Roadside Religion and Placards of Faith

Routinely here in the city there is a man who stands across from the Bourke Street Mall holding high a large placard proclaiming his religious faith.  In hand-painted words, sometimes misspelt, he declares God’s wrath, the reader’s depravity and the certainty of hell.  He will stand there for hours, steadying his placard with one hand and holding his bible in the other.  Occasionally he and his companions will ‘preach’ to the passers-by, their spoken words a passionate retelling of those painted.  Every time I see him, I feel a mixture of shame, anger and disbelief.  I tried to engage him once, the only outcome being the confirmation of his convictions and the assurance of his prayers for my salvation.  Why does it bother me so?  Why do I cringe?  Because this man claims a Christian faith just like I do.  Yet his expression of that faith makes him as foreign to me as a militant atheist.

Though in a very different context to mine, Timothy Beal’s Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith explores similar expressions of faith to that of my placard-waving friend.  A decade ago, Beal–a professor of religious studies–bundled his family into a motorhome and spent the summer touring the numerous ‘religious roadside attractions’ that litter the highways of the southern United States.

The sites Beal visited range from humorous to plain bizarre; places like Golgotha Fun Park, Paradise Gardens, The World’s Largest Ten Commandments, Ave Maria Grotto and Holy Land USA. From a fully fledged Florida theme park complete with roller coasters, stage shows and costumed bible characters, to a ramshackle and rambling ‘garden’ of wooden crosses and rusted household appliances all painted with warnings like YOU WILL DIE … HELL IS HOT HOT HOT, this is a collection that leaves you bemused one moment and gasping the next.

As a scholar, Beal approaches these sites as a form of ‘outsider religion’, expressions that sit at the very margins of mainstream religious experience yet speak powerfully of it by way of caricature. By visiting these sites and listening to those who envision, create, maintain and visit them, Beal’s hope was to identify a lens through which to better understand the broader religious landscape of North America.

While Beal brings an appropriately critical eye to his journey, what impresses me most is his refusal to be cynical or condescending. In fact, even more, Beal allows his own religious guard to drop. The result is a very different journey to the one he had intended and, consequently, a very different book to the one he planned to write. And it’s because of this that the book was a more challenging read for me that I’d anticipated.

Separating out the Disney-style theme parks from the more organic, home grown attractions—places like the full-scale reconstruction of Noah’s Ark that has been underway for the last thirty years on a rural roadside in the Midwest—Beal sees in the latter the creation of sacred sites: places in which the visitor is invited into an encounter with God—much like the role the cathedral plays in ‘insider’ religious experience. Beal observes that their creation is uniformly driven by an intense desire to make communicable what has been personally transformative in the creator’s own experience, and often at considerable personal cost.

While Beal finds much on his journey that is, to him, repulsive and grating, in the end he is able to see through the kitsch and garish representations of belief to those who envision and create them. What he finds, here and there, is an expression of faith that is oddly compelling, sometimes courageous and always deeply sincere.

While I’ll always find those placards in the mall repulsive, and I will never understand how this view of ‘truth’ tallies with the good news of Jesus, Beal reminds me that the man holding them aloft is doing so out of a genuinely felt experience and a deeply held set of convictions.  Beal also reminds me that the established church I represent, though in less garish ways, holds aloft its own placards every day.  What do they say, I wonder.

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