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Roadside Religion: In Search Of The Sacred, The Strange, And The Substance Of Faith. Timothy K. Beal. Beacon, $24.95. 216 Pages. ISBN 0-8070-1062-6. 2005.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Chapter 1 of Beal's book is reprinted in this issue]

When I was a teenager, riding the back roads and country lanes of rural South Carolina, roadside religion meant pine trees that had warnings painted on them of God's judgment and coming wrath. On the desolate road between Sumter and Columbia, South Carolina, those tree trunks looming out of the darkness with their fluorescent white messages—"Jesus is coming again soon," "Get ready to meet God"—scared the hell out of a teenage boy who, having been raised in a fundamentalist home, was trying out some of the sins that would not make him in any way ready to meet God.

Much like the ragged Christ that haunts the woods of the American South, many strange, disturbing, and sometimes inspiring monuments to the Christian religion haunt the highways and byways of the modern South. Roadside religion no longer consists of those preaching pine trees but of shrines or mini-golf courses built to glorify God, to preach God's judgment and how to avoid it, or to recreate the experience of living during the time of Jesus.

Timothy Beal, an unlikely pilgrim who is the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University, set out with his family in the summer of 2002 to experience and explore works of outsider religious art from Holy Land USA in Bedford County, Virginia, the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Florida, the Golgotha Fun Park mini-golf course in Lexington, Kentucky, to the Precious Moments Inspiration Park in Carthage, Missouri, and Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens in Summerville, Georgia. As he points out, he wanted to discover what inspires people to express their religious faith in such a way and "to venture beyond the secure borders of my own self-assured cynicism in order to encounter faith in all its awesome absurdity" (p. 20).

Part travelogue, part religious history, and part religious memoir, Beal's evenhanded and balanced book provides a glimpse at the ways that these roadside shrines can illumine the religious practices of mainline churches as well as individual piety and religious faith. Beal thinks of these roadside religious attractions as "outsider religion." This outsider status, however, confers upon them a particular kind of power:

Just as the highly individual work 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" (p. 7).



At every attraction he visits, Beal carefully listens to and records the words of the creators of these spaces. Although he often approaches a site with skepticism, he almost always leaves the sites with a feeling of respect for those who have built them.

One of the places he visits is Bill Rice's Cross Gardens (a.k.a. Rice's Crossgarden and House of Crosses) on County Road 86 near Prattville, Alabama. On each side of the road there are old appliances with writing on them and many crosses that bear messages such as: READ THE BIBLE, HYPOCRITES, YOU WILL DIE, HELL HELL HELL HOT HOT, RICH MAN IN HELL REPENT. Beal observes: "A religious stream of consciousness seemed to be running through this garden, welling up from some undetermined, unconscious source of creativity. It was above all the desire to follow that stream that kept me from running back to the motor home and hitting the road" (p. 121). Rice, who put up the first crosses in the garden in 1977, tells Beal that God almost always gives him visions at night of what to build. Rice says that God showed him that all his immediate family was going to get saved, just like God saved Noah and his family on the Ark. As Beal notes, "Bill feels that God is calling him to build Cross Garden as a warning of immanent divine judgment on a world gone bad. But inside, he and his family are safe and secure, protected from the storm" (p. 127).

At the now-closed Golgotha Fun Park mini-golf course in Lexington, Kentucky, the course is divided into Old Testament and New Testament stories, though in no special chronological order. The front nine is devoted to the narratives of Adam and Eve, Noah, and Jonah, among others, while the back nine is devoted to the nativity, Mary and Martha, Golgotha, and the Resurrection. Beal comments on the cognitive dissonance that the park created: how can one have fun at the place of the skull (Golgotha)?

In Carthage, Missouri, Beal and his daughter make a pilgrimage to Precious Moments Inspiration Park. Sam Butcher, the artist who conceived Precious Moments, began a chalk ministry after his conversion in 1963. By the mid-1970s, he had begun a greeting card business where he was drawing the characteristic Precious Moments characters—male and female figures with heads typically larger than their bodies—to accompany inspirational messages. By 1978, a series of Precious Moments figurines hit the stores and became hugely popular giftware. In 1984, he began to look for a location to build the chapel of his dreams. He found the land near Carthage, and the Precious Moments Chapel opened in 1989. Beal discovers that beneath what appears to be a saccharine surface of simple faith, there churns a depth of feeling that arises from suffering and loss: "In the course of my visit, I came to believe that the appearance of simplicity here is superficial, a precious sugar coating over an abyss of feeling so deep and complex that it cannot be adequately expressed "(p. 158).

Throughout his travels, Beal learns that "faith is a leap of hospitality, an opening of oneself to the other":

This is the lesson I learned about faith from places like Holy Land USA and Paradise Gardens, and from people like Bill and Marzell Rice and Richard Greene. Even when the message was daunting, if not repulsive (YOU WILL DIE. HELL IS HOT HOT HOT.), the gesture of the place and its creators was often one of self-exposure, a welcoming of the unknown other into relationship by revealing very personal religious experience in a very open and vulnerable way (p. 213).

Beal's book provides an instructive glimpse into the faith that motivates people in the Bible-saturated South to erect monuments to their beliefs. A judicious pilgrim, Beal ends up writing about his personal journey of faith rather than a phenomenological study of religious experience. Because of his sincerity and search, the people and the places of this book take on a life of their own that makes the roadside attractions less a spectacle than a stop along a journey of faith.

Henry Carrigan, North American publisher of T&T Clark International, hcarriga@morehousegroup.com

Citation: Henry Carrigan, " Beal's Roadside Religion: In Search Of The Sacred, The Strange, And The Substance Of Faith," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=417

 
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