Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Looking for God in all the wrong places?

I have a confession to make. I used to be a believer, and have the photos to prove it. I willingly sat through two years of confirmation classes, giving up Saturday mornings to cheerfully learn to parrot the answers in Luther's Small Catechism, professed my faith publicly, and then went on to teach Sunday school for a year or two.

I'm not sure why. My family wasn't particularly religious, at least not on my mother's side. My paternal grandmother was active in the Methodist church and, as long as we lived near her, she did push her grandchildren into going to the Methodist Sunday school. My mother's family, on the other hand . . . they weren't open nonbelievers, but they also were unusual among nonsocialist/apolitical Finns in that they didn't go to church. My mother said that when she asked her mother, the grandmother I never knew, why they didn't go to church her mother explained it simply as "In Finland the government said we had to go to church. Here we have a choice. We choose not to go."

After we moved far enough away from my father's mother that she no longer was a day-to-day influence, my parents left it strictly up to us kids if we wanted to go to church or not. So we kind of religion shopped. For a couple years I tagged along with a friend to the Baptist church she attended -- that stopped about the time the pastor began harassing me about "finding the Lord" and getting baptized. Given my water phobias, there was no way I was about to fake being saved if the end result was going to be full immersion in a giant bathtub in front of the entire congregation.

So then I toyed with Catholicism briefly. I loved the rituals, the Latin mass, the incense. Didn't understand any of it, of course, but thought it all looked cool. And then for some reason I found myself going to the Finnish Lutheran church that my friend Trudy Luoma (she's the brunette on the end of the front row in the photo) attended. In retrospect, it was pretty strange. Granted, Trudy and I were friends, but it not exactly in the BFF category. Our major connection was through 4-H (yes, I do come from a very small town). I think we wound up working on projects (Wildflowers, Forestry) that required long bike trips out to the project leader's house. From pressing turk's cap lilies together to deciding to be Lutheran -- definitely not the typical spiritual journey, if there is such a thing. Eventually, of course, I lost my religion (or it lost me), not long after supposedly finding it.

In any case, what got me started thinking about religion this week was the book I'm currently reading: Roadside Religion: The Search for the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith. It is an intriguing book. Back when I was still thinking of myself as a sociologist I had a strong interest in spontaneous memorialization (the cross by the side of the road marking an accident site) and social definitions of sacred space.* Beal looks at larger scale endeavors -- the 11-acre Garden of Crosses in southern Alabama, Holy Land USA near Bedford, Virginia -- that range from purely vernacular to slickly commercial (Holy Land Experience in Florida).

Beal's descriptions of a few of the sites makes it fairly clear the promoters have either never read the Bible or are willfully misunderstanding the New Testament. There's something truly sick about the Holy Land Experience's daily (fake) crucifixions -- and something even sicker about the park visitors who are ticked off when the event, which takes place outdoors, is cancelled due to rain. You know a religion has become a death cult when the believers seem to be more interested in pain and suffering than they are in redemption and hope. If there really was a God, I think he'd be more than a little pissed off that his so-called followers obsess so much about his death without bothering to celebrate his life.

On the other hand, there's the Garden of Crosses, a purely vernacular effort, the life's work of basically one person, that also obsesses about death -- it is a garden of crosses, after all, 11 acres worth, loaded with messages warning passersby they're going to BURN IN HELL HELL HELL. Nonetheless, Beal's descriptions make the Garden of Crosses feel sacred in a way that Holy Land Experience does not. Maybe it's the motivations of the people behind them. The man responsible for Garden of Crosses is a true believer who worries about humanity in general. He doesn't want anyone going to Hell; he wants everyone saved. He means well, he's just slightly nuts by conventional standards in the way he's going about spreading the message. On the other hand, the Holy Land Experience wants you to buy a day pass, souvenir tee-shirts, postcards, mouse pads, salt and pepper shakers, and whatever other piece of made-in-China crap they can sucker you into spending money on. They're not selling indulgences or relics, but you get the distinct impression that they are the direct descendants of the folks Luther had in mind back in 1517.

As for the overall effect of the book on me, I'm feeling the urge for a road trip to Cullman, Alabama. I've been hearing about the Ave Maria Grotto for years; maybe it's time to go see it in person. A miniature Vatican City that incorporates used lipstick tubes into its construction can't be any stranger than Fred Smith's Clydesdales with the beer bottle manes.

[*I don't believe in supernatural entities, but I do believe there are socially created sacred spaces, places, and objects. ]


  1. the last place your going to find a diety is in a church.

  2. Know exactly what you mean about sacred places, and share your fascination. Sometimes I think it really helps to be an atheist to appreciate them fully.

  3. "that stopped about the time the pastor began harassing me about "finding the Lord" and getting baptized. Given my water phobias, there was no way I was about to fake being saved if the end result was going to be full immersion in a giant bathtub in front of the entire congregation."

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post, as well as understood it perfectly. I was raised in a Fundamentalist family, where going to church wasn't optional. I was taught God was a vindictive S.O.B.

    Today, I don't believe in God anymore than I do the easter rabbit. Absolutely GREAT post!!


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