Friday, March 24, 2006

Spirit and Flesh

[Note: I just received in the mail the March/April 2006 issue of Modern Reformation, where this review is published. I thought I would post it here to share with those who might not read MR]

In Spirit and Flesh, a brilliant and enlightening book, James M. Ault, Jr., initiates his readers into the world of a fundamentalist church. Ault, an independent Harvard-trained sociologist, spent three years immersed as a participant-observant with the Shawmut River Baptist Church (he changed the name to protect identities) in Massachusetts in an effort to understand New Right politics and the churches behind it. He first chronicled the congregation’s life in the public television documentary Born Again (1987); Spirit and Flesh serves as his “field notes,” filled with analysis and a narrative that often surprises and always engages.

Against typical secular assessments of fundamentalist Protestantism, which emphasize power and hierarchical gender relationships, Ault argued that churches like Shawmut River were built upon kin relationships that often empowered women even while engaging in “patriarchal” rhetoric; served to bring family members to faith, sustain them in that faith, and exercise discipline when they faltered; and provided for a type of ethical flexibility and adaptability even in the face of “absolutist” ethical claims.

In addition, by viewing fundamentalism as embedded in familial relationships, Ault enabled the reader understand why fundamentalists became politically involved in the 1970s and 1980s over the issues of abortion and public education and why they are heavily invested today in the fight over homosexuality: these political issues each strike at the essence of fundamentalist religion, namely, the tight family relationships that sustain churches like Shawmut River.

In addition, Ault claimed that fundamentalist “traditionalism” is rooted in a collective, oral discourse that “has a contingent, dynamic quality involving change, growth, adaptation, and invention” (208). The communicative event for this oral discourse is the Sunday sermon in which the community’s ideals, its traditions, are defended and reinforced. Not only doctrinal traditions, but especially cultural and social mores—such as teenage chastity, cultural separation, and abstinence from alcohol—are communicated to the younger generation through the community’s oral discourse.

In the book, one of the central and most disruptive events is the pastor’s daughter out-of-wedlock pregnancy. When the pastor, as keeper and transmitter of fundamentalist traditions, “fails” to pass them on adequately to the next generation, the church becomes a political battleground that eventually leads the larger church “family” to choose sides in order to preserve its peace and traditions.

In the end, Ault’s book is useful for helping those of us who minister in the Presbyterian and Reformed world to take stock. After all, to a secular world, conservative Presbyterians look very much like the fundamentalist Baptists whom Ault describes. And as we minister, it is useful to reckon with the reality that our congregations are often built upon kin relationships; what might be the effects of seeing the church as a collection of families shaped by traditions communicated orally? Above all, in a surprising twist at the end of the book, we can learn the importance of a loving community to bring someone, like Ault himself, back to the Christian faith in which he was raised.

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