[Paleopsych] CHE: Seeking Out Lives of Faith, in All Their Awesome Absurdity

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Seeking Out Lives of Faith, in All Their Awesome Absurdity
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.15

[This is a very excellent article!]


    Our 29-foot rented motor home rested precariously on the shoulder of a
    county road in the low rolling hills of southern Alabama, just outside
    the town of Prattville. It was midday in June, and the sun was beating
    down through a cloudless sky. The view from the motor home's "family
    room" window: thousands of makeshift wooden crosses leaning this way
    and that. Some were only a couple feet high, hastily slapped together
    from scrap wood. Others, towering from a crumbling bluff above the
    road, were taller than telephone poles. Most of them bore messages,
    brushed on in red or black or white capital letters:


    Among the crosses were scrap wood and rusty metal boxes bearing
    similar proclamations and warnings:


    A few yards farther up the road, a makeshift row of old metal housings
    from air-conditioning window units lined a dirt driveway like junkyard
    luminarias, each cleverly conveying a message with a refrigeration


    These AC luminarias led the way to the tiny ranch-style home of Bill
    and Marzell Rice, creators and proprietors of this 11-acre collage of
    shouting crosses and junked appliances that they call Cross Garden.

    My wife, Clover, and our two kids, Sophie, 11, and Seth, 7, had
    decided to wait in the motor home while I talked with Bill and Marzell
    about their unusual horticulture. Although we'd been on the road for
    less than two weeks at that point, our voyage into the strange and
    sometimes wonderful religious worlds of roadside America had really
    begun several months earlier, on another road trip. We were driving
    from Washington to Cleveland through the Appalachian highlands of
    northwestern Maryland on Interstate 68. As we crested a rolling hill
    just outside the quaint old town of Frostburg, we saw what initially
    looked like a steel-girder framework for a four-floor parking garage
    standing alone in a grassy field about 50 yards from the highway. In
    front of it was a large blue sign:


    A multilevel parking garage in such a place as this would have been
    unusual enough. But Noah's Ark? We whizzed past the ark-in-progress
    that day, but I knew I'd be back to learn more about this project and
    its Noah.

    I started keeping a list of roadside religious attractions throughout
    the country. Soon that list had become an itinerary for a new research
    project, a roadside approach to discovering religion in America. Six
    months later, in the summer of 2002, I loaded my family into a rented
    motor home and hit the rural highways of the Bible Belt on an initial
    voyage that included visits to places like Golgotha Fun Park, the
    World's Largest Ten Commandments, Paradise Gardens, Ave Maria Grotto,
    Holy Land USA, and, yes, Cross Garden.

    Over the next year, I made pilgrimages to many other roadside
    religious attractions throughout the United States, from the World's
    Largest Rosary Collection, in Skamania County, Wash., to Precious
    Moments Inspiration Park, in Carthage, Mo., to the Holy Land
    Experience, in Orlando, Fla. I took notes, took pictures, took video,
    talked with the creators, talked with visitors, talked with Clover and
    the kids.

    In the course of these travels in the novel, often strange, sometimes
    disturbing worlds of roadside religion, I discovered not only new
    dimensions of the American religious landscape, but also new religious
    dimensions of my family and myself. In the course of these travels,
    what began as a research agenda, albeit a novel one, has become a much
    more personal, dare I say religious, project, as much about my own
    complex, often ambivalent, relationship to the life of faith as it is
    about the places and people we visited.

    If you've logged more than 100 miles of rural American highway in your
    life, you've probably seen the signs for religious attractions,
    beckoning you to get off at the next exit and experience whatever it
    is for yourself: the world's tallest Jesus or teariest Blessed Virgin
    Mary, replicas of the Wilderness Tabernacle or empty tomb,
    re-creations of Jerusalem, Rome, paradise, hell. When you drive by
    such outrageous religious spectacles, your first reaction is likely to
    be "What?!?," blurted out in a burst of laughter. But if you let the
    place linger in your mind a little longer than it takes to disappear
    in your rearview mirror, other more interesting questions arise.
    Questions like: Who did this? Who has the chutzpah in this day and age
    to do something like that on the side of a road? And why? What drives
    such a person? What desires? What visions? What spirits or demons,
    entrepreneurial and otherwise? In other words, you want to understand.

    I take these places seriously as unique expressions of religious
    imagination and unique testimonials to the varieties of religious
    experience in America. Granted, this is not the usual approach to
    studying religion. The usual approach involves delving into a
    religious tradition's normative scriptures and doctrines, or focusing
    on established religious institutions and ritual practices. That's not
    what I'm doing in my research. On the contrary, I'm focusing on places
    that most people -- religious people and religion scholars alike
    -- would consider aberrant forms of religious expression.

    Although many of these places draw inspiration from the Bible, for
    example, their uses of it are far from normative or illustrative of
    the ways biblical interpretation functions within any religious
    mainstream. Few would consider writing the Ten Commandments in
    five-foot-tall concrete letters on the side of a mountain, or using
    miniature golf to tell the story of creation, or fabricating Noah's
    Ark from steel girders, to be exemplary biblical interpretation. And
    yet, aside from the sheer novelty of such excursions beyond the
    mainstreams of religious life, I find that these places reveal much
    about the American religious landscape. Indeed, I believe that
    religion is often most fascinating, and most revealing, where it's
    least expected.

    In the art world, "outsider art" generally refers to the work of
    artists without formal training who stand outside the cultural norms
    of "fine art" schools, museums, and galleries. Bearing little or no
    relation to trends and developments in contemporary artistic
    techniques and subjects, outsider art continues to be appreciated
    above all as a form of creativity that finds expression on the social
    and conceptual fringes of experience.

    In a similar sense, I suggest we think of roadside religious
    spectacles as works of "outsider religion." Just as the highly
    individual works of outsider art can often powerfully reveal the
    breadth and depth of human creativity and imagination in very local,
    particular forms, so these religious places can reveal the breadth and
    depth of human religious experience and expression. Paradoxically, it
    is precisely in their marginality that they open avenues for exploring
    themes and issues that are central to American religious life, such as
    pilgrimage, the nostalgia for lost origins, the desire to re-create
    sacred time and space, creativity as religious devotion,
    apocalypticism, spectacle, exile, and the relation between religious
    vision and social marginality. So "outsider religion" becomes a way of
    illuminating "insider religion."

    Roadside religious spectacles are in some respects not so different
    from the more mainstream spaces of temples, churches, mosques,
    synagogues, memorials, and monasteries. They too work to create an
    experience of being set apart, in another world. They too are usually
    founded on, inspired by, and organized around some revelation or
    similar original religious experience -- a miracle, a vision, or the
    giving of a new law, for example. And they too are created to host the
    religious experiences of those who enter, individually and

    The differences come into play with regard to the symbolic meanings of
    the elements themselves. In insider religious spaces, such meanings
    are held in common, taken for granted as part of a shared communal
    repertoire of words and images and spatial boundaries. In outsider
    religious spaces, on the other hand, such meanings are more personal,
    located in the particular and peculiar experiences and beliefs and
    practices of the individual responsible for each place. Although we
    are welcomed into that space, hosted by it, and although we are aware
    that the space is in some sense a form of expression and
    communication, its content, its meaning, remain in very profound ways
    ultimately inaccessible, strange, foreign.

    Indeed, these places reflect deep tensions between, on the one hand,
    the highly personal, even private experiences and meanings of their
    creators, and, on the other hand, the desire to share those
    experiences in a very public way. Each is a very outward, public
    expression of a very inward, private religious life. Each is a
    creative public response to a profoundly life-changing personal
    experience. There's something about that experience that won't let go,
    that insists on being communicated, translated to others in
    spectacular form.

    In some cases, the process of "going public" that results in such
    roadside religious attractions can be very painful. As such, they are
    difficult to make sense of. On the one hand, they are highly
    individual and particular. They are expressions of personality and, in
    some sense, untranslatable experience. On the other hand, they are
    highly social. They are gestures of invitation and forms of
    communication to others. In some cases, such as Howard Finster's
    Paradise Gardens, in Summerville, Ga., they beget new forms of
    religious community.

    These places are as deeply personal as they are public. At the
    creative heart and soul of each is a religious imagination trying to
    give outward form to inner experience. It's no coincidence that most
    of these roadside religious spectacles are also private homes. In one
    sense, this is simply a practical matter: One starts where one is, and
    most of these people aren't rich or fund-raising-savvy enough even to
    consider other locations. But I think there's more to it than that.
    What is home, after all? An extension of myself, a shelter from the
    storm, a piece of private property, a locus of intimacy and secrets.
    But also a public expression of myself, reflecting on me and my
    family, a place of hospitality, of welcoming strangers, an address
    where people can find me. Home is both private and public, individual
    and social. So, too, the roadside religious attractions.

    It is above all this outrageous gesture of self-exposure, this desire
    to communicate a very personal, perhaps incommunicable religious
    experience in such a public, even spectacular way that I find so
    disarming. It's an invitation to relationship, with me and anyone else
    who visits. That I didn't anticipate, and it has made all the

    I tell my students that the study of religion is fundamentally about
    making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. It's about
    encountering religious ideas, practices, traditions, and institutions
    that initially appear to us as "other," disturbingly foreign, and
    coming to a point where we understand how they can make sense given a
    certain set of circumstances. Such work requires not only critical
    rigor and tenacity in order to elaborate those circumstances; it also
    requires imagination in order to put oneself in another's situation.
    Indeed, understanding is always in some sense about coming to see how
    something could make sense, could be true and meaningful, within a
    certain context, according to certain conditions, according to a
    certain story.

    We might think of understanding as an act of narrative imagination.
    It's about trying to bridge otherness by finding my way into the
    other's story. But I can never understand completely. I can never
    become the other I wish to understand. To presume that I can is
    dangerous, because then I risk reducing the other, incommensurably
    rich in particularity, complexity, and wonderful strangeness, to
    myself. And that is a form of violence. It kills the face of the
    other. Yet in my effort to imagine otherness, to let the other into
    myself, to understand, I end up becoming other to myself. I become
    less comfortable in my own skin. My own familiar begins to seem
    strange. I become a stranger to myself. Which is why I say that the
    study of religion is about making the strange familiar and the
    familiar strange. In the effort to make the strange familiar, the
    familiar becomes less familiar.

    I experienced this dynamic of religious understanding on many
    occasions in the course of my travels. Our family visit to Cross
    Garden is a good example. As I wandered around those 11 acres of
    fire-and-brimstone-preaching crosses and apocalyptic appliances, my
    initial experience was an irreducible mix of amusement and monumental
    horror. On the one hand, focusing on the crudely made individual
    pieces with their often ironic messages, I wanted to laugh out loud.
    On the other hand, enveloped in the total world that these individual
    pieces come together to create, I felt an overwhelming desire to climb
    into the motor home's captain chair and get the hell out of there.

    In both senses, in relation to the individual objects and to the total
    experience of the place, Cross Garden was other, foreign, profoundly
    strange. But as I talked with Bill and Marzell Rice and got to know
    their story, my feeling about the place, and them, began to change. I
    began to feel at home in their world. I came to recognize this place
    as an expression of profound religious experience. Not that I
    identified with their experience completely, but I could hear the
    story, get into it, see how it could be true, and from within that
    story, see Cross Garden as a genuine expression of it. For them it's
    not a scary place but a safe place, a nest, an ark in the storm. So as
    Bill and Marzell welcomed me into their family room and their family
    story, the strangeness of Cross Garden became less strange.

    By the end of our conversation, Bill was asking me about my own family
    and our story. He loved children, and when he learned that Clover and
    the kids were waiting for me in the motor home across the road, he
    begged me to invite them over. I trotted across the cross-strewn yard
    and over to the motor home to fetch them. "Bill wants to meet you," I
    said as I peeked in through the screen door. "What do you say?" The
    kids glanced anxiously at each other, then at me and Clover, then out
    the window, then back at each other, red-faced and sweaty from being
    holed up in the motor home for hours. "Really? Do we have to?"

    As we walked across the road, past the high bluff of crosses and into
    the front yard, Bill rolled out in his electric scooter chair to greet
    us, Marzell close behind. Smiles beamed from their faces. As Clover
    and the kids warmly but (I could see) anxiously approached to shake
    Bill's hand, I began to realize that in the process of making the Rice
    family's strangeness more familiar to me, I had become a little
    strange in relation to my own familiars. I found myself somewhere
    between Bill and Marzell and my own family. And I found myself in the
    role of mediator, but with no idea how to mediate other than to tell
    the whole story as the Rices had told it to me. I did so later, but at
    that moment it was impossible.

    This, then, is a story about the strange familiar, and the familiar
    strange. And what more remarkable combinations of the strange and the
    familiar could there be than such roadside religious attractions?
    Surely there's nothing more familiar to the American landscape than
    highways and religion. And nothing could be stranger than a roadside
    attraction like Cross Garden or a life-size Noah's Ark in progress.
    What better places to discover the familiar in the strange, and vice

    Every road trip carries with it the possibility of renewal. As you
    break from the familiar commute and journey into terra incognita, that
    "unknown territory" where be monsters, and angels, and where it's
    sometimes hard to tell which is which, you open yourself to receiving
    an unexpected blessing, a moment of revelation that might bring new
    life. Perhaps you take to the road with the explicit aim of wresting
    such a blessing by 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,

    What desire for renewal or transcendence, what resurrection hope, what
    spirit has driven me into the religious terra incognita of roadside
    America? I don't think I could have answered that question when I
    began this project. But as I look back now, I can see that I've been
    motivated by something more than my admitted fascination with
    religious kitsch, and something more than my intellectual interest in
    making sense of these places as expressions of lived religion worth
    our attention. On a personal level, I've been driven by a desire to
    venture beyond the secure borders of my own self-assured cynicism in
    order to encounter faith in all its awesome absurdity.

    Faith, as the New Testament's letter to the Hebrews puts it, is "the
    substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." It is
    the religious antithesis of cynicism, which, for all its clever love
    of irony and detached social commentary, is also a form of
    self-protection against risking belief in anything uncertain. Faith is
    about devoting oneself, body and mind, to that which is not evidently
    there, visible, verifiable, but in which one hopes and believes
    without the possibility of certainty. It's a divine madness whose hope
    comes, as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously put it, "by
    virtue of the absurd."

    Kierkegaard was endlessly fascinated by the madness of Abraham,
    absurdly faithful to God's commands even to the point of sacrificing
    his beloved son. There's something likewise endlessly fascinating to
    me about the madness of someone who is compelled to spend a lifetime
    giving form to his vision of a life-size Noah's Ark on a mountaintop,
    or re-creating the Holy Land in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the eyes
    of the world, these are indeed works of faith whose only virtue is
    absurdity. But by the same token I find them utterly, disarmingly
    sincere, without the slightest hint of irony. No knowing winks, no
    tongues in cheeks. And so I find myself compelled to peek over the
    fences of cynicism and ironic detachment, fences that too often
    enclose my daily commute through this world, in hopes of catching a
    glimpse of something of the substance of faith.

    Not that I'm entirely removed from the life of faith. I'm no pure
    cynic when it comes to religion. But my relationship to my own
    religious tradition is as tentative and complicated as it is abiding
    and deep.

    I was raised in two worlds that appear to most to be mutually
    exclusive. The first is that white suburban American world of
    Generation X, baptized in a shared popular-media culture and
    characterized above all by a general skepticism regarding the value of
    working within established systems, political and religious alike, as
    well as by a general feeling of powerlessness to find other ways of
    working for change in the world.

    But I also grew up with a clear religious identity within a particular
    religious culture, namely conservative evangelicalism. And that has
    made all the difference. While steeped in the Gen X pop culture -- Sex
    Pistols and Talking Heads, Watergate and the cold war, Gilligan's
    Island and The Love Boat, Pop Rocks and Maui wowie -- my childhood and
    teen years were also pervaded by family prayers before meals (even in
    restaurants, much to my sister's and my embarrassment), vacation Bible
    school (at age 6 I won a prize for being the first in my VBS class to
    memorize the names of all the books of the Old Testament),
    Friday-night hymn sings around the piano, high-school youth groups (my
    parents were Young Life leaders), mission trips, the Four Spiritual
    Laws, and that brown spiral songbook with the fish on the cover (you
    either know what I mean or you don't).

    Yet there is considerable distance between me and that particular form
    of Christianity now. I no longer would call myself a conservative
    evangelical -- nor would anyone else call me either or both of those
    terms. I'm sure many conservative evangelicals would hesitate to call
    me a Christian at all. Following a well-worn and well-documented path
    of spiritual development among my peers, I grew alienated from that
    culture and its theology during college.

    That's not to say that I have rejected Christianity or the church
    altogether. Although I can atheist anyone under the table on some
    days, I remain a Christian, and I remain committed to the church,
    albeit a far more progressive, socially and politically radical vision
    of the church than the one I grew up with -- a church that sees the
    work of the Gospel as the very this-worldly work of liberation and
    reconciliation, of sanctifying life, of letting suffering speak, and
    of letting justice roll down like waters. I am a member of a local
    church, and I go with my family nearly every Sunday. Clover is one of
    the ministers (which I suppose makes me a minister's wife), and I
    sincerely believe in her calling to that ministry.

    Moreover, I myself teach Sunday school there. But the way I teach it
    is a far cry from the way it was taught when I was a kid. My aim above
    all is to create a space for us to ask questions, ultimate questions,
    the kind that survive all the answers given them. Preferring Cicero's
    alternative etymology of religion -- not religare, "rebind," but
    relegere, "reread" -- I see it less as a binding system of beliefs or
    set of doctrines than as a process of rereading, re-examining,
    reinterpreting inherited traditions.

    For me the religious life is a communal practice of reading again, of
    opening the book and cracking its binding, of raising new questions
    and creating new meanings in new contexts. My favorite biblical books
    are the ones that do just that -- reread and question inherited
    tradition -- within the canon of Scripture: Job, in which the model of
    faith is a man whose abject suffering makes him desperate and
    disoriented enough to challenge God and the moral order of God's
    creation as attested in the Torah; Ecclesiastes, in which a sage
    wonders whether all that passes as wisdom is nothing but vapor; and
    Esther, which imagines a world much like ours, in which politics are
    driven by insecurity and in which God appears to be altogether absent.
    Above all I want to attend to those places in biblical literature, in
    Christian tradition, and in the life of faith in which our established
    discourse -- our theological answering machine -- breaks down, cracks
    open, and points beyond itself to a wholly other mystery that cannot
    be captured or represented.

    Yet another level of complexity in my religious life grows out of my
    work as a professor and researcher in the academic study of religion
    -- a profession, by the way, in which you'll find a great many
    ex-evangelicals, along with countless other lapsed or disaffected
    religious types. Studying various beliefs, practices, and institutions
    of religions (including my own) from historical and cross-cultural
    perspectives, as social and psychological phenomena, creates within me
    a certain distance from my own religious life. I often find myself
    treating my own religious practices and beliefs as data along with
    those drawn from other sources. Doing so creates an experience of
    self-objectification, something like a lucid dream. And dreaming when
    you know you're dreaming is something very different from just

    No doubt rereading Christian tradition, as I try to do in the church,
    and studying it from academic perspectives, as I try to do in the
    university, are my ways of negotiating and making sense of my own
    inheritance from conservative evangelical Christianity without
    abandoning the religious life altogether. No doubt.

    Some would say that religion is like a raft. For a religion to be
    worth its salt, it has to be seaworthy enough to carry you across
    life's deepest, stormiest, most chaotic waters. And a raft of
    questions, riddled with theological leaks and tears, won't carry you
    very far. Perhaps that's my religion, and I won't realize it until I'm
    in over my head. Or perhaps I feel so securely buoyed by the faith of
    my childhood, the faith of my fathers, the faith of my minister wife,
    that I'm not afraid to peek over the sides of the raft into the abyss.
    And perhaps that's a kind of faith, albeit a borrowed one.

    But it's not the kind of faith that Kierkegaard is talking about. It's
    not the kind of faith that hears God talking. It's not the kind of
    faith that leads you to take your son on a walk up Mount Moriah, or
    build an ark on a mountaintop in Maryland, or plant a garden of
    crosses on a country road in Alabama.

    Not that I want that kind of faith. I don't think I do. But I find it
    strangely compelling in its exuberance, its willingness to risk all,
    its divine madness.

    Timothy K. Beal is a professor of religion and director of the
    Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve
    University. This essay is excerpted from Roadside Religion: In Search
    of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith, to be
    published next month by Beacon Press.

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