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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.
“A unique contribution to the study of American religion….the best single-volume explanation of why American fundamentalist Christianity thrives among certain people, what needs it fulfills and why it will not die out.”
—Mark Oppenheimer in The Washington Post Book World
“This ethnographic study of working-class Christians is not just a first-rate piece of sociological journalism. Ault weaves his own story into the book, and the gradual coming together of the Harvard graduate and his fundamentalist research subjects gives Spirit and Flesh a warmth and humanity that set it apart.”
—Don Lattin in The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
"This brilliant book is essential for anyone who wants to better understand fundamentalism—or for fundamentalists who desire to understand how they are viewed by others."
—Cindy Crosby in Christianity Today
“One of the maladies of contemporary American politics is its descent into incivility….Spirit and Flesh calls this politics to task, challenging all of us ‘to listen more patiently, carefully, intelligently—even generously—to our opponents.' Can somebody say amen?”
—Stephen Prothero in The New York Times Book Review
“This extraordinary book….an insightful look at some of America’s most conservative Christians and helps explain why the new Christian right has moved into the mainstream of American politics.”
—Elizabeth Bennett in The Houston Chronicle
“An absorbing, groundbreaking, and intimate tale….an ethnographic study that often reads like a novel.”
—Jane Lampman in Christian Science Monitor
“Ault masterfully combines narrative with careful, and frequently groundbreaking, analysis…. What is most striking is the way Ault brings his whole person, not just his capacity for insightful abstraction, into the story…. Required reading for anyone who would understand America’s most conservative Christians.”
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“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
“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
“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