Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Abstinence Teacher

Ruth teaches health, sex-ed to be specific, and her approach to the subject sets off an uprising by a group of parents in a local evangelical Christian church. To appease the parents, the school board adopts an abstinence curriculum for the sexual education course. Ruth would like to resign because this curriculum goes against her belief system, but she has tenure and would find it difficult to find another job elsewhere.

Tim is a member of the evangelical Christian church that lobbies against Ruth. He is a recovering alcoholic and drug user who is in an awkward marriage situation. Tim also happens to be the coach of Ruth's daughter's soccer team. And when Ruth observes Tim leading the team in a prayer after a game, she is on a mission to have him removed.

As Ruth and Tim work through their differences and discover things about themselves, the extremes that they started out at look more and more absurd. I tend to dislike "extremist" viewpoints. Very rarely is a situation that black and white. But, my hope is that people reading Tom Perrotta's book will take it at what it is, fiction.

I stay away from discussing anything having to do with my faith. I find faith to be too volatile a subject for general discussion, and for me it is too personal. But, in the end, the truth is that I have some "issues" with organized religion. Yet, listening to this book (I listened to this one on audiobook), I found myself wanting to defend organized religion. The Tabernacle - the Christian Church attacking Ruth's teaching - was represented more as a "cult" than a religious organization. The church leader controlled his members and dictated their actions to the extreme that a cult leader would. Many acceptable religious organizations exist that don't believe in teaching anything but abstinence.

And at the same time we had Ruth, a sex-ed teacher, who didn't believe in Jesus. And there you have the two extreme ends of the spectrum. Ruth did end up with a bit of a better portrayal than the Church. Ruth was a more tolerant individual: she allowed her children to attend Church services when they asked and she had openly gay friends. You CAN believe in Jesus and allow your children to attend church, have gay friends, and teach sex-ed.

And true sex-ed curricula definitely got a better light than abstinence programs. This particular abstinence program seemed so absurd that you had to wonder how a school board could in good conscious adopt it, even IF they felt threatened by a group of parents. I personally am opposed to abstinence teaching programs, and it isn't because I think young people should be going out and having sex, but rather it's because abstinence programs have been shown over and over to be ineffective as compared to true sex-ed. But, my impression from this book was that the author was trying to say that neither extreme is effective. That message could have been presented without having abstinence and religious beliefs look so utterly incredible. Or if the author was going for hyperbole, then have both ends of the spectrum be equally incredible.

In the end, the plot was anti-climatic. I really had to wonder where all the hype came from.

Campbell Scott read The Abstinence Teacher for this audiobook. I've enjoyed him on the big screen in the past, but I have to say, I wasn't impressed with him as a reader, at least not for this novel. Maybe his approach was trying to emphasis the tone of the novel, but I was FORCING myself to listen and thinking there were other books I'd like to be listening to.


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