Friday, April 10, 2009

Spirit and Flesh

James Ault’s Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church is a book by a sociologist about his study of a fundamentalist Baptist church. A study which became the basis for an award-winning documentary, Born Again.

It is a very personal book. Ault’s reactions and experiences are at the centre of the narrative. It is also a very observant and humane book. Ault genuinely seeks to understand—and comes to appreciate—the perspective of the fundamentalist Christians he is studying. The congregation of a small, new Baptist church in New England founded by a Pastor of Italian Catholic background.

The book is not only a product of about three years of fieldwork and then film-making the mid 1980s, but years of thought, research and subsequent contact since. On the way through Ault (the son of a Methodist Bishop) became a Christian, though of an Episcopalian rather than fundamentalist or Baptist variety.

The book is an excellent insight into fundamentalism in the US; its history, reach and staying power. Outsiders typically think of fundamentalism as being megachurches and televangelists. As Ault makes very clear, its real backbone is a mass of small churches across the US. Whose members are likely to be quite dubious about the televangelists. And have little contact with (and may not even have heard of) organizations such as Moral Majority (p.118).
By a mixture of reportage and analysis, Ault develops an understanding of the attractions of fundamentalism, how it works, how it arises from (and shapes) the lives of believers. Part of the way he does this is to contrast it with the outlook of academics—his world—explaining how and why academics and other urban professionals persistently and systematically misunderstand what is going on.

Ault is particularly good at teasing out the hidden consistencies behind apparent contradictions. Where the glib response is to note that folk who are against abortion are also often in favour of military spending and capital punishment and yell “hypocrisy!” and engage in some belittling reductionism, Ault sees it as arising out of a sense of duty natural to lives lived of and conceived as reciprocal duties within family networks incorporating a very strong ethic of personal responsibility (pp101-2). Similarly with their opposition to (government) welfare (pp99ff) while their own lives are pervaded by acts of charity and support.

While Biblical notions of the husband as the head of the family are accepted, so is the underlying ethic of reciprocity. Indeed, the latter seems to win whenever there is a clash. Ault is very good at teasing out how much Second Wave feminism—with its emphasis on women having careers, being independent and its critique of gender roles—comes across to women whose lives are lived in extended family networks (themselves based on child-rearing) as a systematic attack on them and their lives (pp 91ff, 322ff). A perspective shared across classes (p.325). And that a very oral and talk-oriented culture of extended kin networks provides many ways for women to powerfully influence what goes on (pp 317ff). Pastor Valenti himself notes that his congregation grew mainly by attracting women who then bring their families (p.381n).

Academic problems
One of the attractions of the book for me is that Ault is very perceptive about the failures of contemporary academic culture—failures that get in the way of its prime duties: pedagogy and scholarship. What Ault brings out particularly clearly is how the very different life patterns, family and friendship networks of academics and urban professionals (such as journalists and commentators) lead them to see things in particular ways and not understand how very particular their viewpoints are.

I had thought about the career path of academics—individualist and transnational while involving self-selection (what makes me fit in) and peer selection (where “soundness” as a criteria for employment easily shades into conformity). Ault notes warnings that admitting he had become a Christian would be problematic for academic colleagues, pp 338-9).

I had also thought about the mental universe of academics—concerned with the notional, the world of abstract intentions (which Ault also discusses, pp 330-1). Hence criticism of institutions sanctified by such good intentions (welfare, unions, wage regulation, multiculturalism) is taken as to be a malignant denial of said intentions—being a marker of adherence to such intentions being such institutions’ primary virtue—and support for institutions which are not deemed to be conveyors of good intentions (markets, private property, armed forces, police, prisons) is damned as showing malignant intentions. Hence also clashes in perspective between those for whom crime is naturally viewed in terms of social place and general causes as against the more common view of crime as things specific individuals do for which they are responsible.

I had not thought about the family and friendship networks of academics as a factor. Ault points out that academics in particular simply do not live lives embedded in kin networks beyond immediate family and certainly do not work in family-based enterprises. Yet such networks still pervade much of American social life, particularly in small towns. And are almost completely not noticed by academics, still less considered in explaining outlooks and behaviour (pp 112-3, p392n). Conservative America typically lives in dense and integrated networks, quite unlike the more fragmented lives of academics and urban professionals (pp 190-1) Yet, as Ault explains at length throughout the book, such lived experience is quite fundamental to explaining the outlooks of conservative America and, in particular, the perspectives of fundamentalist and evangelical America.

This lack of understanding also leads academics to be regularly surprised by what the society around throws up: most notoriously, the rise of the religious right (p.341). And, one can add, the strength and resurgence of religious belief and religious politics generally.

Ault explains well how very basic differences in premises and assumptions can produce resentment and division. Things one group take completely for granted can be grounds for malignant misunderstanding (p.328). The conservative religious America lives in a world of moral absolutes so discussion that is presumed on there not being any such immediately makes them feel excluded. These differences also leads to folk literally not hearing what each other are saying, since their remarks are interpreted in the hearer’s context rather than the utterer’s (pp 66, 104ff). As Ault notes:
The experience of being judged intolerant by someone who denies your own values while implicitly imposing her own is just one among many sources of resentment that routinely undermine trust and civility (p.329).
Liberal/progressivist “tolerance” notoriously does not extend to being tolerant of conservatives, particularly religious conservatives (pp 368, 401n). Which, of course, just makes conservatives feel righteous in their denunciation and contempt for (US) liberals.

Ault is also very informative on the way tradition can be a way of managing change. Slows shifts contained within reassuring continuities where tradition is a collective possession operating through particular cases (pp 208ff) and change is slow and disguised (p.213). (And therefore, of course, made more manageable and palatable.)

More generally, people can count more than principles (pp 190ff). So divorce is thundered against in abstract but accepted as an understandable solution to particular problems since everything is embedded in the particular (pp 196ff). Hence also different theologies can lead to similar outlooks since they processed through similar life experiences (pp 202ff). Indeed, the Bible was typically understood through such experiences (p.211).

Ault uses attitudes to homosexuality as a bit of a touchstone, since it is clearly something that the fundamentalists strongly reject. A world of firm differences in social roles by gender is one threatened by homosexuality which so transgresses the assumed rules of the game (pp 248-9). Which does not stop them being fond of a gay relative or genuinely friendly with a local gay couple (p.342).

I found Spirit and Flesh an engaging and enlightening book, full of information and insight. (Including in the endnotes, which one needs to read to get the full benefit.) For getting inside the social and mental world of conservative religious America and making it more understandable, it is excellent. In much the same way as The Voices of Morebath conveyed so much more about both late Medieval Christianity and the Reformation than any other book I come across.

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