Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
- Publisher : Alfred A. Knopf; 1st edition (September 15, 2004)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 435 pages
- ISBN-10 : 037540242X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0375402425
- Item Weight : 1.75 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.57 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #2,167,059 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Ault did his study decades before allegations of child molesting in Christian Fundamentalism came to light. The church he selected (while Jerry Falwell was still alive) was pastored by a man who belonged to the Falwell stratum of Fundamentalism in the late 1980's or early 1990's. So Ault never saw either the Hyles or BJU strata of Fundamentalism.
Ault’s most disarming and perceptive insight is that Fundamentalism, though it emphasizes reliance on the sacred Scripture, is primarily a religion in the Oral Tradition. The beliefs, which have a certain flexibility, are disseminated through the sermons and lessons and by person-to-person conversation. People share sermons, pass around tapes, and attend conferences where they hear the leaders of the religion make their pronouncements. Bible reading, rather than being systematic or scholarly, is performed selectively in order to “hide God’s Word in the heart,” which is a euphemism for memorization. At the appropriate time, learned texts are slapped onto a situation. But sermons carry the beliefs and transmit them. Bible reading serves the sermons.
Ault’s next most disarming insight is that Fundamentalism relies upon situation ethics. He expressed surprise that the preacher, a man he came to admire, would thunder that divorce was always wrong, and everybody would shout “Amen!” yet several people in the church were divorced. They felt no incongruity about condemning divorce yet also being divorced. Ault learned that the Fundamentalist mindset believed that it believed in the absolutes that it claimed, yet the culture was one of addressing every situation individually and evaluating it in light of multiple factors. While remaining conservative and morally strict, Fundamentalism, nonetheless, relied upon situation for its moral decisions, not absolutes. Divorce, in the end, was NOT always wrong if a situation was one that was intolerable or “unavoidable”. The people, he noted, saw no contradiction in what they said vs what they actually practiced. They thought they believed in an absolute morality, and they practiced situation ethics.
As Ault himself has no grudge against situation ethics, this double standard struck him more as an amazing irony rather than anything shameful. Indeed, he appears to find some relief in the notion that the bark of Fundamentalism is worse than its bite, at least for people inside a “Fundamentalist community.” And Ault found many admirable qualities within the community, especially their care for each other. Ault’s chosen church, by the way, was not a Jack Hyles type church but one after the model of Jerry Falwell.
Instant hsitory of Fundamentalism - But in terms of the Oral Tradition that Ault found within the church, he also saw that the heavy reliance of the people upon the spoken word rather than written texts created a sort of “instant history” for them. They believed that Fundamentalism had created far more impact in history than it actually has, and their view of history was shaped by their view of Fundamentalism. Names that most people have never heard of, such as J Frank Norris, Billy Sunday, etc., were lynchpins of significance for the church members. They had very little knowledge of more substantive makers of history.
Cosmic Struggle - The Oral Tradition of Fundamentalism created a ready-made culture where one had not existed before, complete with its own history and its outlook of being at the center of a cosmic struggle. This cosmic struggle, by the way, is not the victorious struggle of Christ to overcome Satan and sin, but rather the struggle of Fundamentalism to restore the present culture to godliness.
Ault's analysis had a few gaps because he observed only one church, and yet his insights are compelling and profound. I will also add that Ault became more devout in his own faith in Christ (though certainly not a Fundamentalist) after seeing answers to prayer when the church members insisted that to observe them properly he had to engage in sharing prayer requests. That was probably one of the most charming parts of the book. Ault treated his subjects of study gently. These days, knowing the horrors against children that are permitted in Fundamentalism, I think new studies are essential.