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Hardcover Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church Book

ISBN: 037540242X

ISBN13: 9780375402425

Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church

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Format: Hardcover

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Book Overview

In an attempt to understand the growing influence of the Christian Right, sociologist and documentary filmmaker James Ault spent three years inside the world of a Massachusetts fundamentalist church he encountered while studying a variety of new-right groups. He observed-and where possible participated in-the daily lives of the members of a church he calls Shawmut River. His book takes us into worship services, home Bible studies, youth events, men's...

Customer Reviews

4 ratings

Engaging and climactic

In 1983 sociologist James Ault, a "sixties radical who had enthusiasms of the day," took on a post-grad research project: getting to know the ins and outs of an independent fundamentalist Baptist church in Massachusetts. Ault's purpose: "to better understand popular support for this new-style conservatism marching proudly behind the banner of 'family values.'" His interest: "it wasn't [the pastor's] religion that had brought me to follow him on his round of duties....It was his politics." His method: anthropologically studying the "community enterprise" of this one church and its attendant school. After a year, Ault proposed extending his involvement and filming a documentary about the church --- titled "Born Again," airing on PBS in 1987. The book project came more than a decade later, which means that some of the political commentary seems dated. And yet most of the book is a keen and still-relevant look at the church's faith, social mores, and informal systems. Working from tapes and notes, Ault walks us chronologically through his several years as a welcomed but suspect outsider, at church services, home Bible studies, men's prayer breakfasts, Sunday dinners. He puts himself into the story; you see his measured reaction to parishioners; there's the day he reads his name on someone's refrigerator --- a prayer request for his salvation. And their reaction to him --- his quiet presence (listening) and carefully phrased questions (so as not to make people defensive). After a year, the pastor's wife tells him, "You know, I never know where you stand on things....But somehow I think you understand." Though an atheist, Ault had grown up in a liberal Methodist parsonage, and this surely gives him a head start in understanding some of the in-talk of sermons and extended conversations he chooses to print --- with dead-on authenticity. In time, mutual misgiving melts. Ault's narrative, as engaging and climactic as a novel, is interspersed with cultural, and some theological, analyses of the church, drawing on a larger body of research, evidenced by 30 pages of notes and a 10-page bibliography. A chapter such as "Fundamentalism and Tradition" is not light entertainment. Ault spends considerable time on family and gender issues, as does the church itself. "The day-to-day business of church life had much to do with transforming and ordering family relationships, especially marriage." Marriages have been solidified, largely because errant husbands had come home from local bars and taken responsibility for their families. But church and family patriarchy is more complicated than Ault had suspected. "The man's the head," the pastor's wife tells him, but "the woman's the neck that turns the head." This informal scheme is, as Ault says, "what everybody sees" and "what everybody knows" --- despite the official line. There's an insightful tangential plot (and analysis) of social networks, gossip, and tussles for community power; faction

Worth Reading

I almost gave up on this book partway through the second chapter. The author seemed to be more focused on promoting his documentary than telling a the story of a fundamentalist church. I also thought he was failing to distinguish between fundamentalists and evangelicals, overgeneralizing. After letting a few days pass, I picked up where I left off, and I'm glad I did. You will have to read all the way through to the end to see how it all comes together and what impact his experience with fundamentlists had on the author. It was especially satisfying to see the clear-headed explanations of why fundamentalists think and behave as they do. Without becoming an apologist, he succeeds in bridging the gap.

Gracious Treatment, But is it the Entire Picture?

What a gracious treatment of potentially difficult material! My one question is whether or not he explores in detail and is fully candid in evaluating what happens when fundamentalists engage their culture. Armstrong's "The Battle for God" and other similar studies of fundamentalism such as Martin Marty's multi-volume "The Fundamentalism Project" suggests a real issue with intolerance. Ault makes the comment that liberals are actually guilty of being as intolerant of fundamentalists as they claim the fundamentalists themselves are. But if we are to take the political, social and cultural statements of the fundamentalists like those Ault engages with at face value, do we not have to address slightly more candidly the anger and in too-many situations the hate that fundamentalists advocate? Would such candor also have to deal with the reality that few fundamentalisms, regardless of whether they are Christian, Islamic or Hindu, allow for any form of democratic let alone religious pluralism. The comment Augustine is credited as having contributed to the lexicon of human's tenuous grasp of grace that "on the essentials unity, on the non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity" seems to come apart when you are engaging a culture where everything is an essential - an intrinsic part of fundamentalism. I appreciated the sociological perspective Ault brought and I was deeply and profoundly personally touched by his grace, but I think some greater danger exists within this group than his book presents. In an age where predominant sociologists, political theorists, theologians, social scientists and philosophers fear the clash of religious fundamentalists, does Ault's analysis go far enough in its analysis? I admire his grace and hold out hope that his attitude will be embraced

Spirit and Flesh Book review, I read it.

I read the book, did not see the documentary. James Ault studies fundamentalist and then goes beyond the documentary to watch these people for about 20 years. His ability to stay neutral as an observer is great. He admits being attracted to their fellowship and missing the connections that it fulfills. His ability as a story teller to draw in his audience and concern them with the ongoing true life story is grand. His writing connects you with the subjects whether you agree with them or not. His fairness is preserved while being friends to all involved. The last chapter, "But what about you" should be read at the end of the rest of the book. Yeah, what about him? The epilogue, wraps up the lives of so many people you have met. Great complete package. Interesting story telling.
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