A close-up story of faith in practice

A sociologist reveals life in a fundamentalist church community

It wasn't very likely the two men would hit it off: James Ault, who had been a 1960s antiwar radical, was an Ivy League intellectual and atheist. Frank Valenti, who had returned from Vietnam severely injured, was a mechanic and later a fundamentalist Baptist preacher.

Yet the sociologist and the pastor established a candid, open-minded rapport in the mid-1980s that has paved the way for "Spirit and Flesh," an absorbing, groundbreaking, and intimate tale of life in a New England Christian congregation.

This is an ethnographic study that often reads like a novel. In portraying the stories of several couples and families that make up Shawmut River Baptist Church - and the shifting fortunes of the all-encompassing church community - Ault explores the roots of the Christian Right and its impact on American life.

Pastor Valenti was one of the first to graduate from the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty Bible College in Lynchburg, Va., and served as vice president of the Massachusetts chapter of Moral Majority. Ault had begun his study by observing right-to-life and other Christian groups in the state. But by deciding to focus on life within a single fundamentalist church, the "unsaved" scholar illumines in compelling fashion the elements of a religious culture that have helped make conservatism a potent, growing force in public life.

Ault offers enlightening explanations for why the women, who often play major roles within the patriarchal church, view feminism so negatively, and how a culture of tradition can readily, if unconsciously, absorb change into that "tradition." Along the way, he breaks through stereotypes to reveal the earnest, often transformative commitments to God within the tightknit community.

Yet he also depicts their inward focus and fear of an outside world that values individualism - what they see as the right to do whatever one wants, rather than what God wants. The church's Christian school, for example, refused to send graduates' transcripts to secular colleges.

In a small way, this is Ault's story, too. His experience with the Shawmut River congregation initiated his own journey back to God - to Christianity, though not to fundamentalism. Some of the most valuable insights come from his comparison of the church community with academia or leftist radicalism.

For three years, the sociologist participated in worship services, home Bible studies, classes at the church's Christian academy, men's prayer breakfasts, and even the pastor's personal counseling sessions with troubled couples. He gained permission to produce a documentary film, "Born Again," which appeared on PBS in 1987.

"Shawmut River" was a community built around a few extended families and centered almost wholly on church. It grew by conversions - usually among extended family members, largely Catholic. Bible study and a consistent prayer life created a shared moral culture outside the influence of the mass media.

With its oral culture, warmth, and parochialism, it resembled small village life. Church members lived by "reciprocity" - responding to any need fellow members might have with prayer and human assistance - as part of their obligation to Jesus Christ.

Most moving are the intimate stories shared by couples of how their marriages were transformed by conversion and commitment to a God-centered relationship - beginning with Frank and Sharon Valenti. After Frank returned from Vietnam with devastating injuries, his high school girlfriend married him, but their relationship deteriorated. Frank hung out at the garage where he worked, and she was stuck at home with two kids, angry and isolated. They were close to divorce.

Only when Frank, a Catholic, began attending her church and had a born-again experience, and they began studying the Bible together, did their lives turn around and eventually develop into a deep mutual respect and solid partnership. "On fire for the Lord," they headed to Virginia so Frank could become a preacher. Returning to Worcester, Mass., he founded Shawmut River, and she became a guiding light of its Christian school.

"Spirit and Flesh" is an impressive exercise in cross-cultural understanding, evoking the deep humanity of the fundamentalist community while also depicting its failings. The church wasn't immune from the troubles of the world: divorce, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, gossip, and bitter factionalism. Eventually, the Valentis themselves were forced to move on. (In 2001, Ault visited them in Florida, where Frank had become an inventor and small businessman after failing to obtain a pastoral appointment due to his daughter's out-of-wedlock pregnancy.)

Ault also traces the history of fundamentalism and its commitment to a particular brand of Christianity, dispensationalism - "an elaborate intellectual scheme for interpreting scripture" that developed in 19th-century England but spread within the US fundamentalist community through the influential Scofield Reference Bible.

"Dispensationalism subsumes all events - past, present and future - under an interpretive scheme ... [that makes] modern historical scholarship and naturalistic explanations of events ... irrelevant," he says.

But because most of this story covers the daily life of a church in the '80s, little attention is given to the more recent impact of the Christian Right on US society, or the growing implications of dispensationalism for Americans' view of the world.

The author, who has taught at Harvard University and Smith College, has devoted his efforts in recent years to producing documentaries. Given this extraordinary book, one can only hope that, among other projects, he might direct his remarkable powers of observation and empathy toward a fundamentalist church of the 21st century.

Jane Lampman writes about religion for the Monitor.

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