[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Roadside Religion': Cross Country

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'Roadside Religion': Cross Country
New York Times Book Review, 5.6.5
[First chapter appended.]

    In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith.
    By Timothy K. Beal.
    Illustrated. 216 pp. Beacon Press. $24.95.


    TIMOTHY K. BEAL and his wife, Clover, share a conservative,
    evangelical Christian upbringing from which they eventually parted
    ways, he to become a definitively open-minded professor of religion at
    Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and she to become an
    ordained Presbyterian minister. In 2002, Beal tells us in ''Roadside
    Religion,'' they rented a decrepit motor home, and with their
    children, Seth and Sophie, set out to investigate the largely
    Protestant pilgrimage sites that dot the landscapes of rural America.

    Beal is an empathetic tourist. His wife and children cower in their
    motor home at Cross Garden in Prattville, Ala., trying not to look out
    at a vista of rough wooden crosses and abandoned household appliances
    bearing dire admonitions (a rusting refrigerator cautions, ''In Hell
    From Sex Sex''), but he approaches the modest house at the center of
    this labyrinth for a little visit with its visionary proprietor, Bill
    Rice, and his wife, Marzell. Rice sees himself as a new Noah, called
    by God to build Cross Garden as a warning to a world gone, almost
    literally, to hell; he and his family, knowing that they are saved,
    just want to help. It would be easy for most of us to get cynical, or
    maybe scared, at about this point. Beal, enthralled by this weirdness,
    responds by going back to the motor home to persuade his wife and
    still apprehensive children to come along to be introduced.

    Noah is around a lot. His ark is being rebuilt on a grand scale in
    Frostburg, Md., by Richard Greene, founder of God's Ark of Safety
    Ministries and a professed healer who also claims curative power for
    the land on which the skeleton of the ark stands. His plans, Pastor
    Greene explains, come to him in dreams. Noah's ark is also the second
    hole at Golgotha Fun Park, the wonderfully named miniature golf
    course, now in disrepair, in Cave City, Ky., and the ninth hole at the
    54-hole biblical mini-golf course at the Lexington Ice Center and
    Sports Complex in Lexington, Ky. It is impossible not to be reminded
    of the motto of the Christian school to which Bart Simpson was briefly
    sentenced: ''We put the fun in fundamentalism.''

    Beal likes the handmade and personal (think of Howard Finster's
    Paradise Gardens, near Summerville, Ga., with its painted sermons) and
    loses patience only with the Holy Land Experience, another vast,
    expensive Orlando, Fla., theme park. This one was developed by the
    Rev. Marvin J. Rosenthal (reared a Conservative Jew and converted to
    conservative Christianity) to promote his own End Times ideology.

    SINCERITY counts for a lot, even in an organization as slick as the
    Precious Moments Inspiration Park in Carthage, Mo., a garden and
    chapel built in the 1980's by Sam Butcher, the sculptor of the
    sentimental, big-headed child figurines that memorialize, well,
    precious moments. It is touching that Butcher built a chapel in memory
    of his son, Philip, who was killed in an automobile accident, and it
    is admirable that he himself was inspired by the Sistine Chapel. But
    it seems more than somewhat unsettling that, with the exception of
    Jesus, none of the figures in Butcher's paintings is of mature years,
    and even the lamented Philip, who died at the age of 27, is shown as a
    little boy, being welcomed into heaven by baby angels. But let Beal
    have the last word: ''The place completely disarmed me with its
    simple, honest, precious expression of childlike suffering, loss and
    hope for healing.''

    In his introduction, Beal notes that his daughter, Sophie, has said
    that what he likes to do ''is make creepy things interesting.'' Smart

    Sarah Ferrell is the associate editor of The New York Times's
    Travel magazine.


First chapter: 'Roadside Religion'


    Our twenty-nine-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 mid-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


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


    In the ditch near our motor home, a rust brown fridge leaned back in
    the brush as if better to display its message:


    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 eleven-acre collage
    of shouting crosses and junked appliances that they call Cross Garden.

    My wife, Clover, and our two kids, Sophie, eleven, and Seth, seven,
    had decided to wait in the motor home while I talked with Bill and
    Marzell about their unusual horticulture. I had been in the house with
    them for a couple hours, and as Clover told me later, the motor home's
    air conditioner, powered by a gas generator, had begun to fail in the
    midday Alabama heat. The propane-operated fridge wasn't staying cold,
    and the hot dogs and fruit inside were beginning to compost. What's
    more, the water supply had run out. That was my fault. In our rush to
    leave Atlanta that morning, I had neglected to refill the water tank.

    Sophie was relaxing on the bed, her belly full of Cocoa Puffs. Clover
    sat on the couch, trying to avoid the view of Cross Garden, flipping
    distractedly through the pages of a picture book she'd been reading
    with Seth. Seth had taken a break from reading to go to the
    "bathroom," a tiny toileted closet just big enough to sit down, stand
    up, and turn around in. Forgetting that the water tank was empty, he
    pressed the "flush" button. Clover heard the sputtering and whirring
    of the electric pump as it strained to draw the last drops from the
    tank. Then she heard Seth's bloodcurdling cry, "Help! Mom! It's
    spraying at me!" She looked up from the book and out the window. HELL
    IS HOT HOT HOT. So it is. And there was my family, parked on the
    shoulder of what appeared to be one of its innermost circles.

    How did we get there?

    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 DC 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 fifty
    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 nowaday 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, Washington, to Precious Moments Inspiration Park in
    Carthage, Missouri, to The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida. 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 not only discovered new dimensions of
    the American religious landscape, but I also discovered new religious
    dimensions of my family and myself. Indeed, 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

    Outsider Religion

    If you've logged more than a hundred 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?" 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. You want to know, What's the story?

    That's what this book is about. Each chapter focuses on one particular
    attraction, telling the story of my visit there in words and pictures,
    reflecting on the meaning of the place as an expression of religious
    imagination and experience. In each case, I want to discover not only
    what it is, but who is behind it and why they did it. I want to
    discover what the story is. Although there's much humor and novelty to
    enjoy in the stories I tell about these places and the people who
    create them, I take care to avoid the temptation to make fun or
    condescend. I want to 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 here. 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. These
    places are not likely to appear as illustrations in the next edition
    of Huston Smith's bestselling textbook, The World's Religions. And
    yet, beyond 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, or art brut, was identified by
    its earliest appreciators especially with children and adults who
    suffered from mental illnesses that isolated them from mainstream ways
    of seeing and artistic expression. While the term has expanded to
    include the works of many who operate outside the formal institutions
    and values of the professional art world, and while new terms have
    been coined to indicate important nuances (e.g. "self-taught" and
    "vernacular"), 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 these 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 the places explored in this book 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 recreate 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."

    Making Space

    In many respects, the places we visit in this book are as unique as
    the individuals who have created them. Yet I do believe that there are
    certain family resemblances among them. Above all, each is
    fundamentally about creating sacred space.

    What do I mean by that? In particular, what do I mean by "sacred"?
    Drawn from the Latin sacer, the most basic meaning of "sacred" is "set
    apart." But what sets it apart as such? Different theorists of
    religion give very different answers. For Émile Durkheim, the answer
    was sociological: the sacred is that which symbolizes and indeed
    creates the social and moral coherence of the community. It is, in
    other words, that which a social group (a clan, a church) sets apart
    to represent and create unity. For others, the answer is
    phenomenological, that is, it's a matter of understanding how the
    sacred is perceived and experienced as such. French philosopher
    Georges Bataille, for example, described the sacred as that which is
    experienced as radical otherness, representing a realm (real or
    imaginary) of animal intimacy that threatens to annihilate the social
    and symbolic order in a holy conflagration; as such it is both
    alluring and terrifying, and religion's job is to mediate between it
    and the established order of things. For historian of religion Mircea
    Eliade, too, the sacred is wholly other, but he focuses on the
    religious person's experience of it as an experience of transcendence
    that serves to orient her within a sacred cosmic order.

    In the context of this book, we focus on the sacred primarily in the
    phenomenological sense, as that which is set apart on account of its
    relation to the transcendent-that is, in most cases we encounter here,
    God. So, when I say that each of the places we explore in this book is
    fundamentally about creating sacred space, I mean that each works to
    create a space that is set apart in a way that orients it toward and
    opens it to divine transcendence. Founded on, inspired by, and
    organized around deeply personal religious experiences, each of these
    places is a very concrete manifestation of the desire to create a
    place that is set apart from ordinary space, from the homogeneity of
    everyday life, an otherworldly realm governed by rules "other" than
    those of normal profane space.

    The means by which spaces are set apart as sacred vary. Many use
    boundaries such as walls or wooded areas that give a sense of
    enclosure, cutting our senses off from the sights and sounds of the
    world outside. Some play with size, creating miniatures or
    enlargements that defy perceptual and conceptual normality, giving us
    the feeling that we are in an "other" fantasy world or dream space in
    which normal scales don't apply. Similarly, some use artificial
    nature, creating flowers, plants, and animals out of concrete, metal,
    marbles, and other cultural discards. Blurring the line between nature
    and artifice, these elements add to the sense of otherworldliness.
    Some employ what we might call "religious re-creation," making
    miniature or full-size replicas of sacred spaces from other parts of
    the world (the Jerusalem Temple, the Wilderness Tabernacle, the Dome
    of the Rock, St. Peter's Basilica) or from the mythological worlds of
    ancient scriptures (Noah's Ark, the Tower of Babel). Some of these go
    so far as to create whole microcosms of well-known sacred spaces
    (Rome, Jerusalem, or the entire "land of the Bible"). Some employ all
    of these strategies. In any case, the aim-which may be more or less
    conscious -is to set the space apart from its surroundings, making it
    a holy world unto itself, governed by its own rules, which are "other"
    than those of profane space.

    As creations of sacred space, the roadside religious spectacles we
    explore in this book are in some respects not so different from the
    more mainstream, "insider" religious 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 collectively. 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. There, the sacred is the social, in the
    Durkheimian sense we discussed earlier. . . .

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