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Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Churchby James M. Ault Jr.
"[A]n absorbing, groundbreaking, and intimate tale of life in a New England Christian congregation. This is an ethnographic study that often reads like a novel....Spirit and Flesh is an impressive exercise in cross-cultural understanding, evoking the deep humanity of the fundamentalist community while also depicting its failings." Jane Lampman, The Christian Science Monitor (read the entire Christian Science Monitor review)
Synopses & Reviews
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 prayer breakfasts and Saturday work groups, after-Sunday-service family dinners, and bitter conflicts leading to a church split. He introduces us to the principal members of the congregation, as well as its shadow community of ex-members. We see how they respond to each other, to Ault as an unsaved newcomer, and to the outside world.
Ault draws our attention to how members use the Bible as a "handbook for life," applying moral absolutes taken from it, more or less successfully, to both daily life and extraordinary events. We see how the congregation deals with issues around marriage, adultery, divorce, teenage pregnancy, and alcohol abuse. Ault makes clear how the church, embodying traditional extended-family life, provides the security of like-mindedness and community to its members. He also reveals the pervasive power of gossip to engender and perpetuate divisions and conflicts within a community. And finally, Ault describes his own surprising journey of discovery, revelation, and belief during, and in the wake of, his three years studying Shawmut River and making an intimate documentary about it.
Having experienced its life personally and in depth, James Ault is remarkably placed to guide us through the world of Christian fundamentalism — an abiding and, to many Americans, baffling phenomenon. In the course of telling his story, he builds a useful framework for better understanding the popular sources of both fundamentalism and new-right conservatism and their distinctive place in American life.
"Since they began flexing their political muscles with Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, Christian fundamentalists have attracted increasing attention from curious, and often suspicious, outsiders. Setting out to make a documentary about the religious right in the early 1980s, Harvard- and Brandeis-trained sociologist Ault found his way to a Falwell-influenced church, the pseudonymously named Shawmut River Baptist Church, and ended up spending more than two years there. There, much to the bewilderment of his fellow academics, he found a community whose beliefs sustained a social world of surprising richness. Ault masterfully combines narrative with careful, and frequently groundbreaking, analysis: 'While fundamentalists' timeless, God-given absolutes may appear rigid from the outside, within the organism of a close-knit community... they can be surprisingly supple and flexible over time and place.' But what is most striking is the way Ault brings his whole person, not just his capacity for insightful abstraction, into the story — and into the quest to know not just his subjects, but also their God. While most of the book's events took place almost two decades ago, Ault's hours of verbatim recordings, which he retells with gripping immediacy, keep the book fresh. This titlejoins Randall Balmer's Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory as required reading for anyone who would understand America's most conservative Christians. (Sept. 15)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Informative and well-informed documentation of how faith is made to fit....The power of this work comes from the details based on Ault's depth of immersion and freedom to observe social interaction among church members." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Ault just may have written the seminal opus for bridge-building between fundamentalists and liberals." Booklist
"[G]oes far beyond the sound bites and stereotypes that too many of us in the news media...fall back on....Spirit and Flesh [has] a warmth and humanity that
"[Ault] is particularly good at showing the cultural underpinnings of fundamentalists' political conservatism....His three years of fieldwork...have paid off. His prose is clear and effective, and, though long, the book never feels slack." Mark Oppenheimer, The Washington Post Book World
"It is vital that we learn to see fundamentalists in all traditions as vulnerable human beings like ourselves. If we simply dismiss them as either evil or hopelessly irrational, we contribute to the polarization that is putting us all in such deadly peril. James Ault has traced his own journey from disbelief to understanding and will take his readers with him. This book has made an important contribution to one of the greatest problems facing the world today." Karen Armstrong, author of The Battle for God
"Compelling for its intimate portrayal of the men and women and valuable for its insights into the larger culture of Christian fundamentalism. This book takes readers into a world far beyond the common stereotypes." Gustav Niebuhr, Correspondent and Associate Professor of Religion and Media Syracuse University
"I was swept into Ault?s absorbing narrative right away. The book is a superb combination, a sympathetic portrayal of real people involved in a fundamentalist Baptist Church woven together with a well-informed portrayal of an increasingly important element in the religious and political life of America. His brave and courageous inclusion of his own journey as he worked on this project deepens and enriches the story." Harvey Cox, author of Fire From Heaven
"Ault is a masterful participant observer who acquires a sympathy for this movement's basic beliefs while retaining a scholar's analytical eye. A community study that reads like a novel (with a surprise ending), Spirit and Flesh is a remarkable American story." Joel Carpenter, author of Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism
"[B]eautifully written and thoroughly researched....[An] intimate portrait....Recommended." Library Journal
In an attempt to understand the growing influence of the Christian Right, sociologist and documentary filmmaker Ault reports on the three years he spent inside the world of a Massachusetts fundamentalist church he encountered while studying a variety of new-right groups.
About the Author
James M. Ault, Jr. was educated at Harvard and Brandeis universities. After teaching at Harvard and at Smith College, he made his first film, Born Again, a portrait of this fundamentalist Baptist congregation, which won a Blue Ribbon at the American Film Festival and was broadcast in the United States and abroad in 1987. He has since produced and directed a variety of documentary programs for the Lilly Endowment, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Episcopal Church Foundation, and other organizations. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.
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