Looking back at a rich (and often richly absurd) alternative Christian universe…
From kindergarten through high school, I attended a strict Christian fundamentalist school.
The school’s everyday rituals were imbued with Christian purpose. Every morning, we pledged allegiance to the American flag… and then turned to pledge to the Christian flag. That was followed by regular prayers we said aloud throughout the day, weekly chapel services, and capped by our school mascot, the Crusader.
It’s no wonder that by age eight, I was convinced my destiny was either to be the world’s most effective missionary – or to be raptured.
For many people, the phrase “parochial school” conjures images of stern nuns holding forth before classrooms of dutiful, uniformed students. The mood is vaguely punitive, and it’s understood that the students must be miserable, repressed, or both. Popular culture reinforces this – movies about religious education rarely rise above camp in their depictions of believers.
Parochial school is the setting for the formation of a teenage Goth witches’ coven in the 1996 movie The Craft, for example, as it is for the story of viciously sanctimonious evangelical tween hypocrites in the 2004 comedy Saved!. A rare exception is Barbra Streisand’s dramatic turn as a gender-masquerading, would-be young Torah scholar in the 1983 movie Yentl. Not only did the film show the rigors of a religious education (and, as Roger Ebert noted in his review, somehow manage to make its 40-something-year-old female star look like a 17-year-old boy who “sings like an angel”), it treated both religious teachers and their students with respect.
Yentl notwithstanding, the reality of religious education is far different than either popular culture or the average secular American might assume.
For one, nuns no longer dominate the teaching profession in Catholic schools. The National Catholic Educational Association reports that only 3% of Catholic school staff are men or women from religious orders. And the diversity and scope of religious schools are often underappreciated. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 79% of U.S. students who are enrolled in private school attend a school with “a religious orientation or purpose.”
That word – “purpose” – is crucial for understanding the experience of religious education. Regardless of faith, tradition, or creed, a religious school makes clear to its students that they will be embarking on a moral and spiritual journey in addition to academic study.
Today, church attendance is on the decline in the U.S. and many religious institutions are looked upon with suspicion. So it’s worth reconsidering some of the many benefits of a religious education – even for people who grow up and leave the faith.
The word “values” has been overused to the point of parody by politicians, but values are central to a religious education. Most of my classmates understood the importance of trying to live them, however imperfectly. At my school, the “golden rule” in Matthew 7:12 was holy writ, and thanks to our reading of scripture, good and evil were palpable things, as were Satan and angels. Bad actions had consequences – we read stories about them all the time in the Bible – and kindness, honesty, and generosity were prized. Moreover, forgiveness was not only preached but practiced.
A religious education (be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or another faith) gives its students a form of literacy that secular children rarely encounter until adulthood, if ever: knowledge of a traditional text. My own daily encounter with the King James Version Bible from the age of four on gave me an appreciation for language, an understanding of the vagaries of human nature, and an accumulated trove of stories. It still aids me in understanding the allusions and nods to scripture that populate our greatest works of art and literature.
It was, in its way, a rigorous education…
We were required to learn a smattering of Hebrew and Greek, for example. It also prized memorization, a skill nearing obsolescence in the age of Google. Our teachers tested our memories every Friday in Bible class with a quiz, and by high school I had committed major passages of scripture to memory. And there was little grade inflation – no one earned a ribbon or trophy for participation. We were taught that Christians must be an example to the rest of the world by our conduct. Perhaps that’s also why manners played an important role at school. We were expected to demonstrate good manners at all times, particularly when it came to respecting our elders.
We were crusaders for Christ, which meant we were focused on something bigger than ourselves – the perfect antidote to adolescent navel-gazing.
Religious schools, including mine, often have different measures of success for their students. Doing well in school is less about getting into the right college than it is about becoming the right kind of person – one who doesn’t measure his or her worth by his number of Twitter followers or how much money she has in the bank. We were crusaders for Christ, which meant we were focused on something bigger than ourselves – the perfect antidote to adolescent navel-gazing.
Of course, there were drawbacks to my religious education. We were taught creation science, which raised more questions than it answered (questions my teachers weren’t always eager to address). And there were far too many times I was told that a woman’s role was to get married and support her family and community by having lots of Christian babies. (As opposed to, say, going to college – which is what I wanted to do).
But at the time, I didn’t experience those messages as limiting. And looking back, Christian school was not the place of privation and joylessness often portrayed in pop culture. A Simpsons episode comes to mind – “Gone Maggie Gone” – where Lisa Simpson stumbles upon a parochial school classroom where the nun-teacher is singing, “If you’re happy and you know it, that’s a sin” to a room full of children.
Rather, there was a firm belief among students at my school that we must serve as a bulwark against the harmful, rising tide of mainstream secular culture.
This separation from the mainstream is often the legacy of a childhood religious education – thanks in large part to the memories it stirs up of a rich (and often richly absurd) alternative Christian universe, one with its own fashions, music, entertainment, and “celebrities.” (When I was growing up, it was Amy Grant and Stryper. Today it’s Zach Williams and MercyMe.)
At my high school, for example, dancing was verboten. (It was “clothed fornication,” according to my Bible teacher.) So instead of school dances or proms, we had… banquets.
True, the mood was more sedate than a typical prom, with modestly dressed students politely watching a slide show while a student musician played warmed-over versions of Christian rock songs. But it still felt like a special evening. We even attended the annual one-night Christian music festival at Disney World called “Night of Joy.”
Today, people’s feelings about religious schools are rarely uncomplicated. Numerous memoirs have recounted the horrible experiences of people raised in observant religious households, forced to attend strict religious schools. One exception – and one of the best descriptions of childhood religious education in the last 50 years – is Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Although she is an infamously unreliable narrator, McCarthy’s stories of growing up an orphan, spending time with her Christian, Jewish, and Catholic relatives, and attending parochial school are at once mundane and deeply compelling.
Which kind of sums up what it’s like to go to religious school. No matter how out-of-the-mainstream some of these schools’ mundane activities might be (Bible memorization contests or prayers at the start of class), taken together, religious schools give each new generation of children the same opportunity to practice faith – and a little skepticism – in a compelling way.
Christine Rosen is managing editor of The Weekly Standard. She is a senior editor of The New Atlantis. She is working on her forthcoming book, The Extinction of Experience, to be published by W.W. Norton. Her past books include Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement and My Fundamentalist Education.
Ms. Rosen’s essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, The American Historical Review, and The New England Journal of Medicine.