Tom Perrotta likes to write about trouble in paradise, the snake in the grass which will expel you from Eden if you let it. The paradise of his new novel, The Abstinence Teacher, like that of his last, Little Children, is American suburbia, geographically placeless but instantly recognizable and lovingly characterized. Those who live there are wealthy, tolerant of others sufficiently like themselves to make tolerance easy, and bonded by shared anxieties about status, money, body fat, sex, love, interior decorating, and their children’s education. Trouble comes into a paradise like this when an alien presence enters, a presence with unassimilable interests and purposes, or one whose very existence is perceived by the locals as a threat to theirs. In Little Children that alien presence was a pedophile; in The Abstinence Teacher is the Tabernacle, a nondenominational Evangelical Christian church whose members seem bent on making paradise’s children into Jesus-lovers and its schools into advocates of abstinence from pre- and extramarital sex. Can this alien presence, this bodysnatcher from the beyond, be assimilated? Or must it be expelled by force?
One protagonist is Ruth, a forty-something, divorced, unhappily single sex-ed teacher in the local high school. Another is Tim, also forty-something, divorced and unhappily remarried, once a drug-abusing guitarist, now a Christian mortgage broker and coach of a middle-school girls’ soccer team. The plot of The Abstinence Teacher turns around Ruth and Tim’s dance of opposition and attraction. She is angry because the local school board has changed the sex-ed curriculum in the direction of advocating abstinence, in large part because of a local uproar caused by her offhand comment in class that some people enjoy oral sex. She is now required to teach a curriculum she takes to be dangerous and inaccurate, and she thinks, rightly, that the Tabernacle has brought pressure to bear on the school board to bring this about. Tim, a Tabernacle member, coaches the team on which one of her daughters plays, and one Saturday he gathers the girls at the end of the game for a public prayer of thanksgiving for their victory. This infuriates Ruth, and her anger intensifies when her daughters begin to profess an interest in Jesus, reading the Bible, and going to church. Both Ruth and Tim begin to have doubts about their deepest loves-hers for a secularism in which the principal values are freedom and autonomy, and his for a Jesus who has saved him from self-destruction.
Perrotta tells a good story in a top-shelf romance kind of way, and you’ll very likely find yourself eager to get to the resolution once you’ve begun. His prose slips down easily, giving just enough pleasure to make you want more of it, and demanding little enough that once you close the book nothing of its flavor remains in the mind. What’s interesting about Perrotta is not his chops as a writer but his willingness to take on, with an appearance of evenhandedness, issues that trouble the middle class in our time-and, by so doing, to call into question some secular American certainties. Perrotta’s Evangelical Christians are not mere mindless automatons, just as his pedophile was not merely a monster.
Perrotta’s task is not easy. He wants, it seems, both to take Christians seriously on their own terms (he has, the book’s acknowledgments say, done his fieldwork by attending a Promise Keepers weekend) and to make them understandable to, and perhaps even lovable by, gourmands of the secular. There’s a tightrope here: The less alien he makes the Christian intrusion into paradise seem, the less he’s likely to be taking Christians seriously on their own terms; and the more alien he makes it seem, the less likely it is that he can make them lovable. So how well does he do?
Perrotta is evenhanded enough in his depiction of damage. Everyone, secular and Christian alike, is deeply damaged. Almost everyone is divorced. Everyone finds his desire for love and intimacy and usefulness and meaning unmet by the earthly paradise in which he finds himself. And everyone spends dark hours acknowledging and bewailing this fact, either alone in the small hours of the morning or to anyone willing to listen. And everyone has done things he deeply regrets and cannot call back: in one of the book’s more touching and harrowing scenes, a trainer charged with reeducating teachers who don’t like the new abstinence curriculum asks them to write a description of a sexual act they deeply regret. Everyone has one, and they’re all ordinarily awful, but awful nonetheless. The Christians find solace and partial healing in what they take to be the warm embrace of Jesus, and in the company of those who know and share that embrace with them.
Dennis, for example, is a clerk at Best Buy when he has a vision of God-given meaning and purpose prompted by the physical presence of a Bible some mysterious messenger has delivered to him. “All at once, as if the knowledge had been poured into him like a fiery liquid, he understood who the Boss was, and what he was required to do.” Inspired by the vision, he smashes as many wares as he can-flat-screen TVs, game consoles, handheld organizers-while speaking in tongues and inveighing against the whoredom of Angelina-Jolie-as-Lara-Croft. There are some verbal echoes of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. Then, no longer employed at Best Buy, Dennis founds the Tabernacle, and is sufficiently inspired as a preacher to bring into being ex nihilo a flourishing church where some of the more deeply damaged locals find a genuine if incomplete healing. Tim, one of the damaged ones found by Dennis, experiences the love of Jesus as warmly accepting (and powerful enough to break his cocaine habit), so that he reestablishes himself as a productive member of the earthly paradise.
Perrotta doesn’t play any of this for laughs. Nor does he condescend to it or invite his readers to. But the story he tells strongly suggests that he does want his readers to conclude that the love of Jesus is not enough, and that Pastor Dennis’s construal of that love often creates its own damage. Tim is counseled by Dennis to remarry, and he has a good Christian girl in mind, Carrie, whom Tim does marry against his inclinations but with the conviction that this is what Jesus wants and that he can make it work. It doesn’t work, though: after a while, Tim can’t bring himself to make love to Carrie and she makes it clear to him that she doesn’t want to be loved as a duty, a project required by Jesus, but rather for herself.
The difference between Ruth and Tim-and, by extension, between suburbia’s secularists and its Christians as Perrotta depicts them-is, in the end, not very deep, and not deep enough to make the novel work. Ruth and Tim’s betrayals and failures, given and received, can’t be healed in Perrotta’s view either by Tim’s Jesus-love or by Ruth’s hollowly self-confident secularism; what each of them needs is the humility to admit their need of the other. That’s fair enough, as far as it goes. But for Perrotta it goes all the way, and that amounts to giving the palm to the earthly paradise rather than to Pastor Dennis’s Tabernacle and its Jesus. The function of the Tabernacle in the novel is to chasten the secularists, not to provide a genuine alternative to them.
Perrotta’s Christians, though respectfully depicted, are not alien enough to make the novel’s conflict real. The earthly paradise is not finally challenged: it subsumes the Evangelicals by digesting them with only a few hiccups. Jesus’ love is just one more giver of meaning in the earthly paradise’s cornucopia. The real human needs, the reader is encouraged to think, are those defined by the earthly paradise itself and not by the gospel or the church. If you’re looking for a novel that dramatizes the real conflict between the world and the gospel by showing the strangely cruciform nature of Christian love for the world, you won’t find it in The Abstinence Teacher. Perhaps it’s not to be found-but Dostoevsky’s The Idiot would be a good place to start looking.