Bookmarks Issue: 

Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church

A-SpiritFleshAult’s award-winning PBS broadcast Born Again (1987) offered an inside look at evangelical America. Spirit and Flesh fills out the details. Ault spent more than two years in the Jerry Falwell-inspired Shawmut River Baptist Church in Massachusetts, engaging in Bible studies, attending services, and developing relationships with its born-again founder, Frank Valenti, his wife, and other church members. Ault discovered close kinship networks, strong "family values," and a few hypocrisies. By placing this community in its larger context, Ault shows how the evangelical movement entered national politics via ‘80s-style fundamentalism. In the end, he also shares his surprises: The church’s "influence as a moral community penetrated even to my most habitual actions and influenced me permanently for the better."
Knopf. 448 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 037540242X

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"This intimate look into the lives of fundamentalist families at a Massachusetts church and Christian school goes far beyond the sound bites and stereotypes that too many of us in the news media—including this reporter—fall back on in the rush of daily journalism. … These are the revelatory moments in Spirit and Flesh, when Ault reaches across the chasm of the ‘cultural divide’ to show how the Jesus freaks and the other freaks of the ‘60s and ‘70s had more in common than they’d like to admit." Dan Lattin

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"And while Spirit and Flesh sometimes reads like a sociological study, it’s an insightful look at some of America’s most conservative Christians, and helps explain why the evangelical movement has moved into the mainstream of American politics. … Ault comes across as a remarkable man who bent over backwards to understand a culture so alien to his own." Elizabeth Bennett

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Ault’s portrait of Pastor Frank and his flock—Phil, Jean, Aunt Margaret, Granny Gund and the rest—is 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

Critical Summary

Ault, a political liberal who taught at both Harvard University and Smith College, found himself in alien territory when he decided to spend a few years with members of the Shawmut River Baptist Church. But he left with something very different than what he came with: a respect and even affection for a culture markedly different from his own. Sure, Ault shares some scathing stories about the church members’ hypocrisies (including a teenager’s pregnancy, a woman who leaves her husband, and their collective views on education). Yet he approaches their zeal and political conservatism with fairness and wisdom. Ault is especially adept at placing Valenti and his clan within the larger politico-historical framework of evangelical movements in America. We imagine that we will be inundated with books on fundamentalists and evangelicals in the coming months from those wishing to capitalize on the publicity generated by the recent Presidential election. Here’s an insightful book before the hype takes over.