Arts & Culture

Love and hell

Book review.

Stephen Prothero '82 is the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn't.

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At least since Romeo and Juliet, one of the most predictable formulas of Western literature is that opposites attract, often to deadly effect. American society is not divided anymore into warring families (unless of course you count the Bushes and the Clintons). Rather than bloodlines, political and religious commitments divide us into Capulets and Montagues. So it should not be surprising that an American writer has now given us a novel about the intimate entanglements of Blue Staters and Red Staters - Bible believers intent on breaking down the wall separating church and state, and secularists hell-bent on reinforcing it.

Tom Perrotta ’83 came to public attention through Election, a 1998 novel about warring high school cliques that became a popular film starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. In The Abstinence Teacher (which is also being made into a movie), he takes on the grown-up equivalent: the ongoing culture wars between religious conservatives and secular liberals.

The title of this novel would seem to promise a story about the strict moral ethos of evangelical Protestantism - more particularly the abstinence pledges of born-again groups such as True Love Waits. But the story revolves as much around the soccer field as it does around the drama of the virginity pledge.

Ruth Ramsey, one of the novel's two protagonists, is a soccer mom and sex education teacher who believes "the Christian Right is taking over this entire country." Given her personal creed that "Pleasure is Good, Shame is Bad, and Knowledge is Power," it should not be surprising that she prefers condoms to abstinence pledges. This preference makes her suspect in the eyes of the denizens of morality at the local Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth. But then, in a class discussion, one of Ruth's students turns up her nose at the notion of oral sex, and Ruth tells her, "Some people enjoy it." Ruth's principal responds by remanding her to basic training with an honest-to-goodness abstinence teacher.

Sparks fly when Ruth, who has nothing but contempt for "the God of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the Republican Party - the God of War and Abstinence and Shame and Willful Ignorance," is forced to sit through on-the-job brainwashing by a virginity consultant for whom the only safe sex is no sex. These sparks flare up again on the soccer field, where Tim Mason, a soccer coach and a fairly new convert to Jesus and the Tabernacle, leads his players in prayer after a particularly difficult game.

Among these players is Ruth's daughter Maggie. When Ruth sees Tim bowing his head and leading his team in prayer, she freaks out, yanking her daughter out of the prayer circle and telling Tim to keep his soul off her child. What follows is a love story of sorts, as Tim starts showing up at Ruth's doorstep unannounced and Ruth begins to fantasize, as Perrotta puts it, "about making love to a man who wouldn't rule out the possibility that she was going to hell."

In my own writing on religion in American culture, I have long observed this paradox: the Religious Right is morally certain that the country is being overrun by the left-wing relativists, while the Secular Left is equally certain that the country is being overrun by right-wing theocrats. Each of the armies in the culture wars is convinced the other side is winning. Both can't be right, of course. And in fact neither is. But the anxiety on both sides is palpable, and one source of that anxiety is ignorance.

In The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta seems intent on undercutting the ignorance of many of his readers concerning evangelicals. And to this intention all I can say is "Amen." Many of my best friends are evangelicals, and none of them ever seems to act the parts that secular critics of their faith assign to them. My born-again friends struggle with doubt and they care about the environment. Sometimes they smoke pot, and often they vote for Democrats.

In this novel, Tim seems like one of them. He struggles mightily to make his second marriage (to a mousy born-again Christian named Carrie) work. But he finds himself drawn against his Jesus judgment to bars and poker games, and wondering whether his next step should be out of his church.

Novels are lies, of course, but the lies they tell should reveal something true about what it is to be human. In this case, one of the truths Perrotta seems intent on revealing is that evangelicals are people too. But most of the evangelical characters in this book do little to upend the stereotypes that New York City writers and readers harbor about them. Pastor Dennis of the Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth is a fool and an ideologue. And while the virginity consultant JoAnn Marlow does ride a Harley, she also peddles, as Ruth puts it, "shameless fear-mongering, backed up by half-truths and bogus examples and inflammatory rhetoric."

So any hope that this book might debunk the stereotypes hangs on Tim, who to Perrotta's credit is the most fully realized character in the novel. In the end, however, neither Ruth nor Perrotta's readers are allowed to fall in love with Tim until he falls out of love with Jesus.

There is a genre in religion journalism that might be called the "in-and-out" story. You go into some exotic religious community, participate in their crazy rituals, try to make sense of their nutty beliefs, and in the process tease your reader with the possibility that for some wacky reason you just might "go native." But in the end it's just a tease. You need to get back to your friends in the East Village or the Haight, and you need to reassure your readers that they can do the same. Faith, after all, is a foreign country. So as your story comes to an end, you and your readers head home and put away your passports.

The Abstinence Teacher is an in-and-out novel. In the end, Ruth and Tim aren't a Capulet and a Montague but two Capulets. Rather than upending the Blue Staters' stereotypes, Perrotta massages them. I badly want to read a mainstream novel that depicts my evangelical friends as the human beings they really are. But I haven't read it yet.

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