Tom Perrotta, the reigning bard of American suburbia, can inspire compassion for the most unlikely of subjects. In Election, he humanizes heartless, bitchy Tracy; in Little Children, he measures out kindnesses to Larry the violent racist as well as Ronald the convicted sex offender. But in his latest novel, Perrotta takes on a subject that is perhaps even more difficult to write about in a sympathetic light: evangelical Christianity. The Abstinence Teacher tells the story of an unexpected culture war in cushy northeastern Stonewood Heights, and it all begins when a student in Ruth Ramsey's health class compares oral sex to French-kissing a toilet seat.
Unfazed, Ruth speaks out for the better qualities of the act, stating nonchalantly, Some people enjoy it. But when the fundamentalist Tabernacle of the Gospel Truth gets wind of this, the situation balloons into a community crisis, inspiring newspaper headlines like Oral Sex A-OK, Teacher Tells Kids (16). Spotting an opportunity to spread Christian values to the schools, the Tabernacle is quick to frame this minor conflict in large moral terms, a method proved effective on other Stonewood Heights sins like adult video rentals and banners that say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.
[...] As covered in a recent New York Times article, churches have initiated programs like the Day Sexperiment, one Texas pastor's challenge to his congregation to take inspiration from Song of Solomon and have sex every day. Hot Christian Sex, with its detailed delineations between godly sexual behavior and sinful sexual behavior—masturbation is okay, but only if the spouse is watching—is an unnerving but accurate depiction of the way the church has tried to corral lust within the boundaries of marriage. [...]
[...] Perrotta has stated about high school, “It's the best metaphor I can think of for America.” And in fact, the dynamics of many relationships in The Abstinence Teacher smack of high school, the great epoch of self-definition and instability, the time when ego first begins its painful battles with id. Stonewood Heights finds its inhabitants undergoing these struggles all over again. Tim, close to the end of the novel, falls off the wagon at a poker game—held by aging frat boys at a huge, empty model home, a typically arresting touch—and as he stumbles around the grounds, stoned and drunk, he decides to key the word into one of the men's Hummers. [...]
[...] After Ruth dares to contradict a pamphlet from the abstinence-only organization Wise Choices For Teens that cites condom failure at she resists the school's attempt to retrain her, and as a result she is fired from her ten-year position as health teacher for Stonewood Heights High. need team players,” they tell her, and when she says that she'll go to the union, they chuckle and tell her, “That's your right but our lawyer tells us we're on solid ground here” (326). [...]
[...] fights; Ruth, after the assembly, is forced to teach a new abstinence curriculum. It is on the unexpected battleground of a soccer field that oral sex and Christianity meet head to head for the first time, as Ruth is introduced to Tim Mason, born-again Christian and soccer coach to her daughter Maggie, and the two experience a brief, unexpected spark of mutual attraction. But Ruth is fresh from the Tabernacle's attacks on her character, and when Tim begins to pray over the soccer team, she erupts in anger and drags her daughter away. [...]
[...] Ruth, for example, rants to herself: coerced by adults they trusted into praying to the God of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the Republican Party—the God of War and Abstinence and Shame and Willful Ignorance, the God Who Loved Everyone Except the Homosexuals Who Sent Good People to Hell if They Didn't Believe in Him, and Let Murderers and Child Rapists into Heaven if They Did, the God Who Made Women as an Afterthought, and Then Cursed Them with the Pain of Childbirth, the God Who Would Have Never Let Girls Play Soccer in the First Place if It Had Been up to Him (161). [...]
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