PW: What inspired you to take a cross-country tour of America [Roadside Religion] to visit kitschy religious sites?
Timothy Beal: We were in D.C., where I was researching a more serious and grim topic, on the functions of biblical interpretation within radical white supremacist groups. [My wife] Clover and the kids were visiting museums, and Clover happened to encounter the James Hampton exhibit in the American History museum. He was a janitor his whole life, and when he died, it turned out that he'd rented this garage for years. He'd been creating a huge throne room. There are actual photos of him standing there, wearing this tin-foil crown. When he died, when the guy who needed to clean out the garage found it. So Clover told me about it, because I've always been fascinated by these "out there" creations by individuals.
So that was on our mind as we were driving back from D.C. through northwestern Maryland. Cresting a hill, I saw this giant steel girder structure—it looked like someone was building a huge parking garage. And there was a sign saying "Noah's Ark Being Rebuilt Here!" I was hooked.
PW: What sites surprised you most in your travels?
TB: One was Cross Garden in Prattville, Alabama. It's an 11-acre collage of crosses and scrap boards and broken appliances, all painted with messages like "Hell is hot hot hot!" It's really an overwhelming place. Running up through the creator's driveway are all these old air conditioners and refrigerators with messages like "no ice water in hell." That was surprising in an aesthetic way, and I spent a long time talking with him and his wife. As I became more acquainted with him, I saw that he wasn't trying to convey religious fear. It was kind of a nesting habit; he'd nestled himself and his family in this huge network of crosses.
One of the others that was most surprising was the Precious Moments Chapel in Missouri. Of all the places I visited, I probably expected this to be the funniest and quirkiest, and the hardest one in which to avoid being condescending. But all of those concerns went away very quickly while I was there. You realize that for so many people who come here, the whole Precious Moments culture is about giving voice to pain and loss. It's almost a pastoral role that Butcher has.
PW: How did your travels transform you personally?
TB: What hit me, and Clover, from our very first visit [to Holy Land, USA in Bedford, Va.] was the way many of these places were rooted in Christian evangelical tradition, which neither of us identify with any longer, but in which both of us were raised. This ended up being a research project that called on me to get back in touch with my own conservative evangelical background in a more sympathetic way.
PW: You note that people who create these offbeat spiritual destinations are often people with no formal religious affiliation. Why do you think that is?
TB: It probably differs for each person, because their stories are so unique that it's hard to generalize. But I think there may be something to the deeply felt personal religious experience that drives each of them. Also, although few of them are or were still connected to a larger community institution or denomination, all of them came from some background like that, and they draw on that tradition all the time.
PW: What's next for you?
TB: I co-edited a book coming out this fall from Chicago called Mel Gibson's Bible, with essays from Jack Miles, Paula Fredriksen, Bruce Chilton and others. The book on white supremacists is a fairly major research project. I have a lot of other ideas, too. I want to look at people's relationships to Bibles as material objects—how they relate to the heft and the weight and the gold leaf and the red letter print.