Jane Lampman reviewed James Ault's Spirit & Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church (Knopf, 2004)
James Ault, a “ 1960s antiwar radical”, Ivy League sociologist and documentarian—and an atheist—developed a friendship during the 1980s with Frank Valenti, wounded Vietnam veteran turned Baptist fundamentalist preacher. Reviewer Lampman, who writes about religion for the Christian Science Monitor, calls Ault’s account of their relationship “absorbing, groundbreaking and [an] intimate tale of life in a New England Christian congregation.”
Valenti was a graduate of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Bible College and later an officer of the Massachusetts chapter of Moral Majority. Ault describes Valenti’s congregants’ “fear of an outside world that values individualism…The church’s Christian school, for example, refused to send graduates’ transcripts to secular colleges.” But, she writes, he also “breaks through stereotypes to reveal the earnest, often transformative commitments to God within the tight knit community.”
Ault also describes his own return to a non-fundanmentalist version of Christianity. Indeed, he even made a documentary film, ‘Born Again,” which was shown on PBS in 1987.
“Spirit & Flesh” reveals that the congregant’s “deep humanity” did not prevent them from experiencing many of the same problems of other religious and non-religious people: “divorce, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, gossip and bitter factionalism.” In time, the Valentis moved to Florida where he became an inventor and businessman. He could not become a pastor again because of his unmarried daughter’s pregnancy, notes Lampman.
Ault also tracks the history of fundamentalism and its belief in dispensationalism—“an elaborate intellectual scheme for interpreting scripture… [that makes] modern historical scholarship and naturalistic explanations of events…irrelevant.”
Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 2004