“Nothing More Familiar to the American Landscape Than Highways and Religion”

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.

Roadside Religion:
In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith
by Timothy Beal
published 2005 by Beacon Press

14 thoughts on ““Nothing More Familiar to the American Landscape Than Highways and Religion”

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  1. That sounds so so interesting! Do you have any idea if he has any relation to Dav Beal, the husband of Bethany Beal of Girl Defined? It would be so interesting if he was from that conservative sunshiney Christian family and has come out of the cultiness of it to take the objective view you described.

    Or he is entirely unrelated and a talented author nonetheless 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He didn’t mention any relation and I haven’t heard of them, but you’re right, that would be a really interesting connection! I was impressed with his take on leaving that branch of religion and how he seems to have used the experience and knowledge of how it works to encourage students of religious theory to ask the right questions even if they still attribute importance to religious “faith” (he writes this great passage about how faith in other things – our loved ones, etc. can be as meaningful and important as what others call religious faith – I loved how he put this into words!)

      I’d love to hear your take on this one if you get to it, you always have such interesting analysis of these kind of religious-adjacent texts!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Don’t sell yourself short. I’m a big fan of Christopher’s blog for the same reason as I am of your’s…I am guaranteed to see something entirely new to me. (You’ll find it ironic that I’m reading this post while I’m listening to my Sunday online church service😏)

    As someone who became disenchanted with organized religion when I moved to NC (the Bible Belt is a real thing) but not my own spirituality, stories like this one intrigue me. Thank you for an excellent review💜 You make it personal and so clear that this is also the view of an historian. I read every word and I hope this can find its way onto my shelf.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He writes this really lovely bit about how faith can mean many different things to people, not only religious but having to do with our connection to our closest loved ones, for example. It spoke so much to me, and I loved that flexible definition of what faith can be – after the rigidity of organized religion that I felt was forced on me, to read this kind of take on it meant a lot to me! I think you’d enjoy it.

      And thank you for that compliment!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Am relieved to learn that Maryland not in fact chock full of unfinished Arks, just the one. Phew! And how funny you lived near it. I love when a book mentions somewhere I know. The mention of roadside religious attractions reminds of Tiger King and those zoos, also near the highways to attract passing traffic/break up journeys.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was thinking there must be another one somewhere else in the country, we’ve got it chockablock full of so much other batshit religious junk, why wouldn’t we have multiple Noah’s arks? 😂 was the Tiger King a roadside attraction?? I started to watch it to see what the fuss was but couldn’t deal with it, it was SO depressing! But yeah, lots of weird roadside stuff here when so much of the country is crisscrossed by highways and that’s really the easiest way to go most of the time, not like Europe where you can take trains just about anywhere, airports easily accessible by public transport, etc. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the religious billboards when you’ve been here, but they’re both fanatically Christian and very threatening, I remember a few from the last time I was in Florida offering quite grim and graphic perspectives on abortion. This is a very weird place.

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  4. I grew up in a non-religious household. I accept that religion has done good things for people but overall, it’s also done a lot of damage and I tend to shy away from books that paint it in a positive light. This book definitely seems to have a different spin than almost anything else I’ve come across. Good to hear your take.

    I’ll check out Plucked from the Stacks.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s the same for me, although I grew up in a veeeeery religious household. You put it so well, I can accept that it’s done good things for people but I can’t look past the damage of it either. This ended up just being an interesting look at religious history overlaid on aspects of Americana and didn’t put a positive spin on it although it wasn’t overly critical either. I thought it was really well done and just an unusual topic!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I am SO happy that you ended up enjoying this one. It might not be the most recent religion-focused book, but I’ve been thinking about it frequently since reading it, and its continued relevance today is astonishing … I mean, that damn ark still isn’t finished! You’ve somehow captured exactly what I felt while reading this, and I especially love what you wrote at the end about wanting more. While I might not necessarily want to visit these places, I kept wanting to hear more about them and even other unmentioned attractions. It’s one of the few times I’ve really wanted a sequel to a nonfiction book.

    And really, thank you for the shoutout—I’m always amazed by your thoughtful reviews, so to be mentioned in one is a thrill.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks to you for this incredible recommendation!! I’ve been thinking about it so much since finishing it too. It was just so beautifully written and I loved following his trains of thought and his research as well.

      And you’re completely right, it still has so much relevance — that ark is still standing there embarrassedly like, a quarter done? Maybe? It’s a mess! But I think especially in recent years, with the growing loudness of evangelism and extremist Christian groups, I would love to get his updated perspective on some of these areas and attractions. I’m with you, I don’t think I’d actually like to visit them myself, but I did like his framing of some as outsider art. Every bit of it was just so fascinating!

      And I hope I could send some new readers your way, you’re always delighting me with the nonfiction you find and I’m sure so many others would love it as well!

      Liked by 1 person

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