Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith by Timothy K. Beal
Publisher: Beacon Press
Date: May 2005
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In the summer of 2002, Timothy K. Beal loaded his family into a twenty-nine-foot-long motor home and hit the rural highways of America in search of roadside religious attractions — sites like the World’s Largest Ten Commandments, Golgotha Fun Park, and Precious Moments Chapel. Why, he wanted to know, would someone use miniature golf to tell the story of the Creation? Or build a life-size replica of Noah’s ark in Maryland?
As a scholar, Beal hoped to come to understand the meaning of these places as expressions of religious imagination and experience. But as someone who had grown up in an evangelical Christian church in which he no longer rested comfortably, Beal found himself driven by a desire to venture beyond the borders of his cynicism to encounter faith in all its awesome absurdity. And so he found himself deep in conversation with people like Bill Rice, whose Cross Garden features thousands of makeshift crosses and old air conditioners bearing the message NO ICE WATER IN HELL! FIRE HOT!
Part travel narrative, part religious study, and part search for the divine madness that is faith, Roadside Religion takes the reader on a tour of the strange and often wondrous ways people have tried to give outward form to their inner religious experiences. Religion is most interesting — and most revealing — Beal shows us, where it’s least expected.
This book was very different from what I expected. I thought it would be a light-hearted travelogue of wacky religious-themed tourist attractions throughout the United States, but while is humorous in spots, the author takes the subject very seriously. That's not a bad thing — I found his observations, his interviews with the creators of the attractions, and his efforts to provide a sociological and historical context for each interesting and, in some cases, profound — but it was a surprise to find someone taking things that sound fundamentally absurd (like, for example, a Christian-themed miniature golf course) with any degree of respect. It's a failing common to my generation, I suppose: the tendency to view things ironically, and an expectation that others will do the same. I can't say, that this book made me want to visit any of the attractions described within, but the author did convince me to look at them differently, and more respectfully, than I would have otherwise.