Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Roadside Religion: Book Review

"This is not the book I thought I was writing" Timothy Beal said in his afterword to
Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange and the Substance of Faith. It wasn't the book I thought I was reading when I first picked it up, either--it was a lot more.

Roadside Religion is about religious oddities scattered across the American countryside. Everything from the Disney wanna-be- Holy Land Experience in the Florida theme-park Mecca (mixing my religious metaphors here, but, hey, I'm inclusive) to the Giant Ten Commandments and the replica of Noah's Ark to uncategorizable displays like the Cross Garden and the Ave Maria Grotto are included. And just to keep things lively, there is a stop at two Biblically themed minature golf courses.

Timothy Beal is Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University and his wife is a Presbyterian minister. Making a family vacation out of this project, they rented a motor home and drove around the country on a tour of eccentric religious sites. Beal interviewed most of the creators of these oddities. Why would anyone want to build a life-size Noah's Ark or the world's largest Ten Commandments model, he asked. Or how about the Cross Garden which is a large hodge-podge of hand-made crosses with dire warnings: Hell is Hot! printed on them?

The answers that he found along the way are what changed the book from what he thought he was writing to the book he wrote. Like Beal, I approached the subject with a skeptical eye and the assumption that these displays were mere expressions of eccentric, out-of-bounds religious expression that I could not relate to. But thanks to Beal's sensitive handling of the subject I had to confront my own prejudice and see that many of these exhibits were sincere and unique expressions of religious fervor that had the power to touch others for good.

To take just one example ( and for me, the most compelling in the book), the chapter about the Precious Moments Inspiration Park challenges those of us who see those big-eyed figurines in the Hallmark store as another tacky example of American kitsch. The description of the Precious Moments Chapel and the Books of Remembrance illustrates how Sam Butcher, the creator of Precious Moments figurines, responded in faith to the tragic death of his son and turned that response into a ministry that touches many people. I'm not much of a crier, but this chapter brought tears to my eyes and erased the distance between me and the creators of the exhibits decribed in the book.

Beal had the same response as he wrote the book--he was changed by the experience. Most of these exhibits get sympathetic treatment. The exception is the Holy Land Experience (Orlando FL), which he compares unfavorably with the Holy Land USA (Bedford, VA). Beal finds that the Holy Land Experience operates on a hidden agenda--the desire of the developer who is a converted Jew, to convert the Jews--and objects to the devious ways in which that agenda is pursued throughout the theme park.

You may not have plans to take a long car ride visiting out-of-the-way tourist destinations this summer, so pick up this book and let Timothy Beal do it for you. You will find those for whom "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen"(Hebrews 11:1) trying to express their spiritual fervor by creating unusual sacred spaces. And you just might find yourself wistful for some of that fervor yourself--even if you cannot go with them on their journey.


Purechristianithink said...

Thanks for the review. At the church conference I'm attending, a woman shared in class today that the new light they bought for the sanctuary casts a Christ-shaped shadow on the wall. (Totally unintentional--it's just a regular light.) Being good reformed Presbyterians, they are trying to figure out if they are supposed to broadcast this to the local community or what?

Quotidian Grace said...

I didn't think that type of apparition came to Presbyterians! Here in south Texas we have appearances about every other month of the Virgin Mary or Jesus on garden walls, in pots, on windows, tortillas etc. and the press always seems to find out about it.

will spotts said...

What is this? I mean, I have the same reaction -- partly Because I'm conservative theologically, I shudder when I encounter what I consider Chirstian kitsch. Yet the reaction is not fair -- and dismissive of others' genuine experiences.

In some cases I might disagree with the theology implicit in something; in other cases I might object to commercialization -- but that (even when it is legitimate)does not seem to be the source of this reaction. It's more a combination of embarrassment and bigotry, I think.

Thnaks for posting this.

rev-ed said...

I used to live near Cumberland, Maryland. While living there, a man was constructing a replica of Noah's Ark. The sign was up right beside what is now Interstate 68. It wasn't finished (to my knowledge) when I left there in 1989. I always wondered what the story was behind it.

Quotidian Grace said...

Rev-Ed, the Noah's Ark replica is one of the chapters in the book. Pastor Richard Greene is the visionary behind the project and he is still trying to complete it despite many setbacks and controversies which he finds a way to interpret as signs he should continue his efforts.

St. Casserole said...

Thanks for the review. I've seen the book and wondered if I wanted to read it. I've become sympathetic to religious kitsch, especially Roman Catholic items. I call the genre of all religious items "piety items" because from what I understand, each one is an attempt to connect to God. I live in a RC majority area and have become very fond of the symbols and things that the pious wear/have for comfort, to signal devotion and because they think the items are pretty.
I'll go get the book.