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The Abstinence Teacher: A Novelby Tom Perrotta
Reading Group Guide
1.) There are numerous references to Ruth and Tims past sexual experiences scattered throughout the novel. How do these anecdotes color the debate about sex education at the center of the narrative?
2.) Is Ruth the victim of a witch hunt, or a teacher who went too far and deserved to be reined in by her community?
3.) Is Tim Masons faith genuine? Or is it, as his mother suggests, a crutch, something temporary that he needed to fight his addictions? What remains of his faith at the end of the novel?
4.) Is Ruth right to be upset when Tim asks the girls to pray after the soccer game? How is this different from Ruth teaching sexuality in a way that some Christian parents might find offensive?
5.) In order to keep her job, Ruth is forced to teach a curriculum she does not believe in. Discuss a time when you felt you had to sacrifice your beliefs or principles.
6.) Ruth doesnt challenge her daughter Eliza or hold back her permission when she wants to go to church with her friend from school. Can you think of other examples in The Abstinence Teacher when a character restrains him or herself from something they are very tempted to do?
7.) Can you think of something Ruths daughters might want to do that would horrify Ruth even more than organized church-going?
8.) What do you make of the Abstinence Refresher course taught by JoAnn? Do stories of sexual regret reinforce the idea that young people should refrain from sex until marriage? Or do they simply remind us that making mistakes—both sexual and otherwise—is an essential part of growing up?
9.) Both Ruth and Tim struggle with inner conflicts that make it difficult for them to fulfill their public roles. How does this influence their encounters? Do you think theres any future for them as a couple?
10.) If Ruth, Tim and their families lived in a 1950s version of Stonewood Heights, how would their stories play out differently? What about a 1970s version?
11.) How do you think private beliefs can best be balanced with public interests like education? Who should have a say in how a communitys children are taught? What happens when the community is bitterly divided?
12.) Did you feel differently about Evangelical Christianity after reading The Abstinence Teacher? Why?
14.) Despite some studies questioning their effectiveness, abstinence programs continue to be implemented. Why do you think that is?
15.) Ruth Ramsey is both a parent and a teacher in the public school system of Stonewood Heights. Do you think her own experience as a parent makes her a better human sexuality teacher?
16.) In her review of The Abstinence Teacher, critic Liesl Schillinger praises the books objective stance toward evangelicals: “What does the author think of Pastor Dennis and his flock? Without explicitly taking sides, Perrotta does not spell it out. Instead, he gives space and speeches to proselytizers and scoffers alike, letting readers form their own conclusions.” But religious scholar Stephen Prothero detects a strong bias against the Tabernacle: “Most of the evangelical characters in this book do little to upend the stereotypes that New York City writers and readers harbor about them.” How do you account for this discrepancy in the views of the two critics? Which do you think is more persuasive?
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