Last weekend, after months of pestering, I got my old Christian Service Brigade uniform shirt out of the attic. My wife never quite believed it was real, so finally I had to show it to her, struggling to remember what all of the various achievement patches I had earned were for.
The slacktivixen finds the whole idea of Christian Service Brigade hilarious. “Fundamentalist Boy Scouts?” she says, laughing. “What — the Boy Scouts were too worldly?”
Yep. For our church, they were. But I’m still kind of proud of all those patches. Worked hard for those. And I kind of regret not sticking with it all the way to Herald for Christ. (That would be the fundie version of an Eagle Scout. Stop laughing.)
It’s not a memoir. Or, rather, it is, but it’s not Ulstein’s memoir. He interviewed more than 100 former fundamentalists, selecting 22 of those interviews for the book.
“No two stories are identical,” he says, “but the reader will probably see common threads woven throughout the narratives.”
Ulstein proves to be an encouraging and accommodating interviewer, getting his subjects to open up and tell their stories in their own voices without intruding or trying to steer the conversation in a particular direction. He’s not trying to prove a thesis in this book, just to let these people talk so that others can listen.
Ulstein himself is almost invisible in the chapters of this book, but when he does appear, he comes across as a friendly, compassionate fellow. He likes these people, and he is determined to respect them by getting their stories right.
One of the rare instances in which we catch a glimpse of him comes from a section where he surfaces briefly, mainly just to give us a better sense of the personality of the woman he’s interviewing. Where that really comes through is in her zinging him after he asks a dumb question. He cut have cut this section to make himself look better, but he left it in to provide readers with a clearer picture of this awesome woman. Ulstein’s questions and comments are in italics.
One woman had a very abusive husband, and she had gotten the idea, from a Christian seminar, that she should endure it. She had taken the whole ‘submit to your husband’ teaching very literally, so she would have sex on demand with this guy who hit her and wouldn’t let her get a driver’s license.
Then, here’s the part that makes me want to scream: a local Christian counselor told her to kneel and assume the position of Christ in Gethsemane while her husband beat her. This was supposed to increase her knowledge of Christ and be a witness to her husband.
I take it this counselor was a man?
She looks at me like I’m the village idiot. Yes, as a matter of fact he was a man — now that you mention it. She grins, wondering if I get the sarcasm.
Dumb question. Please continue.
I can’t imagine a female counselor coming up with a crazy … fantasy like that, can you? …
It would be difficult to read all these stories without coming to share Ulstein’s affection for this diverse set of storytellers. Some of them have reclaimed some new, healthier version of their earlier faith. Others have embraced other spiritual paths. Some left fundamentalism for intellectual reasons, others due to the horrible treatment they received in that tradition. Some of the stories are funny, others are harrowing. Some are — remarkably — both.
But these are strong people and few of them seem bitter — not even those who have every right to be. They’re an impressive bunch, as most people are when you get to know them with the care and attention Ulstein gives to his interviewees.
I know from discussions in comments that I’m not the only one around here who also grew up fundamentalist. If you did too, I think you’ll find this collection of stories encouraging and insightful.
Your own story probably isn’t exactly like any of these, but as Ulstein says, “the reader will probably see common threads woven throughout the narratives.” I share some of those common threads. If you think you might as well, then you might want to check out Growing Up Fundamentalist.