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By Julie Byrne


Does Everyone in This Room Believe in Demons?

A sociologist's surprising encounter with fundamentalism.

A half-dozen years ago, I found myself attending a Tuesday night Bible study at a little southern church of a hundred regulars. I had started attending because I'd caught its members in acts of love and forgiveness that transcended normal niceness. After some personal crises, I needed more love and forgiveness in my life. I had started to trust them.

But at Bible study that night, my trust reached a crossroads. We were talking about a story in the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus casts out evil spirits. Because I was a newcomer, and also because I studied religion for a living, I was in the habit of paying attention and keeping quiet. But as I listened that night, I slowly absorbed the uncomfortable fact that I was sitting in a group of people who were talking about, well, demons.

Finally I couldn't hold back. "Wait a minute," I interrupted. "Does everyone in this room believe in demons?" Their eyes got as wide as mine in the face of such an outlandish question. "Well, sure!" they sputtered. I was stunned. I shut up and listened some more. But privately I thought, if this love thing involves believing in demons, I'm outta here.

As it turned out, my trust survived the night. But the shock of that confrontation between the familiar worldview of my middle-class academic background and the exotic-to-me viewpoint of church members stayed with me.

It's an experience readers can get the easy way, in a new book by James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. And it's a crucial experience, I would say, in a country divided into blues and reds, crudely labeled liberals and conservatives, who not only don't understand each other but increasingly don't know how to understand each other.

A documentary filmmaker and sociologist, Ault spent the mid-1980s and '90s getting to know key members of Shawmut River Baptist Church, a small fundamentalist congregation in working-class Worcester, Massachusetts.1 He attended worship services, Bible studies, prayer breakfasts, ...

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