Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League
Chronicle Books, 2008
128 pp., $35.00
Harvard for Homeschoolers?
So, what are the ways Frank wants us to think about these students? In her other book of photography, High School (Arenas Street, 2004), Frank captured teenagers trying on personas borrowed from MTV and advertising. "I am captivated with states of becoming," Frank writes, "and I am driven to make portraits of people as they … struggle with the pivotal moment between exploration and discovery." Frank's interest in metamorphosis emerges in Right as well: in the portrait of Taylor, a stubble-chinned young man wearing an oversized suit and confident gaze (p. 19); of Juli, proudly standing beside a portrait of George Washington on one page, and on another, patiently sitting with her siblings as their mom reads aloud from the Chronicles of Narnia (pp. 43, 51); and of Sherri and Paul, a couple who in one set revel in goofy traditions for the newly engaged, and in another, stand before a large cross as they make audacious commitments to fidelity and lifelong support that are more "adult" than some married adults can handle. These students are at once children and grownups, but not fully either.
Both Frank and Rosin are quick to find in this tertium quid a fable for politically conservative Christians' journey from backwoods to big time (and maybe back to the woods, as talk of "the death of the Religious Right" has been revived in the Obama era). They are correct to see in Patrick Henry an explicitly political mission. The college's founder, Home School Legal Defense Association president Michael Farris, sees Patrick Henry's students as members of "the Joshua Generation," who will "take back the land" from secular humanists and corrupt politicians by reaching positions of influence. Many PHC students study government and go on to intern with Republican congressmen or volunteer at the White House. (According to Anthony Buncombe's 2004 profile in The New Zealand Herald, only one student had interned with a Democrat.) A couple of students Frank interviewed told her of being treated to pizza and sundaes at Attorney General John Ashcroft's home. It's no wonder reporters have invented an array of uncharitable nicknames for the students, and are quick to link them to Chancellor Farris's less-than-PC statements on church and state.
But behind all this scary, ire-raising talk are the very students whom Frank and Rosin seemingly took pains to profile with even-handedness and grace. "The great thing about photography: It describes," reads Frank's postscript. "It allows us to glimpse a world different from our own. It brings us in and lets us think and wonder." As a member of the evangelical community who would likely feel bothered at Patrick Henry, I nonetheless wish Frank had let us think and wonder about the school a bit more freely. I wish she had let her camera attest to the persistent failure of persons and communities to fall neatly into the demarcations we employ to try and grasp the messy reality of American life.
Katelyn Beaty is associate editor with Christianity Today magazine.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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