A personal tour of America’s roadside Christian kitsch as an earnest and at the same time a condescending religion professor (Case Western Reserve) hauls his family around the country in an RV.
It’s clear what you’re in for right from the start, when Beal (Religion and Its Monsters, 2001, etc.) uses the words “mediate other” to describe introducing his kid to a stranger, then shortly thereafter takes the time to tell us about the dealer he rented his RV from and her cute name for the RV he didn’t rent: meandering quotidian observation adorned with unnecessary academic jargon. Now a self-styled cynic, Beal was raised an evangelical Christian, and like a teenager rebelling against years of Bible camp, he’s too eager to poke fun at simple believers like the creators of Holy Land USA, a crude re-creation of biblical Jerusalem in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Though Beal intends to do for outsider religion what others have done for outsider art, “powers of wry observation” regularly get in the way (nor will his noting an inaccurate species of tree, for example, amuse many readers). He reserves greatest praise for the Precious Moments Chapel, where big-eyed kitsch brings genuine comfort to the bereaved, and for Ave Maria Grotto, where the exceedingly strange Brother Joseph built a miniature Rome. But even here, the academic’s appreciation is compromised by the apostate’s jibes. Among other stops are Orlando’s scarily Disneyfied Holy Land Experience; two biblically themed miniature golf courses; a slowly growing roadside Ark, built by a man who believes himself to be a modern Noah (a recurring theme); and Paradise Gardens, the creation of the late, celebrated folk artist Howard Finster, who illustrated albums for the Talking Heads and REM in the ’90s.
Neither fish nor fowl. The footwork is a service, and the stops inherently interesting, but there’s little value added.