May 20 2011

Spirit and Flesh – Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church

Published by at 8:14 am under Books

by James M Ault Jr.

A fascinating, readable, and worth reading study of the community that coalesced around a Fundamentalist Christian Church in Worcester Ma. during the mid 1980’s. This book is even handed and goes a long way toward making such fundamentalist Christian groups understandable to outsiders by describing the ways it is beneficial to its members. The field work behind this book is now pretty old and may be out of date but I’d guess the insights are still relevant.
The author gets involved with the church as part of a post-doctoral sociology study. At the time, He was a non-religious former Christian who begins to attend and eventually participates, to an extent, in the church’s activities. From the beginning, he makes it clear to the pastor and church members that he studying the group and despite their fears of being misrepresented he achieved an exceptional degree of trust with them to the extent that he is allowed to make a reality based documentary that was shown as a ‘special’ (“Born Again”) on PBS.
In many ways, this congregation resembles a clan or very extended family group in earlier or less modern and cosmopolitan societies. A group with close, family like emotional ties that tries to provide mutual help, guidance and internal discipline. While it contains several significant family groupings, this group is self constituted and treats the King James version of the bible as the sole basis for its structure and rules. That bible is the source of “all” advice and guidance. However, it is essentially an oral society without written rules, regulations or agreements. Written documents, other than the bible, are generally not important. The King James version of the bible is considered to be the true ‘word of God’ despite the fact that it was put together from various authors over centuries since “The holy spirit guided the writing process so the result is true”.
Being an oral society, history is forgotten quickly. Current beliefs and interpretations of the bible are absolutely true, but those beliefs do evolve and change based on implicit consensus. While the King James bible is the only source of evidence and guidance, that book contains enough sometimes contradictory passages that the selection of passages to focus on provides for flexibility and the evolution (if that word is allowed!) of opinions and behavior. You pick your bible verses to make your point. Differing references are somehow sorted out and contradicting texts ignored as the group reaches a consensus.
Officially, both the church and families are organized hierarchically with males as the designated leaders. However, it both the church and in families the power of the leader is far from absolute. The pastor can be fired or members can demonstrate dissatisfaction by withholding contributions or by splitting the group to form another church if consensus building doesn’t get their desired result. Despite the official male dominance, women were often the real power brokers in the church and others in the group recognized their unofficial roles.
This book describes a snapshot of what the fundamental groups are all about. It goes a long way toward explicating the attraction of independent fundamentalist churches in the US; community and mutual support in an individualistic society. It does not address or explain the glitzy and often fraudulent TV empire variety of Christian churches. Compared to the group described, the “TV ministries” seem to be a cancerous aberration.
Worth reading.

PS. Many longer reviews and essays related to this book can be found on the web.

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