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Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church Hardcover – September 14, 2004

ISBN-13: 978-0375402425 ISBN-10: 037540242X Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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 title joins Randall Balmer's Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory as required reading for anyone who would understand America's most conservative Christians.
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From Booklist

For a self-admitted left-wing sociologist, Ault provides as unbiased a glimpse into the hearts and minds of the fundamentalist members of the Shawmut River Baptist Church of Worcester, Massachusetts, as might be found. His relations with the church began in the mid-1980s when his postdoctoral dissertation on why new-right conservative women eschew feminism led to a PBS documentary. Having continued, they now eventuated in this lengthy account of the professional and personal lives of the pastor and several congregants. Ault's narrative style should appeal to the Left and Right alike, particularly after he confesses his frequent discomfort when others mention their unqualified faith in the word of the Bible, which doesn't, however, impede his portrayal of that faith as earnest and heartfelt. Ault discloses all that the people of Shawmut River Baptist taught him about how fundamentalists make the world work for them; and by noting how liberals see the same world quite differently, he just may have written the seminal opus for bridge-building between those two factions. Donna Chavez
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 435 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; 1st edition (September 14, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037540242X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375402425
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.3 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,813,472 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Both my born-again Christian and non-religious students love the book.
Similarly he mentions that the Minister of the church ran for the State house on a Christian Fundamentalist platform, but he does not cover this at all.
At least we could dare to suggest that people on both sides read Ault's book with an open mind.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By FaithfulReader.com on September 30, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In 1983 sociologist James Ault, a "sixties radical who had embraced...new-left 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.
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17 of 25 people found the following review helpful By DFE on March 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Those of you reading this book looking for insight into the Born Again movement and why its membership is so successfully directing much of the current political and social discourse in this country with be sorely disappointed. The material in this book is 15 to 20 years old and the author spends little time relating the political aspects of the Born Again movement, but instead covers the daily life of a single small community during the mid to late 80's. This book relates the authors experience of observing a Christian Born again community, in the course of preparing for shooting a documentary. The book begins in 1984 as he first meets with the Minister of a church that had only been in existence for a few years. It is not clear just how long the author spent with them as for some strange reason most of the material is not dated and when he does supply a date for a section he only provides a month and day, but no year. However the author does mention that he spent two years away from the church while editing the film and then briefly touched based with them again in the 1988, so at best he spent two years with them.

The book is divided into four sections. The first section covers several of the core members backgrounds and how they came to Born Again. The second section deals with the various ministries of the church and how the church is bound up in the daily lives of the members. The third section covers the shooting of the documentary and the fourth section covers events that occurred within the community just after the film's completion. There is also a brief epilogue in which he talks about how his experiences effected his own faith and brief where are they now section for some of the principle subjects.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Adam Gonnerman on June 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
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.
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11 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Dan Mc Carty on November 3, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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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By Tom on March 4, 2015
Format: Hardcover
In "Spirit and Flesh" (2004) James Ault, a liberal, Harvard-educated sociologist recounts his experiences as a researcher embedded in a fundamentalist independent Baptist church in the early 1980s for the purpose of understanding the emerging conservative, "pro-family" movement. At the time Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority was beginning to make national headlines and liberals everywhere were wondering who exactly these conservative Christians were.

The folks at the "Shawmut River Baptist Church" (a fictitious name) in Worcester, MA strived to worship and serve God according to His will. However, with Falwell as their model, they eagerly mixed Christianity with hyper-nationalism. They also often became bogged down in judging those inside and outside the congregation who didn't adhere to the accepted moral and religious standards of fundamentalism (no alcohol, KJV Bible only, no shorts for women, no Christian rock music, etc.). In good times the congregation worked closely together in a spirit of reciprocity to achieve positive goals. In bad times the very same interpersonal networks were used to wreak havoc. At the height of some internecine squabbling the pastor was forced to resign and a church split ensued. As Ault demonstrates, while men officially hold the leadership positions in conservative Christian congregations, female members often utilize their influence and superior social networking (including the use of malicious gossip) to achieve desired ends. Despite our failings and the often "messy" circumstances within local churches the Lord accomplishes His will. "Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty (clean), but from the strength of an ox come abundant harvests" - Proverbs 14:4.
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