Like the Apostle Paul before her, Carlene Cross’ conversion to Christianity began with a burst of light from the heavens. While sitting in the kitchen of her parents’ Montana farmhouse, 17-year-old Cross was listening to a storm outside when a bolt of lightning flickered across her father’s alfalfa fields and illuminated the pages of the Bible that lay open in her lap: “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.” In that very moment, romantically rendered some 30 years later by the adult Cross, the teenager decided to devote her life to serving God. So, in other words, the bogeyman—or the Beast of Revelation—scares a young woman into throwing her lot in with Christ. However, unlike the Apostle Paul, who became a central figure in the early development of Christianity, Cross’ journey into, through, and eventually, away from a life of Christian fundamentalism illustrates a loss in personal power.
In her memoir, Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith, Cross chronicles her journey from romantic teenager out in the Montana sticks to student at Big Sky Bible College and, finally and dreadfully, to wife of a charismatic young minister who goes from being her idealistic college crush to her unpredictable all-in-the-name-of-God keeper.
Working chronologically, Cross explains how she was first introduced to Bible study as a teenager by teachers sent to rural Montana from the Rocky Mountain Bible School. Later, Cross enters Big Sky Bible College and learns of the fundamentalist principle that every word in the Bible comes directly from the mouth of God. Those who follow the word of God, exactly as it appears in the Bible, will be saved at Armageddon and those who don’t will be banished to an eternity of damnation. To the young college student, the path toward righteousness seemed a pretty simple one: “I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of the eternity coin, so I decided to take the Bible seriously right from the start and follow its teachings to the letter,” she writes. “Doing that seemed uncomplicated to me: just believe every word of the Scripture and listen to what the professors said that it meant.”
The only problem is that the word of God, exactly as it appears in the Scripture, presents kind of a raw deal for a young lady. According to the fundamentalist teaching, “women were created to serve men from the beginning—this is an eternal position of subordination.”
In these opening chapters, Cross’ prose is less convincing than that of the last two-thirds of the book, as though the adult woman had trouble reaching her younger self, the one who had been so unwaveringly sold on fundamentalism. In later chapters, Cross describes the early years of her marriage, the births of her three children and her husband’s tenure as minister. As the minister’s wife in a popular and growing congregation, Cross learns that she is always under a microscope. Not only is her housecleaning subject to scrutiny, but so is her decorum. At a lecture on “Being a Godly Addition to Your Husband’s Ministry,” Cross learns that “as a minister’s wife you must always display a meek and quiet spirit. It’s best to keep your voice soft and nonthreatening.”
As the book progresses, Cross’ prose gracefully and, at times startlingly, illuminates a growing awareness that her religion and her husband, who eventually admits to an addiction to pornography, have backed her into a virtually inescapable corner. However, when her husband berates her in a hotel room because she refuses his request for a stripper, Cross carefully begins to plan her escape: “I knew I had crossed over an emotional divide that evening. I was going to leave [my husband]. I didn’t care about the reaction of my Christian family or friends. I was going to escape.”
Fleeing Fundamentalism comes out at a time when books exploring religion, particularly fundamentalist religion, are proliferating rabbit-like on bestseller lists. Every pundit seems to have an idea about fundamentalist religions: where they came from, who’s involved, and perhaps most popularly, why and how badly they’re influencing conservative politics. While Cross’ book will undoubtedly (and perhaps unfairly) take a back seat to Washington, D.C., blogger/author Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul and Oxford University professor Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Fleeing Fundamentalism doesn’t merely hop on the religion book-selling spree. At its best, a memoir elucidates some aspect of our culture that eludes most of us, and Cross’ memoir, carefully reconstructing every step of her conversion to and gradual denial of fundamentalism, evocatively and poignantly fills in the gaps of our understanding. Where other books carry the weight of theoretical analysis, Cross’ exploration carries the insistency of survival.
Carlene Cross reads from and signs copies of Fleeing Fundamentalism Thursday, Oct. 26, at 7 PM at Fact & Fiction.