A kitschy story as I hit the road

RoadsideCoverNow this is fun.

The Dallas Morning News has a fun book-related feature up today called “Grace Lands: Professor hits the road in search of religious kitsch, and finds true faith along the way.” The book is called Roadside Religion and it’s about a mainline Protestant attempting to dissect the strange people who live in strange lands dominated by traditional forms of faith, which means that, in many ways, it has the exact same journalistic point of view as the entire Dallas Morning News, especially its nationally known religion section.

But I digress.

The basic idea is that the world is full of very strange religious people and sometimes they make strange religious roadside attractions. What happens if a really smart person visits Ave Maria Grotto, Precious Moments Inspiration Park or Biblical Mini-Golf? So what if he interacts with the natives?

Frequent News contributor Mary A. Jacobs sums up the Presbyterian journey of Dr. Timothy K. Beal thusly:

Don’t judge this book by its cover. The kitschy postcard design may hint at snarky humor and postmodern posturing. Instead, Dr. Beal opened his heart on the open road and found hospitality on the fringes of American religious life. His fascination with roadside icons began on an earlier family trip, when he spotted a sign along Interstate 68 in Maryland: “Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here.”

“There was this big reddish brown steel girder structure next to the highway, languishing in a field,” he said. “We wondered, ‘Who would do something like this? And why?’”

By the time the Beals got home to Shaker Heights, Ohio, he’d hatched a plan. The family would take off on a pilgrimage to discover how many other Ark-like attractions there were out there. He found a warm welcome, so to speak, at Cross Garden in Prattville, Ala., an 11-acre park whose wooden crosses and junked appliances are adorned with messages including, “NO ICE WATER IN HELL! FIRE HOT!” and “YOU WILL DIE” and “IN HELL FROM SEX SEX.”

The final quote from Beal captures the whole “everybody has a story in the postmodern world” approach of this bookish trip into the fringes of normal America. Enjoy.

“I went into this as a scholar, and my scholarly tools maybe were a means of steeling myself against being too vulnerable to these ‘strange’ strangers,” he said. “These people welcomed a visitor whom they didn’t know and shared their stories and their deeply felt experiences. I found that disarming.

“We tend to think about faith in terms of belief. I started to think of faith as being about relationship and hospitality — opening oneself up to the other, to the stranger who drives up in a motor home and wants to know what’s going on. It’s about opening oneself to another and being vulnerable.”

With that, I am out the door to the winding mountain roads of North Carolina, where there are more Baptist churches than there are, well, almost anything else other than trees and highway signs. If I find any strange forms of religion, I will try to get to the only local cyber cafe to send out some word.

Meanwhile, everybody pitch in and send Master Jeremy and the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc lots of input on the unfolding Supreme Court drama. We are especially interested, of course, in MSM coverage of the religious left and the Religious Right. Wonder why the latter is upper case and the former is not?

Bye now.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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