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God's Choice : THE TOTAL WORLD OF A FUNDAMENTALIST CHRISTIAN SCHOOL by Alan Peshkin (University of Chicago: $19.95; 345 pp.)

April 20, 1986|Steven M. Tipton | Tipton, a sociologist of religion, is the author of "Getting Saved From the Sixties" and co-author of "Habits of the Heart" (University of California). and

"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). This biblical promise, coupled with mistrust of the larger society's worldliness, has long led American Fundamentalists to found Bible institutes, colleges and schools of their own. With a sharp eye and a generous if critical spirit, Alan Peshkin sets out to reveal the inner workings and overarching vision of one such school, a school dedicated to serving God by "declaring our tradition--the Bible, authority, patriotism. Learn not the way of the heathen."

Bethany Baptist Academy was begun in 1971 by an Independent Baptist Church in a small Illinois city. In 1980, the last year of this study by a professor of education at the University of Illinois, the academy numbered 350 students and 18 teachers. The conviction that "God's truth knows no limits" draws them together into "a total life" of Christian character-building that unites church and family into a "24-hour school" of the spirit. Its teachers serve the Lord 90 hours a week on a seven-day schedule that includes compulsory attendance at all church services by contract as well as personal conviction. In 1980-'81 they earned a base salary of $5,900. Yet they are overwhelmingly content in their work, competent and committed to an explicitly religious calling they see as the last best hope of America.

Born with a burden of sin and living in a world full of temptation, Fundamentalist Christians understand themselves to need strong discipline to learn self-control and accept responsibility as their brother's keeper. "The policing never stops," notes the school's headmaster. It ranges from demerits for girls with short dresses and boys with long hair through paddling for moviegoing, smoking, dancing and petting, to expulsion for drinking or taking drugs.

To mold the moral integrity of God's people, the school seeks to integrate Scriptural study and academic instruction. History becomes " His story." Science manifests the handiwork of God's creation, and mathematics shows its orderliness. English and Bible study go hand in hand to the pulpit for a priesthood of all believers obliged to preach and proselytize.

After exploring Bethany's doctrinal outlook, structure of control and socializing regimen in the company of its teachers and headmaster for the first half of this book, it comes as a real relief to meet its students in the second half and find them more like their once-born peers than like pious automatons. They whisper and pass notes in class, write "Let it rip" on washroom walls, discuss "Saturday Night Live" between classes. A few of them even cheat on tests, deface books, get pregnant. Students pondering the millennium wonder "if we would have a choice of where we wanted to live and what kind of house we wanted to have." They look forward to being raptured away when the world ends, but not before they get their driver's licenses.

In fact, such incongruities raise few eyebrows among an elect separated out from "the world" who nonetheless see themselves as exemplary Americans. The very innocence of their pranks and romances suggests how different these students are from many of their counterparts in the secular city, as does the orthodoxy of the moral standards they continue to hold, even when they don't live up to all of those standards.

These attitudinal comparisons are blurred, however, by the book's failure to fill in the social background and location of Bethany's students and their families in relation to their public school counterparts, whether across town or across the nation. This also blurs the social meaning of the political and economic conservatism Bethany's students and teachers espouse.

In the 1980 elections, all of the teachers voted for Ronald Reagan, as did 93% of the students. They did not consider Reagan a born-again Christian. They supported him for taking doctrinally sound positions on key issues, positions which the born-again Jimmy Carter violated.

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