Carlene Cross: Fleeing Fundamentalism (Book Review)

Job, education, emancipation. . .my new mantra.
I was getting out.
– Carlene Cross
Carlene Cross wanted to write about the history of fundamentalism, but her publisher thought her book should be a memoir.  She published her research notes on her web site, and wrote Fleeing Fundamentalism:  A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith.  She lives here in Seattle.  She holds a degree in religious studies from Big Sky Bible College as well as a BA in history and an MA in communications history from the University of Washington (UW).  She teaches writing at the UW and is a writing consultant.  I was blessed to meet her at Third Place Books several years ago.

If you grew up in a Midwest farming community in a fundamentalist “Christian” household like I did, Ms. Cross’ memoir will be one of the most intriguing and insightful books you will ever read.  I highly recommend it.  I knew it was time to fasten my seatbelt when I read the first page:

I hope to remind people of the warning Thomas Jefferson gave us:  that when government teams up with religion, it creates a “formidable engine against the civil rights of man.”

. . .this loss of liberty is encroaching upon our political system.

Ms. Cross grew up in rural Montana where she dreamed of the bright lights of the big city:

Back here on the farm, people kept both feet ~ and their imaginations ~ firmly planted on the ground.  But in the city people were masters of their own destinies. . .Katharine Hepburn never let anyone tell her what to do. . .I wanted to be like Katharine Hepburn, self-assured and witty ~ not plain and coarse like the people who lived in my stifling world. . .

My attraction to Fundamentalism was not out of quiet reflection but cold fear.

Her mother took her on 80 mile trips to Missoula to experience culture.  She followed her older brother Dan to Big Sky Bible College where she met her husband, “David Brant” (a pseudonym).  His father was an abusive alcoholic, and David followed in his footsteps.  He convinced Ms. Cross that they would be “equals in the Lord’s service:”

. . .how lucky I was to have found a Christian man who didn’t talk about the importance of women’s submission. . .I had worried about how once a woman got married her husband took over as head of the household and insisted that her main role was to serve as his godly helper. . .David would never demand such blind obedience.

She was a twenty-year-old virgin when they married a week after her graduation.  She had the same thoughts on her wedding day that I had standing at the altar at age twenty:

What am I doing? battering around in my skull like swallows trapped in an attic. . .It was too late now for such questions.

The couple moved to Tacoma, WA where David worked for Boeing, and the couple attended Northwest Baptist Seminary.  Ms. Cross wasn’t able to get a degree because they expected her to be a “godly addition to your husband’s ministry:”

A minister must be the one that rules his own house.  For if a man cannot rule his own household, how shall he take care of the church of God?

Their first child was born in 1979 ~ when Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was gaining momentum.  Behind closed doors, church women were chafing at the yoke of submission.  Ms. Cross recalled a women’s Bible study class:

“I think a lot of men use the Bible to keep women beaten down because they’re threatened by our intelligence.” 

. . .I secretly agreed. . .Bill Gothard. . .had never married. . .used both Old and New Testament verses to validate his teachings on marriage and family life, picking his way selectively through scripture like a happy truffle hog, rooting out only the morsels he wanted and leaving the rest. . .

Against the advice of church leaders, she made a confidante of Susan, who was married to a wealthy tyrant.  David became controlling.  She discovered he was addicted to strip joints and pornography.  He confessed that he had been at a strip joint while she was giving birth to their youngest child.  He abused her physically, emotionally, and sexually.  To celebrate her birthday in 1988, he drove to Vancouver, BC while driking a fifth of Jim Beam so they could visit gay bars and strip joints:

I decided I was finished with David, finished with religion, finished with my marriage. . .evening of my thirty-first birthday stands solid and clear in my mind. . .I realized I would rather be dead than live another minute with my husband. . .for the first time in ten years, David had no control over me.  If he killed me while I was making my escape, I would go happily to the grave without God or the hope of any future existence.  But now I must save my energy for one last lie, one final battle:  to plan the getaway while still under the watchful eye of the minister and his congregation. . .

Sex between us was like this now.  Like the moment an antelope relinquishes her spirit to the lion’s jaws, knowing that any further struggle is futile.  It is her last act of control, her only dignity, to choose the instant that she will liberate herself from life and deliver her body into the teeth that are cutting into her flesh.

. . .once I earned my degree, my break for freedom.  I would be patient. . .I would stay the course. . .Job, education, emancipation. . .my new mantra.  I was getting out.

“Sorry, God, my faith in life as a martyr has just ended.”

Despite her fear of heights, she got a job at the Space Needle.  She had a blast and stopped going to church.  David quit the ministry and became a carpenter.  She enrolled at Shoreline Community College in 1989.  She kicked David out of the house.  When she told him she was filing for divorce, he threatened, “I’ll kill you first!”  She got the divorce after relinquishing child support payments.

David’s behavior became erratic.  She got a gun.  She devoured history at the beach and engaged in heated holiday debates with her brother Dan, who had gotten his Ph.D.:

Christians never obey every word [of the Bible], or even try to. . .they use the Bible as a baseball bat.  They comb through it, pick out the condemnations that fit their agenda, then clobber people over the head with them and ignore the rest of the book. . .

Christians want to hold society hostage to certain verses. . .They attack the gay community using Levitical law, but they ignore Deuteronomy 21, which requires that gluttons be stoned.

When I read this, I had a powerful urge to call my morbidly obese, homophobic sister.  When I looked it up today, however, I discovered Deuteronomy 21:20 says a “rebellious son” should be stoned.  The son’s misdeeds have different characterizations depending on which version of the Bible you read:  stubborn, worthless drunkard, glutton, rebellious, profligate, unmanageable, reveling, etc.  In other words, a teenager.  It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to point this out to parents who justify child abuse under the “spare the rod” philosophy.  They were absent from Sunday School when the Good Shepherd lesson was taught:  a good shepherd uses the rod to gently guide the flock.

By the time Ms. Cross transferred to the UW, David was unemployed.  She leveraged welfare benefits and took up running.  She was accepted into graduate school at the UW.  She graduated in June, 1995.  David is back in the pulpit, and each is on a road of spiritual discovery.

Ms. Cross has also written The Undying West:  A Chronicle of Montana’s Camas Prairie.

 She survived.  She’s thriving and has found joy.

 October is Domestic Violence Awareness month.  Please join me in wearing your purple and celebrating survivors.


2 responses to “Carlene Cross: Fleeing Fundamentalism (Book Review)

  1. It’s too bad that a wonderful, uplifting and what I imagine will be liberating message for a lot of women is marred by ONE thing: the sweeping generalizations that…

    “Christians…use the Bible as a baseball bat. They comb through it, pick out the condemnations that fit their agenda, then clobber people over the head with them and ignore the rest of the book. . .

    Christians want to hold society hostage to certain verses. . .They attack the gay community using Levitical law, but they ignore Deuteronomy 21, which requires that gluttons be stoned.”

    “Christians” – No qualifiers. No allowing for the (all too rare) exception. There ARE Christians out there who actually, against all contemporary odds, DO act and think according to the tenets of Christianity without any attempt to address their own anger and frustration via a biblically-justified beat-down. I’ve met quite a few of these folks, actually. Many of you would call them fundamentalists, as they believe in and live by the fundamentals: Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You”…”Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself”……”And the greatest of these is Love”.

    Ms. Cross can certainly be excused a residue of bitterness. Blatant and willful abuse of a person will engender that response. But to paint all humans within ANY group – from Christians to bird-watchers – as any ONE thing, to try to make them generic, is always a vast over-simplification. I frequently wish that life and human interaction was that simple. But it just is NOT. My own beliefs seem to align just about seamlessly with hers but I’m not, evidently, as convinced that I have all the answers. I have to allow for the idea of people being individuals…and that just about cancels out the convenience of easy generalizations.

  2. Steve,

    Thank you for your most thoughtful comment. If you met Carlene Cross, I think you would find that y’all share many fundamental beliefs. I didn’t get the sense from her book that she was even remotely bitter which I believe is a testament to her faith. If you sensed a bitterness, I must accept full responsibility. I was sexually molested ~ with my father’s full consent ~ by my father’s best friend who was a Methodist minister. It was a dual betrayal that I have not yet been able to process effectively.

    Your sensitive and compassionate comment, however, gives me hope that healing will come in time.

    May you be blessed abundantly,
    Anne Caroline

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