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Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. Alfred A. Knopf, 2004; 435 pages; $27.95.


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 new-right groups. He observed -- and where possible, participated in -- 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 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 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.


Houston Chronicle: What helps make Spirit and Flesh important is Ault's overview of the political impact of the Christian-right movement. He writes about how the rise of fundamentalism, beginning in the Reagan years in the early 1980s and broadening with Pat Robertson's campaign for the presidency in 1988, mobilized conservative Christians into electoral politics and -- in the election of 1994 -- brought the first Republican majority to the House of Representatives in 45 years.

The book also delves into the history of fundamentalism, from its origins at the end of the 19th Century in cities like New York and Los Angeles to its spread to the South.

But the author's personal involvement in this story is what kept me turning the pages, even though I have little patience with hard-core fundamentalists and their moral absolutes, and the book is not easy reading. Ault comes across as a remarkable man who bent over backward to understand a culture so alien to his own. And to his great surprise he found himself "turning more and more toward God" as a result of his years at Shawmut River Baptist Church. While he didn't become a born-again fundamentalist, he did start going to church and became a Christian.

"Their influence as a moral community penetrated even to my most habitual actions and influenced me permanently for the better," he writes. "I have been enriched immeasurably by my time with them."


James M. Ault, Jr., born in 1946 in San Francisco, was educated at Mt. Hermon School in Northfield, Massachusetts, and at Harvard and Brandeis universities. After teaching at Harvard and at Smith College, he made his first film, Born Again, a portrait of a fundamentalist Baptist congregation, which won a Blue Ribbon at the American Film Festival and was broadcast in the United States and abroad in 1987. In that same year, Mr. Ault came to San Diego, where he spent two semesters as a visiting lecturer in sociology and ethnographic film at UCSD. He has since returned to the East Coast, where he has 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.

Mr. Ault, speaking one afternoon from his Massachusetts home, said, "I had a good and happy childhood. My father was a Methodist minister. Methodists tend to move people around more than other denominations do. So we lived in different communities and learned about different kinds of people. We had to make adjustments, and I think that's what made a sociologist out of me for one thing."

"As a minister's son, you had to be a good boy."

"Yes, but that didn't sit too well with me. I remember getting kicked out of Sunday school one Sunday when I was ten. I don't remember now what I had done. But I remember my father taking me aside and saying that no one should expect anything different from me than any other kid just because I was his son."

"When you were a little boy were you exceptionally pious?"

"No. Not particularly. Although I think there was some strain of seriousness that I inherited from my parents. I was a deacon my senior year at Mt. Hermon School, the boarding school I attended. But religious life was already waning for me.

"In the middle of my freshman year at college, it was a tough year. I wasn't a believer at all. And that nonbelief continued through graduate training and time abroad. Not until I was in San Diego, after the film had come out in 1987, and I started going to church in San Diego at a church called the Community Church of San Diego [did I begin to go to church again]. The Community Church was meeting at a YMCA at the time."

"I note in your book that you mention having become an Episcopalian."

"Yes -- but not in a firm way. I'm really part of that postdenominational age. I've done a lot of documentary work in religious communities of different kinds and always learned things from the people. I did a piece on a community of nuns in Kentucky, in which two of the main characters ran a homeless shelter in Louisville. I did a series for the Episcopal Church on parishes around the country. I did some work in Methodist congregations, and now I have done some work in Africa."

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