The girl who had a crush on Moses
An author who grew up in St. Petersburg says her fundamentalist education didn't brainwash her. Rather, it sparked a curiosity about science, evolution - and TV.
By KELLEY BENHAM
Published January 29, 2006
Christine Rosen grew up longing for Tyrone Mall, The A-Team and Dance Fever, all of which were perceived as threats to her goody-goody fundamentalist childhood.
She had a fairly mainstream father and stepmother and an evangelical mother, and was enrolled for eight years at Keswick Christian School in St. Petersburg. Those years, during which she developed a crush on Moses and fantasized about converting the neighbors, became the subject of her recent memoir: My Fundamentalist Education.
At Keswick, deprogrammers played Black Sabbath records reeaall slowwww so students could decipher subliminal satanic messages. Cheerleaders wore sweaters and skirts to the knee. Dancing was "clothed fornication" and television the "devil's fruit." Rosen developed a fear of growing up to be a harlot and of being sucked from her desk and whisked to heaven before she could graduate.
In eighth grade, after the school required students to boycott the only nearby 7-Eleven because it sold nudie magazines, Christine's parents moved her to Northside Christian. She got a lopsided punk haircut - in retrospect a poor decision - and slowly let go of her embedded fundamentalist notions. She acquired a Ph.D., a Jewish husband and a job at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. She relinquished church membership but retained a reverence for the Bible and an affection for her old school, where she says she felt swaddled, not straitjacketed.
We talked to Rosen, now 32, about her book. Woven into this edited interview are passages from the text.
For starters, here is how she remembers our city:
Tourists imagine pristine beaches, but our shores were more like a morgue - the carcasses of horseshoe crabs, mullet, and jellyfish were scattered amid the slimy, dark brown seaweed, broken shells, and discarded soda-can tabs. And what was true of the beach was true of the rest of St. Petersburg, where even the names of common vegetation suggested unrelenting struggle with the natural environment.Sounds like Florida creeped you out.
For me there was always something so strange about it. I'd read in books about kids building snowmen and the change of seasons, but in Florida it was always hot. I was learning so much about the Bible, and Florida was a tropical place. The two sort of meshed in my head.
The teachers would describe the leviathan and that was like an alligator. Lice, hail, these were things I could relate to. Red Tide. That was like the description of one of the plagues brought down up on Egypt. Growing up in Florida made the Bible real.When were you here last?
I was in St. Pete last spring. I visited Keswick Christian School and talked to teachers and administrators. I hope I wasn't too hard on my old hometown. I have a love-hate relationship with Florida, but I do love St. Pete.
... We soon developed spiritual crushes on the characters who figured most prominently in our Biblical stories. Mine was Moses. When asked to draw a picture of heaven (which happened fairly often), I always included, just past the entrance to the pearly gates, a bearded, smiling Moses, leaning on a cane, acting as a celestial concierge. He was the first person I wanted to meet in the great beyond.Who is your spiritual crush today?
Ooh, that's an interesting one. Not Pat Robertson.
I'm still a lover of the Old Testament. You can break people down by if they love the New Testament or the Old Testament. Moses would still be in my top five, but I'd also add Solomon.How do you see heaven today compared to when you were a kid?
It was a concrete, real place. Now it's more abstract. My friends who came to Christianity later had an abstract view when they were younger and it becomes more concrete.
I would draw glittery buildings with lots of gold and jewels and put my Bible characters scattered around their heavenly McMansions.
Florida's elderly aren't cuddly. At the local Publix supermarket, the women loitered outside, avidly reading the weekly sale fliers and complaining about the prices. The men were a little nicer. ... They called their wives Mother, like Ring Lardner's narrator in The Golden Honeymoon.Was Moses cuddly?
I didn't think he'd be cuddly; I thought he'd be friendly. But these passages describe him as full of wrath. I suspected he had a temper.What about Jesus?
Jesus was always cuddly, oh yes. We sang songs about how Jesus loves the little children. We had a picture of him in the classroom. He was a well-scrubbed, glowing figure. He looked like someone we could know. In the '70s there was another version, a hippier, a tanned Jesus. He was more edgy, but we didn't have that Jesus.
My teacher was quick to point out that since we already had world government, it was likely that the Antichrist was already among us, too... As I ran through the list of potential Antichrists, strange contenders emerged... My bullying neighbor, Dennis, who went to public school and was always riding his bike by my house and calling me names, seemed a likely candidate.You also suspected the Gipper and Michael Jackson?
In a child's mind it made sense. The Bible wasn't a scary story at night that you knew was made up. There was real fear.
Ronald Reagan became suspicious because the mark of the beast is three numbers, 666. His name, Ronald Wilson Reagan, is three names of six letters each. And he survived an assassination attempt, which the Antichrist is supposed to have done.
Michael Jackson has this glove on his hand, and it could be that he was covering the mark of the beast on his hand. He was the king of pop, dancing around in his rhinestone jacket, so it was disappointing to realize that he could be the Antichrist.You describe your Keswick experience overall as comforting and warm, but it sounds scary. You were looking for Satan around every corner. The school play was a bloody re-enactment of the crucifixion. And, you've noted, the body count in the Bible is high.
They were trying to scare us straight. But my teachers were these dedicated, loving people. We had small classes. I knew every morning when I got to class and put stuff away we'd say the pledge to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible. It was a routine that was extremely comforting to a child because children need consistency.How does that Christian pledge go again?
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. (Breath.) That one I will remember to my dying day.
I imagined myself clad in white linen skirts and a straw hat, standing atop a wooden platform, as I enlightened the unsaved and unwashed in exotic reaches of the globe. Typically, I would instruct the grateful natives and never fall ill with malaria or dysentery.
When I told Dad I was going to be a missionary, he just snorted and said, "Sure kid," and went back to reading the newspaper.What was your pitch to convert the unwashed?
It was very bad. I thought I was suave. We'd be playing Barbie and I'd say, "You know, Barbie and Ken aren't married and they shouldn't be in bed together." I'd become this raging moralist. It wasn't the best way to turn kids to Jesus. I didn't convert a single person.Is that when your career plan as a missionary flamed out?
I thought, if I can't convert the neighborhood kids I'm going to have no luck in the wilds of Africa.
I worried that Mom took us to get haircuts at a place called the Mantrap Hair Salon, which sounded like the kind of place harlots might frequent. Might I be a harlot-in-training and not even know it?You write with disdain for bad fashion, polyester in particular. And evidently, in this environment, it was pervasive.
Anyone who grows up in Florida develops an acute sense of one thing: the necessity of breathable fabrics. The uniforms were polyester and we all hated them. We were being good Christians and spreading the gospel and living a good life. None of that was about being on the cutting edge of fashion.
Tyrone Square Mall, ground zero, was the place that seemed like mecca because we were never allowed to go there.You left Keswick at 12. Did you ever rebel or did you remain a "plaid-clad prude?"
This was my one stab at rebellion. I was 12. In my defense, although there really is no defense, it was the new wave thing at the time. I went to the Mantrap salon. They shaved the left side of my head until it looked like a crew cut. Then on the right it hung down past my ear. I wanted to mark myself as different.
"Evolution says we come from apes and monkeys!" the teacher said, as if she were describing pigs flying.If your time at Keswick sparked no sense of fashion, it does seem to have sparked an intellectual curiosity.
Time and time again I've talked to people who, when they find out I went to a fundamentalist school, say, "How horrible, you must have been brainwashed." I never felt brainwashed.
It was a rigorous, old-fashioned education. We read great literature. We memorized. But it was the beginning of an intellectual journey, not the closing of my mind to one.What is your life like now?
I do research on bioethics and technology issues. I consider myself a believer, but I'm not a fundamentalist Christian. I live a secular life. I don't belong to a church.Where did your interest in science come from?
I think in part because of that early conflict with evolution. We were taught straight creation science. It made me wonder about this other thing that I had learned in the summer in science camp. It made me very curious, made me read a bit more broadly than the school wanted me to.How did you fall away from fundamentalism?
One thing the school wanted to do was erect barriers to temptation and the dangers of the outside world so we'd be protected. The problem is you can never be hermetically sealed off from culture. Once I discovered The A-Team on TV I was hooked.Has Keswick changed much?
It's much more 21st century now. They have a wonderful phys ed facility and the latest high-tech stuff in the classroom. It's still strict. The kids aren't allowed to bring Harry Potter books to school. They still separate themselves from culture in that way.Do they still paddle kids there?
I didn't ask.Will you send your kids to a Christian school?
There are excellent public schools in our neighborhood. I won't send them to a Christian school.
- Kelley Benham can be reached at 727 893-8848 or firstname.lastname@example.orgIF YOU GO
Christine Rosen will speak and sign her book, My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood, at 7 p.m. Thursday at Inkwood Books, 215 S Armenia Ave., Tampa. (813) 253-2638.