Review: Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith, by Timothy Beal
Perhaps you take to the road with the explicit aim of […] discovering the world beyond your world. But what you end up discovering may be something more profoundly transformative and re-creative: yourself beyond yourself, in other words, self-transcendence.
Is that quote word soup? I loved it the first time I read it, but reading it again now I’m not sure. Let’s move on.
Timothy Beal, a professor of religious studies, spent the summer of 2002 taking his family on a road trip tour in a motor home of ten roadside religious attractions, mostly on the East Coast and mildly verging into the Midwest and the South. They include the Noah’s Ark being rebuilt in Frostburg, Maryland; the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando; Golgotha Fun Park (quite the misnomer, as he shows); the World’s Largest Ten Commandments in North Carolina; and the Precious Moments Inspiration Park in Carthage, Missouri.
This was a Nonfiction November recommendation from Christopher @ Plucked From the Stacks, who, if you’re not following, remedy that immediately. He finds the most unusual, interesting, never-see-them-anywhere-else nonfiction titles. I don’t know how he does it but his recommendations are magical.
So I figured I would like this one, but I underestimated how much. Also because Beal is married to a Presbyterian minister and has a background in evangelical Christianity, and I know as much as I encourage others to read opposing views, I can’t force myself to choke down any more Christianity in this life. I was hoping for a book that teases or pokes fun at these interstate experiences instead of validating the sometimes warped view of religion and its role that they take, but it does neither.
Beal writes in his eloquent and excellent introduction about how he came to his own particular worldview, including leaving a more extreme Christian group, and his work teaching religious theory while insisting on asking questions and interrogating beliefs. YES! He lays out his reasoning so well, and beautifully achieves what so many would either shoot past or fall short of — a kindness and openness to what meaning these places hold, including contributions as outsider art and especially within that particularly American tradition of long highways dotted with roadside wonderments (“Surely there’s nothing more familiar to the American landscape than highways and religion”), and uses humor without condescension.
Even his criticisms, of some of the more extreme and unyielding organizations behind certain sights, like the Holy Land Experience with its mission of converting Jews (ugh), are tempered with explanations of what history and beliefs have led to them. He doesn’t allow them off the hook (although I would’ve liked a bit more about those threatening highway signs promising eternal burning hellfire, frequently misspelled — he dots the narrative with them, including some repurposed appliances, but doesn’t look too deeply at this bizarre phenomenon) but the purpose isn’t to litigate but to observe what the attractions consist of and what message they convey.
And that’s what this book does so beautifully — Beal becomes like a documentary’s camera, describing and explaining exactly what it’s like to see and experience these places, with all the inherent weirdness of trying to recreate ancient lands in modern America, or the tackiness and unreality of it all. (Also with plenty of photos.) Sometimes they’re surprisingly poignant — a lifetime’s work collecting rosaries, for example, and I didn’t know that the doe-eyed, saccharine Precious Moments figurines actually came from a way of coping with tragedy and loss.
Beal strikes the perfect balance between exploration, openness, analysis, and a quiet humor that is never insulting – something that surprised me, because I think I couldn’t have done the same. Good on him.
He interweaves his own thoughts about what faith and belief mean and the different forms they can take, along with more philosophical musings on American ideas of place and space and the long, long tradition of incorporating fantasy elements of the Bible into reality. As a happily cynical atheist I found myself surprised at how adept he was at straddling the line between allowing for the significance of beliefs while acknowledging why they exist and what purpose they serve. He did it so simply and eloquently.
The analysis of place can read a bit academically, only in that it’s clear his background is in academia and the language and specific brand of analysis carries over, not that it’s dry or complex. His take on how these locales represent significant elements of American history, including some darker ones, was fantastic and illuminating:
Rather than growing and adapting in relation to the lands its people colonized, American Christianity chose to import another mythical world — the world of the Bible — and to lay it over the land, re-creating it in the image of its own story world. Which is why there are so many Zions, Bethlehems, Sinais, Canaans, and so on throughout the United States today.
Now please allow me to make this about myself for a moment: I was especially excited to discover this book existed because the unfinished Noah’s Ark alongside Interstate 68 on the cover is in my hometown county, and actually in the town I most strongly associate with religion, because Frostburg was where my mom dragged me to Catholic church and Sunday school for years. These are some especially grim memories, and with the skeleton of the ark — a bit of a local joke — always looming in the background.
Little of external interest happens or comes out of that area of Western Maryland so I thought at first there was another ark being half-heartedly sorta-built somewhere. Imagine my delight that oh no — it’s ours. Beal’s look at its existence and years of stops and starts was fascinating, if way too short. Especially since the ark was actually the catalyst for this entire project. I wish there was more to that visit, but I guess what more is there besides the story behind its incompletion and the “vision” that led to it. And something I never knew, despite spending half my life there: the guy behind it, a pastor who had visions of Noah and the ark, is also a “healer” and some people claim to have been healed from merely stepping on the grounds of unfinished Noah’s ark. Oh what a world.
I would’ve liked more – each chapter is fairly brief when it seems like there was so much more potential, especially knowing what he’s capable of in blending humor, history, parsing reality from myth and with a keen and entertaining observational eye on top of it all. Still, it’s a sensitive, smart, and highly entertaining look at a fascinatingly bizarre aspect of American Christian culture.
In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith
by Timothy Beal
published 2005 by Beacon Press