, all too often with little success.”

Because Christine wrote this book with both love and intelligence (pace Alan Crawford), it is a pleasure to read.