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I Want to Be Left Behind

A young fundamentalist grounds her heaven here on earth.

By Sarah More McCann / March 15, 2010

I Want to Be Left Behind By Brenda Peterson Da Capo Press 277 pp., $25

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Getting kicked out of fifth-grade Vacation Bible School helped Brenda Peterson realize who she really was: a nature-loving contemplative lodged in a community of conservative Southern Baptists.

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The swift dismissal – prompted by her proposal that God could be found in an elegant flying squirrel – became a defining moment for Peterson. It instigated a lifelong quest to understand how she, moved more by the natural world than organized religion, could come from a family longing for the Rapture, when God-fearing folks would be subsumed into heaven.

Learning to live with her family’s mind-set while forging her own path is the marrow of Peterson’s new memoir, I Want to be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth. Today a nature writer and environmental activist in Seattle, Peterson wraps her story in down-home warmth and a quick wit. Easing readers into Southern Baptist life, the moral of her story – that distancing herself from fundamentalism allowed her to refine her own budding beliefs – is only slightly eclipsed by a sprightly cast of characters who serve as bridges between the two camps. Her heroes, many of whom are both stereotypically conservative and dedicated to uncovering God’s glory on earth, will also enrich liberals’ understanding of fundamentalism as more nuanced than they may have imagined.

Unearthing commonalities between Peterson’s current beliefs (spiritual, not religious) and her heritage is a task requiring that Peterson, born in the High Sierra to a park ranger father and a church pianist mother (who later worked as a secretary at the CIA) first prove she is an authentic Southern Baptist. Her detailed, whimsical stories leave little doubt the girl grew up knowing fire and brimstone as well as sweet tea.

“[W]e were sweating even in our pedal pushers and bright flip-flops. There was the temptation of sprinklers chigg-chigging away on the church lawn and the waft of fried chicken and blackberry cobbler,” Peterson writes of that last day of Bible school in Virginia. “[M]y teacher, Mrs. Eula Shepherd, was a marvelous storyteller. Unlike my mother, who read us King James Bible stories every night, but at warp speed, Mrs. Eula was almost Shakespearean in her portrayals of prophets, holy wars and a cast of fascinating sinners.”

Peterson’s stories are gems, ranging from her participation in Southern Baptist Sword Drills (the “spelling bees for true believers. The Holy Bible was my sword,...”) to hanging from farmhouse rafters to loosen a perm.

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