“I spent the first 13 years of my life among fundamentalists before they became a fashionably influential demographic,” writes Christine Rosen in My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood (Public Affairs). Growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, with her father and stepmother, Pam, Rosen attended the Keswick Christian School, where the Bible was the primary textbook, dancing was forbidden, students were instructed to share their faith with Jewish and Catholic friends, and, with the Cold War simmering, many feared being left behind should Armageddon arrive.
Now 32 and “professionally something of a rationalist,” Rosen, who is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., writes sentimentally but honestly about her education, which, she says, “spawned more eccentric than rapturous moments.” One such moment came after Rosen, at age 8, attended a secular summer science program with her sister Cathy, then returned to school and struggled to reconcile the experience with Keswick’s strict creationist teachings. Yet Rosen makes clear she looks back at her school experience with fondness. “The Floridians I knew had their quirks and strengths and humor and weaknesses, just like people everywhere,” she writes. “They just happened to take the Bible literally.”
“Welcome to the science center!” said the middle-age woman wearing khaki shorts and an “I love science!” T-shirt. It was the summer after 3rd grade, and Pam had enrolled Cathy and me in a series of two-week workshops at the Pinellas County Science Center. The science center was one of those ’60s-style buildings, common in St. Petersburg, that attempt to look modern but end up looking like a suburban bank. But it was within walking distance of our house and offered a range of science classes for kids.
In “Geology Workshop,” our instructor, an awkward man who came to life only when he started talking about rocks, promised we’d learn all about “the secrets of the earth.” We started with the geology of Florida, which included sinkholes and dry caves and weird underground natural springs such as Wakulla and Silver Springs—the latter, typically, having been turned into a 350-acre theme park advertised as “Florida’s Original Tourist Attraction.” We studied fossils and looked at slides and replicas of the bones and teeth of saber-toothed tigers that lived in Florida 10,000 years ago and mastodon and mammoth bones found in Florida streambeds. Some of the fossilized shells and shark teeth that washed up on beaches nearby were 45 million years old, our instructor told us, reinforcing my belief that, unlike every other place on earth, daily life in Florida could never be just normal.
Next came “Biology Workshop,” where we continued to learn about the age of the earth through the study of dinosaurs and the solar system. I learned about something called carbon-14 dating, which allowed scientists to tell the age of anything on earth. I learned that all the plants and animals and even people had developed because of evolution and that we once looked a lot like monkeys. Most important, I learned that the earth was more than 4 billion years old, a number I simply couldn’t comprehend.
The high point of the science center experience was the visit to the planetarium that took place at the end of each two-week workshop. When the lights went down and everyone started fidgeting, we tilted back, looked up, and listened as a booming voice started describing our billions-of-years-old universe and how its planets and the Milky Way had all begun with a gigantic explosion. I was riveted, and I tried to commit to memory every detail of the planetarium experience so I could describe it to Manuel when I saw him in school in the fall. We would be 4th graders that year.
Manuel, like many other kids at Keswick, was spending his summer in Vacation Bible School, which was held in the musty fellowship hall of the church. When school started in September, he told me how he spent his days at VBS performing elaborate Biblical skits and games of spiritual charades. (“Sounds like...Moses!”) I was eager to share with my classmates and 4th grade teacher my new, important knowledge about science. So when my teacher announced that we would be learning about the creation of the earth, I was primed to offer stories about the magic of ancient fossils and how rock layers told us that the Grand Canyon had been formed hundreds of millions of years ago.
I was a little surprised, then, when our science lesson began with our teacher asking us to open up our Bibles and read from Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” I had assumed that we would start by reading from our new science textbook, which I’d already eagerly thumbed through looking for pictures of dolomite.
Instead, Genesis was the starting point for our science class. My teacher reminded us that God had created the earth and everything on it in six days, resting on the seventh, and that we were all descendants of that first living, breathing couple, Adam and Eve, whom God had made in his own image. “Genesis tells us everything!” my teacher said with a smile.
This was odd. My science center teachers never said we knew everything about the earth. And they had never mentioned the Bible. I soon learned why. “Not everyone has heard the important message of creation,” my teacher continued. People who believed in the Big Bang, my teacher said, thought that a huge explosion got everything going and that, many eons later, we all haltingly emerged from the primordial ooze. One of these people was a shadowy man named Darwin who made up a theory called evolution—a word I recognized from science camp. But my teacher said “evolution” as if it were something dangerous, not something exciting, like the instructor I’d had at the science center.
“Evolution says we all come from apes and monkeys!” the teacher said, as if she were describing pigs flying. “You’ve been to the zoo,” she concluded. “Who do you think is right, Darwin or God?”
When she put it that way, I thought, I guess I’d have to choose God. The story of creation in the Bible, which I’d first heard in kindergarten, had always made perfect sense to me. I liked the simplicity and literal-mindedness of it, and I had long ago conjured a muscular Adam and a smiling Eve with long brown hair. They were familiar. But couldn’t all of the exciting things I’d learned at the science center fit in there, too? Questions began forming in my mind: Perhaps the Grand Canyon had been created by the Great Flood, as my teacher said, but the Great Flood actually happened much, much longer ago? Perhaps the dinosaurs lived long before the Bible happened, since it seemed unlikely that a brontosaurus would be lumbering around Jerusalem at the time of Jesus.
My questions were soon answered, although not in a way that lent support to my science center studies. We learned about dinosaurs, but we were told they went extinct not as a result of some cataclysmic comet strike but because of the Great Flood. We were told that carbon-14 dating was not reliable, and so we must not trust those troublesome geologists who kept trying to claim that the earth was very old. We knew, from calculations based on Genesis, that the earth was not billions of years old but a mere 6,000 years old.
The broader lesson I learned in the weeks that we studied the earth was that I wasn’t to trust anyone who tried to shove God out of the story of creation. “This,” my teacher said portentously, “is what has set the culture on its terrible path toward secular humanism.” I had no idea what secular humanism was, but given the tone my teacher used when she said it, I suspected it must be something as bad as gambling or stealing.
Since the biblical story of creation was taught to me in the same way as everything else I’d learned at school—methodically, confidently, and enthusiastically—I started to doubt what I’d learned at the science center. I wondered whether I was a traitor for having believed so easily what I was told there. Was I some sort of secular humanist? My science center knowledge now seemed hazy and ill-formed. But my confidence in the Bible was also a bit shaken. Which creation story was the right one?
If there was one person I could turn to with questions, it was Mrs. Kraweic, the school’s librarian. Mrs. Kraweic nurtured a secret passion: She was slavishly devoted to the Dewey Decimal System. She forced every student to memorize it and pass a test proving we were Dewey-worthy before we were released to wander the library stacks unattended. But there was also something oddly compelling about her devotion to the numbers and decimals. We failed to elicit anything other than a pursed frown or an impatient “harrumph” when we pointed out that 666, the much-feared “mark of the beast” in the book of Revelation, represented something as dull as “Ceramic and Allied Technologies” in Dewey’s system.
So I had high hopes that Mrs. Kraweic would be able to find some science books for me. When I asked her for a book about evolution, however, she just looked at me quizzically for a moment and said, “You want a book about what?”
“Evolution,” I said. “And how it’s different from creation.”
I went home that afternoon with a Christian high school biology textbook, which, not surprisingly, had nothing good to say about evolution. I had no luck searching the stacks myself for books, either, although I did find one or two titles such as Evolution: The Fossils Still Say No!
Nevertheless, Mrs. Kraweic’s devotion to the Dewey Decimal System became the key to unlocking a maze in which I was soon wandering for many hours—public libraries. Yet evolution remained my most challenging unsolved mystery, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t find answers. I could barely understand the technical scientific treatises I’d found at the public library. And Manuel and the rest of my classmates didn’t offer much help, either. They simply accepted the creation story, since all they knew about evolution was what we learned in class that year, and why shouldn’t they believe our teacher when she said evolution was a godless and unproven theory? She was right about everything else.
When I asked Dad about creation and evolution, he gave me a brief but sympathetic description of Darwin and said that when I got older I’d have to read something called The Origin of Species. “But listen to your teacher for now, kid,” he advised, “and do what she says.”
Because of the school’s faith in creation science, local plan etariums and natural history museums were not desirable field trip destinations. Instead, every year we took a rattling 15-minute bus ride to Heritage Village in Largo, a strange local park that opened in the late 1970s and consisted of about 30 buildings from different periods in the history of Florida. Each year we trudged through the same mothball-scented log cabin, old schoolhouse, and church, led by a dim but eager guide. The highlight of the tour was always the same: a live quilting demonstration. Like the quilts, the park gave one the sense that our local heritage was a confused mass of old scraps. This was how I was beginning to think of the creation story. Clearly things were far less elegant and linear than what I learned at school, but I had some doubts about what I had been taught at the science center, too. What really got the world started? Why did it matter that things happened just as it said in Genesis?
I had always taken for granted that God and my teachers knew more than I did. But that year, I learned that acceptance of this fact—acceptance that there were things I could never know—was evidently only one part of being a good Christian. Another part, just hinted at, was that there were things I shouldn’t even ask.
Excerpted from My Fundamentalist Education, by Christine. Rosen. Copyright © 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group (www.perseusbooks.com). All rights reserved.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Separation Anxiety