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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."

"Christians," I said, "seem to be engaged in a postdenominational second reformation. Traditional mainline church populations are shrinking while nondenominational populations grow."

Mr. Ault did not disagree. "People register their disapproval by leaving and going to another place and being attracted by another, and that puts pressure on everyone to try to change."

"These 'new' churches," I said, "seem to become families for people in ways that older mainline denominational churches do not."

"Well, I think you're right, that these congregations that are more loosely defined doctrinally are a flexible way to build a personal community. Certainly, that's one thing that they do."

"The church about which you write, it seemed, became central to the congregants' lives."

"True," said Mr. Ault. "There are more services during the week and there's the school and the weekly home Bible studies. It adds up to encompassing your life."

"I was wondering, in these postdenominational churches, what kind of theological orientation they have. Like, for instance, the church that you attended in San Diego."

"Well, they vary considerably. There was a bitter split in that church."

"These splits seem to happen often in these churches."

"That's right. The independent church is much more volatile than the mainline churches. There isn't the stabilizing force of the denominational office, overseeing you. Everything is up for grabs."

"I was interested," I said, "in the distaste, which seems both aesthetic and theological, some independent fundamentalist churches show for Pentecostal groups." I asked, "How do you explain this distaste?"

"Well, there are two things. I remember, in my book, the music minister's wife's story of a Pentecostal salesman who came to her door. They fell into conversation about the Lord. And she quoted out of her Scripture verses that seemed to indicate that speaking in tongues was not just for the apostles. And then she said he quoted all this other Scripture that, as she said, 'We never even look at.' She just threw up her hands in consternation.

"The other event was the pastor's father-in-law throwing up his arms. They were discussing the scriptural basis for rejecting Pentecostals. There were people in the congregation who had family members who were involved in Pentecostal churches. So they didn't agree with a pastor drawing a sharp distinction between true Christianity and Pentecostalism. They didn't feel the case was made. Some people ended up leaving, without giving that as a reason the pastor was too hard on Pentecostals.

"So one day there was this conversation going on, and one gentleman threw up his hands and said, 'I don't care what you say. You're not going to find me waving my arms around.' And it's like many things in that world: people have strong roots in their culture, customs, and conventions.

"They weren't like an African-American community where that kind of expressiveness is de rigueur. In terms of worship, what's happening in Africa now is that all churches -- Presbyterian, whatever -- they're all Pentecostal in worship."

But to get back to the independent Baptist church in his book, Mr. Ault said, "They would find in Scripture support for things that they just didn't feel comfortable with. Like the holy kiss, greeting each other with a holy kiss. In Scripture, you know, they speak of greeting members of the congregation with a kiss. 'Not in modern-day America,' one fundamentalist pastor said from the pulpit, and everyone laughed to relieve the tension."

We talked then about the casual ease with which many members of postdenominational churches speak with and about God. I said, "I can't imagine walking up to someone and chatting with them about the Lord. It seems so odd to me."

Mr. Ault noted that in the church on which his book was based, it was not unusual at all for one of your fellow parishioners to walk up and say, "So, how has the Lord been treating you?"

"I was reminded of this, when I was at the Southern Festival of Books in Memphis this year. A woman, a fiction writer, who lives in Boston now, said one thing she misses about the South is if she would go to a grocery store, even if you met a stranger, you could talk to her or him. In Boston she went to a Stop 'N Shop recently and remembers she was having a hard time because her father was dying. She caught the eye of a woman in the produce section, and said, 'I'm having a hard time because my father is dying, and I don't know what to cook for dinner.' The woman looked at her as if she was crazy and hurried off. Whereas, in the South, she might have gotten a hug, an engaging conversation, and then another hug."

"And a recipe for making dumplings out of refrigerated biscuits."

"That's right. I think that's why fundamentalism, though it wasn't invented in the South -- it was invented in the North in the 19th Century -- why it eventually becomes part of the Southern phenomenon, because it fits into Southern culture, with ties to kin and place and tradition. That presumed familiarity, that is what people who came to that church in Massachusetts took to right away. They never felt alien in that environment. They just took to it.

"It's the presumption of familiarity that was part and parcel of the texture of their lives. Once they saw the church as a kind of home, like that home in the small town where they're from, they did not feel alone. They did not feel in, for instance, Jerry Falwell's huge church, that everyone was acting as urbane people do, waiting for an introduction. There was a presumed familiarity of a small-town life, a village life. It's a way of finding that in the city."

"Did you find that when you went to the Community Church in San Diego?"

"There was some of that there. It wasn't as pronounced, as strong. But it was there. It can work on a different scale, but people in the larger fundamentalist churches, the Jerry Falwell kind of church, find their community in their Sunday school class."

"And the home Bible studies?"

"Yes, the home Bible studies. But then, too, there's going to church and being there on location for worship, twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday. But, yes, it's within their Sunday school class that they form those ties."

"The people whom you interviewed for your book were kind to you."

"Yes. And in general very kind to each other. Although, sometimes judgments would arise in the community against such and such a person. There was the one woman on welfare who was given a hard time. I got to know her independently. She was from an abusive marriage, and one of the things that they were critical of her was here she was, college-educated, and relying on welfare rather than working. The truth was that she had a job, but it was at a feminist shelter for battered women. She didn't feel she could tell people in the church that. She didn't accept what they had to say about feminism either because she knew the feminists she worked alongside. So she was, you know, an outsider. But she nevertheless was given all kinds of help and love and support in the congregation, partly through a family who took her and her kids on and acted as grandparents to her children."

"Did people whom you interviewed for your book feel comfortable with someone like President Bush telling them that God talks to him?"

"I remember talking with the principal at the Christian Academy, just after Bush had first been elected. He laughed and said, 'We don't have a very bright guy in the White House now.' They didn't think much of his intelligence, and my guess is they don't think much of his faith. The people in the church I studied probably don't think too much of his faith, the reality of it. Or the maturity of it. Let's put it that way.

"That God talks to people is something they are open to, but they also know that people can claim those things. So the only test, the main test, is putting it up against Scripture; that is the way they would say you have to deal with it. But that becomes a muddy area."

"I am interested," I said, "in the popularity of what I think of as 'end-of-the-world' books -- the 'Left Behind' series, for instance. So much of this new best-selling fictional literature seems to have its basis in millenarianism and the Book of Revelations."

"That shows how much belief there is in the supernatural. It's very real to a lot of people. Whether they will guide their lives based on it is another matter. I found that kind of interesting, that the prophecy in Revelations became a kind of recreation that people engaged in. But when it came to day-to-day practical realities of their family lives or what they're doing for work or how they relate to their church, they are more practical and don't follow the logic of any of that too far. So it sounds scarier than it is."

"It's amazing how popular those books have become, isn't it?"

"I haven't tried to read them. Not the current ones. I remembered the pastor and his wife [who are featured in my book], they got into that stuff after they were first saved and were always talking about it. And it is this sense that it supports a life of faith by positing a world with cosmic proportions that is all being governed by a spiritual force that ultimately is the source of our destiny. So that just letting your mind wander with that for a while, it strengthens the conviction that what it's all about is a faith in God.

"I didn't find people organizing their life around one thread of that or making practical life decisions based on it. I began to see it as a kind of mental recreation that helped strengthen convictions, but not particular ones that they would then go off on a limb with. I didn't see that happening.

"Otherwise, you could think of all kinds of things happening and occasionally they do, but not with any regularity. Most of the people reading that literature in conservative congregations are well-behaved, pretty good citizens, people that their daughters and grandchildren, their children and grandchildren can count on to help them out."

"Do you have a sense of what will happen to you when you die?"

"Not a very concrete one, no. I guess I nourish the hope that is carried among other Christians. I know that there is life after death, that we live on. Yet I find myself sometimes wondering. But I feel that the dead are with us, that we know and remember them, so that they still have their presence."

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