Religious Roadtripping

Kelly Baker

In the summer of the staycation or a summer of piled up deadlines, journeying to the religious sites of Americana might not be our top priority. I already blogged on my deep desire to go the Holy Land Experience, but I thought I might highlight Timothy Beal's Roadside Religion:In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith (2005). Beal does a roadtrip to explore what he calls "outsider religion" in America, and he takes his family along for the ride. I have toyed with assigning this book to my Religions in the U.S. class to make them think about classifications like "mainstream" and "outsider" as well as to problematize visions of American religious history that focus on the immateriality of faith. The faith(s) Beal finds are decidedly material, creative (gardens, signs proclaiming the end of times, a massive recreation of the Ten Commandments, etc.), and evangelizing.

So, here's my review of the work from the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture:

Beal, Timothy K. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005. 216 pp., $14.00 (USD). ISBN: 0-8070-1063-4 (paper).

[1] Timothy Beal does something that I have always yearned to do; he packs his loved ones in a motor home and travels the country to examine what he calls “roadside religion,” allowing me to live vicariously through his encounter with the land of religious kitsch in his fascinating work. Beal’s family traverses the American countryside to explore Holy Land USA, the Holy Land Experience, a recreation of Noah’s ark, biblical mini-golf, Precious Moments Inspiration Park, a miniature grotto, a cabinet of rosaries, and multiple gardens devoted to crosses and messages about salvation and damnation. This roadside approach to American religion uncovers the novelty and complexity of religion in America, and adds to the already colourful landscape of “mainstream” religions in the United States. Beal classifies these material expressions of faith as “outsider religion,” which he derives from understandings of “outsider art” as art by the untrained. Thus, outsider religion becomes his term for those untrained in the realms of theology or denominational doctrine. He wants to present the marginality of the creators as well as their creativity and devotion. “Paradoxically,” he writes, “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 create sacred time and space, creativity as religious devotion, apocalypticism, spectacle, exile, and the relation between religious vision and social marginality” (7).

[2] Roadside Religion is Beal’s documentation of various religious spaces and the people who inhabit them—which he mostly accomplishes with empathy and tact—and the reader is a tag-along in motor home as he makes stops at these exotic yet mundane places. Beal also interrogates the nostalgia that is part and parcel of creating these spaces, and the attempts by various creators to get to something original and real, even while using artifice. At Holy Land USA, the author presents the park as a pilgrimage that moves pilgrims through the biblical story in a natural setting. He is a bit more conflicted at the Holy Land Experience; the park seems like a religious Disneyland, and is conveniently located in Orlando. Moreover, Beals feels ambivalent about the subtext of the religious amusement park. He writes, “Beneath the explicit aim of giving guests a glimpse of life during biblical times is a far more zealous ideological interest in promoting a very specific biblical theology of the end of times” (63). He dislikes the Holy Land Experience because it appears to uplift Christian Zionism, and seems more ideological than experiential. What is fascinating about Beal’s work is that he seems to appreciate some sites more because of their authenticity as opposed to their ideology. He is most critical of sites that are created by organizations rather than individuals; he feels more at home in Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens than at the Disney-similar Holy Land Experience. Throughout the descriptions of journeys to golf courses, a proposed site for the new Noah’s ark, and even the Precious Moments Chapel, this work is really about highlighting the religious experiences of individuals in gardens, sculptures, or miniaturized grottoes.

[3] As a result, this work was interesting to me as an American religious historian as well as someone who dabbles in ethnographic method. Roadside Religion demonstrates how exotic religious expression can be on American soil. I have toyed with the idea of providing it to my “Religion in the U.S.” classes as a conversation starter for how diverse religion can be at the individual level; it would also be a good primer in how fascinating popular religion is as a field of study. What proved most interesting and thought provoking was a comment that Beal makes early on in his work about his daughter’s perception of what religious studies scholars actually do. He writes, “My daughter, Sophie, recently told me what she thinks of my work as a religion scholar. She said it seems like what I like to do is make creepy things interesting” (12). The creepy things with which Beal enchants the reader are the careful and caring analyses of the various religious peoples he encounters. Beal wants his informants to be taken seriously in their unique practices and experiences, and he opens up their worldviews for the reader to see and understand. His renderings present these folks as they see themselves, which is good ethnographic praxis. He shows that practices that appear as absurd are really not absurd at all, but committed expressions of faith.

[4] Yet, questions remain: Are his informants really outsiders? Does the term “outsider religion” help or hinder this study? I would agree that these folks cannot be placed firmly in the mainstream, but some of their practices might. Signs made of scrap wood and metal with messages of damnation and repentance remind me of paid, roadside advertisements in my local Florida. Gardens with religious iconography and signage remind me of previous neighbours, whose front lawn was covered with a decent-sized statue of the Virgin Mary, a permanent Nativity scene, and angels of all sizes including one firmly planted in bird fountain. Are the outsiders he documents more committed to their cause than my neighbours? Or are these elements of the materiality of religious experience hiding under our noses? Beal’s informants produce more elaborate material presentations of religious belief, but I think some who we could classify as part of the mainstream practice their faith in a similar way. Beal’s informants might be marginalized, but people come to play biblical rounds of golf and see the largest Ten Commandments. This terminology limits the study. Beal’s informants show the strange and often appealing renderings of religious faith and practice, and the term “outsider religion” limits his larger presentation of these people and their understandings of religion.

[5] Despite this, Beal’s Roadside Religion was an interesting venue into an often-occluded piece of America’s religious landscape, and I would recommend the book for undergraduates, anyone interested in a religious road trip, and scholars of American religious history who would like to show the diversity and materiality of religious practice.


Mike said…
It might just be me, but I can't drive anywhere without looking for interesting bits of religious Americana. And then there was my neighbor's statue of Mary that used to stare at me through my bedroom window as a child, but that's its own blog. As for the review, I'm reminded by Jay Smith in _Imagining Religion_ that sometimes it's advisable to make ordinary that which seems exotic and to make exotic that which is taken as ordinary. In the case of Beal's book, it may be the case that calling his subjects outsiders automatically limits the questions posed and the potential depth of analysis. Charles Reagan Wilson makes a similar point in his review of the documentary "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus":

Then again, isn't all scholarship a kind of roadtrip? See Thomas Tweed's Crossing and Dwelling for more on that:
Kelly Baker said…
At least my scholarship is a roadtrip or a highway or some sort of causeway. Meandering is a scholarly value, right?

My major concern with the label "outsider" is the limiting power of such a term. It feels like we have somehow claimed their marginality and ignore how they might fit in with the so-called mainstream. This happens with outsider art, which is where Beal gets the term from.

Outsider as a term is also a way to signal authenticity as opposed to artificality. At times, Beal seems to suggest that the folks he uncovers are more authentic than other religious people, who consume "mainstream" religion. This claim to authenticity is a dangerous tangle, too. I am not sure I would even dip a toe into that pool.

What struck me the most about Beal's work is how often we are confronted by religion on the roadside or in our neighborhoods. From my perch in my southwestern neighborhood, I can count at least three statues/images of Mary. I drove by a truck the other day, which the owner had attached giant billboards about the end of times painted in red. I almost missed my exit while trying to read the signs of the end.

This book, I think, would be good for undergrads to problematize where religion is "done." Sacred space is not nearly as tidy as we might like it to be. It also gives me more fodder to uplift the materiality of religion. Yeah, material religion!
deg said…
Concerning the variability of "sacred" spaces and material expressions of the sacred, I'd suggest Charles Reagan Wilson's fine collection of essays Judgment and Grace in Dixie. I saw him give a talk on some of the matters he raised in that book, complete with a collection of church fans he'd collected over the years. One of the best talks I've seen at any conference in my (few) years in the biz. Witty, yet provocative, much like the volume itself.