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SPIRIT AND FLESH
James M. Ault, Jr.
Knopf
Christian Living
ISBN: 037540242X

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." 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; factions leave the church, pastor and people feel betrayed, and ultimately new leadership takes over. This church, like every since the first, is made up of people who struggle, as the book title suggests, "between the spirit and the flesh." 

Both the last chapter and the epilogue are postscripts to Ault's active involvement in the church, and in some ways they are the most interesting. Something took. Or, in gospel parlance, the seed bore fruit, the prodigal came home --- not that Ault became a fundamentalist or even a Baptist, but he has claimed faith and worships with a church community. And, even as the very publication of this book suggests, he has a vision for breaking down the negative, even demonizing, stereotypes that liberals and conservatives --- both in and outside of the church --- have of each other.

At the end of the book he proposes inviting "a group of fundamentalists and right-to-lifers together with a group of feminists and progressives" on a three-day boat ride. He admits it would be a risky venture (someone quipped, "Will there be enough life jackets?"), but at least he dares to dream. At least we could dare to suggest that people on both sides read Ault's book with an open mind.

   --- Reviewed by Evelyn Bence

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