Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Roadside Religion by Timothy K. Beal


Rating: (Read only if your interest is strong)




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No matter what you did on your summer vacation, it probably doesn’t come close to the year that religion professor Timothy Beal rented a motor home and visited religious attractions with his Presbyterian minister wife and two kids. His account of that journey and a few other excursions appears in his book, Roadside Religion. Both Beal and his wide grew up as evangelical Christians, and part of this journey was a connection to his childhood. The sites Beal visits include: a Noah’s ark under construction; the world’s largest 10 Commandments; Holy Land USA, and biblical mini-golf. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter Six, “Nesting Habits: Cross Garden, Prattsville, Alabama,” pp. 117-127:


These days most Americans think of gardens as private backyard spaces of retreat or leisure, patches of plants, thoughtfully placed stones, wrought iron, trellises, and other complementary decor. Yet traditionally gardens in the West had far more symbolic import. They were conceived as microcosms of creation, constructs of the theological imagination, spaces of moral reflection and spiritual in­spiration—”gardens of revelation,” to borrow John Beardsley’s apt phrase from his book of the same title. Such spaces provided those who created and inhabited them with what he calls a “language of spiritual or philosophical rumination.”

A visual cacophony of scrap wood and old appliances spread out on either side of County Road 86 near Prattville, Alabama, Cross Garden (a.k.a. Rice’s Crossgarden and House of Crosses) is anything but a garden in the contemporary American sense. Huge crosses made of skinned logs tower above the road from a bluff. Below these, nearer the road, are many more crosses, tilting this way and that along with plywood boards and metal boxes bearing words of divine judgment, death and hellfire: READ THE BIBLE, HPOCRITES, YOU WILL DIE, HELL HELL HELL HOT HOT, RICH MAN IN HELL REPENT.


Across the road from this display is a dirt pullout in which a small chapel-like shack sits. Above its door a sign reads, CHURCH OF GOD JESUS AND THE HOLY GHOST, and all over its walls are more reminders that hell is indeed hot and that you will indeed die. On the door, written in foot-high letters, is the question, WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH JESUS?


Next to the church, a few broken-down top-loading laundry ma­chines stand in a line, each with a wooden cross rising from its open lid. Such an unexpected combination of religious symbol and house­hold appliance simultaneously demands and defies interpretation. Washed in the blood, maybe?


In front of the rambler-style home, just past the air-conditioner housings lined up along the driveway, is another concentration of crosses, signs, and ramshackle buildings surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Here the signage is slightly less hellish and more salvation-oriented: JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON, JESUS SAVES, JESUS WILL HELP YOU.


Not your typical garden scene, in any case. Indeed, I doubt that the creator and proprietor of Cross Garden, William C. Rice, has ever set foot in a nursery or Home Depot. Yet this is a garden, albeit a heterodox one, in the more traditional sense described by Beards­ley. It is a garden of revelation, a material expression of Mr. Rice’s own very unique religious imagination.


Cross Garden is an otherworldly environment, an uncanny space which has the power to envelop visitors. Although the individual pieces of Cross Garden struck me as laughably makeshift and shoddy, the overall effect of this eleven-acre collage was overwhelm­ing. I had seen pictures of the place in newspaper articles and on off­beat travel Web sites, so I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong. You don’t behold Cross Garden like an object in a picture frame. You don’t take it in. It takes you in. It’s total. Although not an enclosed space, there is, nonetheless, an architecture to it, a fantas­tic architecture, that gives one the feeling of enclosure.


Within this fantastic architecture, I was able to identify certain structural and spatial elements by which Cross Garden creates this enveloping, otherworldly experience. First, and perhaps most obvi­ously, scale is important. When standing near the house, crosses and other objects are scattered in every direction as far as the eye can see. They fill every horizon, giving the eye no escape from this world. There are no outside points of reference. There is no objective view­point, no way to gain perspective distance. Like Dorothy in the en­chanted forest, one feels subjected to its world of crosses, which seem to be alive, gazing down from bluffs and up from ditches.


Second, the signage has the effect of barraging the visitor with urgent messages, creating a felt need to respond, to answer, without any idea how to do so, other than to chuckle nervously. The place is literally saturated with intimidating written messages, most of them urgent warnings of impending hellfire, most often put in forms of personal address (you WILL DIE. WHAT WILL YOU DO?). Writing is all over the place. There are almost no blank spaces, and therefore there is little room for one’s own thoughts or words. It fills one’s consciousness.


Third, although in many ways radically unnatural, Cross Garden is also integrated into its natural environment. On the one hand, the text-ridden crosses and scraps and junk impose themselves on the land and all that grows there naturally. Just about anything that can hold a nail is covered with signage. Running up the trunk of a small tree near the house, for example, are sixteen signs, each with the word CROSS hastily painted on it in white, as though the tree has been relabeled, as though nature has been overwritten. On the other hand, many of the objects in Cross Garden appear to be assimilating to their natural environment. The crosses tilt this way and that like trees. Weathered from years of exposure, their colors blend with the grays of dead wood and the red-browns of the soil. It is both con­trastive and complementary, simultaneously a part of the natural landscape and a contradiction of it.


Yet I don’t think we can go so far as to call these structural and spatial elements “strategies,” which would imply some degree of in­tentionality. The power of this space to envelop visitors is difficult to attribute to the conscious aims of its creator, Bill Rice. For it appears to have come together, or rather accrued, over a long period of time, almost by accident. I’m reminded of the brainstorming exercises I do on chalkboards with my college students, free-associating a web of words and phrases that spreads out in all directions. Cross Garden looks like a quarter-century-long brainstorming exercise. Except in­stead of words on a chalkboard we see words on crosses and boards and washing machines and air conditioner housings, spread out across eleven acres of yellow grass and brown-red Alabama soil.


Standing in the middle of Cross Garden, I felt as though I were standing in another’s spiritual imaginary. It is an architecture of mind, a mind that is radically unfamiliar, perhaps ultimately unin­terpretable. I felt as though I were in someone else’s head without any sense of orientation, completely at a loss. An emotional space that I experienced as quite other than my own. It is a netherworld, at once compelling and unnerving.


A religious stream of consciousness seems to be running through this garden, welling up from some undetermined, unconscious source of creativity. It was above all the desire to follow that stream that kept me from running back to the motor home and hitting the road.


Family Room


Bill’s wife, Marzell, saw me wandering among the crosses and rusty appliances in her front yard and came out to greet me. She wel­comed me into the house and asked me to sign the guest book. Al­though I saw no other visitors during my day at Cross Garden, the guestbook had hundreds of pages of rows of names and addresses ac­companied by comments like “Hell is hot!” and “Wow!”


Marzell found me a chair in the small, dimly lit family room and went to the bedroom to get Bill. I tried in vain to take in my sur­roundings. I dare say there were as many crosses in that room as there were outside. The walls were covered with them. They hung from the low ceiling. They lay on end tables and hearths and coun­tertops. Many were actually crucifixes, that is, occupied crosses, on which crucified Jesuses were nailed in full pre-Resurrection abjec­tion, crowned with thorns, faces contorted in agony, bodies bent in pain.


On the wall opposite me was an old high-school yearbook picture of one of the Rice boys, his smiling face peeking through a thicket of crosses that appeared to be growing over him like creeping kudzu. Judging from the width of the boy’s lapel and the size of his bowtie, I’d date the picture circa Class of 1976.


I wasn’t sure what to expect from this meeting with Bill. When I called the day before my visit to remind him that I was coming, an older man answered.


“Is this Mr. Rice?”


“No, no, this is Mr. Browning,” he replied in a thick southern Al­abama drawl. “Mr. Rice isn’t home. He’s gone to the store with his wife. Try back later if you want.”


I called back an hour later and got the same man. But this time he admitted that he was in fact Mr. Rice, not Mr. Browning. “I lied earlier,” he confessed, his voice cracking. “When you called back then I just couldn’t talk. Sometimes I get so depressed, so tired from my diabetes [pronounced dah-bee-teez]. Do you forgive me, brother? I’d get on my knees right now, talking to you on the phone, if I could.”


I assured him that I wasn’t offended, that I understood how it can be sometimes. He thanked me profusely and declared that we were now good friends.


If I hadn’t been apprehensive about the next day’s visit before this phone exchange, I was afterward. At the same time, I was al­ready beginning to see the author of Cross Garden as a rather fragile, vulnerable human being, fraught with inner struggles.


Eventually Bill shuffled into the room and gently sat down in the motorized recliner next to me. He was tall but bent and weakened by age, back trouble, and complications related to his diabetes. He had a Colonel Sanders beard and warm blue eyes. Marzell watched over him closely, serving as both nurse and religious attendant.


“Don’t forget your cross and ribbons. He never talks to guests without wearing his ribbons and cross,” she explained as she adorned him with his priestly vestments: four nylon ribbon necklaces on which little crosses had been drawn in black marker, a foot-long crucifix covered head to toe with tiny red drops, and a wide-brimmed black felt hat likewise decorated with crosses and ribbons.


Now properly vested, Bill leaned back and took a minute or two to catch his breath while Marzell gave me a packet of evangelical tracts and local newspaper articles about Cross Garden. “Bet you never seen this many crosses in your life!” Marzell began with a warm and sympathetic smile.


“So you’re a teacher?” Bill interrupted. “You teach art? We get lots of art teachers and art students coming out here. People call this art. But I don’t.” I was aware that Cross Garden had received atten­tion from art students and critics interested in outsider art. But I was interested in him and his place more in terms of outsider religion. I explained that I was a religion professor and that I’d like to know the story behind Cross Garden. His blue eyes warmed with new energy and interest as he gave his personal testimony, which is essentially the story of his lifework, Cross Garden.


One Cross at a Time


Born in Woodstock, Alabama, in 1930, Bill didn’t “get saved and filled with the Holy Ghost” until 1960, while working as a house painter in Fort Rucker. As he tells the story, it was two in the morn­ing and he was sitting in the kitchen of their trailer, chewing to­bacco and suffering mightily from stomach ulcers. “I really was living it up for the devil wasn’t I?” The next thing he knew, Jesus came into his heart, at which point “I came out of that chair, I spit tobacco all over the refrigerator, it went all over the floor, and he healed my ul­cerated stomach.” That was his “spiritual birthday,” as he called it, and from that day forward he devoted his life to Christian evange­lism, preaching to anyone who’d listen from a little red Datsun pickup that he had painted bumper to bumper with crosses and Bible verses. The Datsun still sits in the back yard. Turns out it was a fore­taste of things to come.


Cross Garden didn’t begin with his own spiritual birthday, how­ever, but in 1977, with the spiritual birthdays of his parents, both of whom converted on their deathbeds. Shortly after his mother and father died (and were born again), Bill felt called by God to put up his first cross.


“God started me out small,” he said as he pointed to the space above the back door near the kitchen, where three business-card-size tracts were tacked to the wall in the shape of a cross. On one card was a Bible verse, John 3:16, along with the statement, “This black cloth is in remembrance of God’s son.” On the other two are the names and dates of his parents, laid out like a tombstone, fol­lowed by prayers thanking God for saving them. So each of these three cards that come together to form the first cross of Cross Gar­den is both an acknowledgment of death—a little tombstone-like memorial—and a proclamation of victory over death.


The death of a parent can bring the reality of one’s own in­evitable death home in a most profound way. For Bill, I think, the deaths of both his parents within a single year did just that. At the same time, as an evangelical born-againer, he was supposed to rejoice that they were saved in the nick of time. The result for him, I think, was an experience of inner tension between grief and joy that goes to the very core of Christian faith and that is symbolized most profoundly by the Cross. On the one hand, the Cross is an instru­ment of torturous death. On the other hand, it symbolizes victory over death through Jesus’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. Like the lamb’s blood smeared on the doors of the Hebrew slaves’ homes in Egypt, it protects the household from the angel of death who would pass over. For Bill, then, that first cross, made of three tombstone-like memorials to Jesus, Mama, and Daddy, signifies not only death knocking at his door, death come home, but also death’s Passover. That first cross was an expression both of the inevitability of death, of life as being-toward-death, and of faith in that which might over­come death. At the founding of Cross Garden, then, is a profound but not quite consciously acknowledged experience of the tension between being-toward-death and being-toward-life, between terror of the abyss and hope for salvation.


Soon after putting the first cross on the wall, Bill felt the call again. This time God told him to plant three wooden crosses, Cal­vary style, in his front yard. “It was the hardest thing I ever done,” Bill said. “It hurt in my chest to do it.” He dreaded what neighbors and passersby would think. But as the calls to plant more and more crosses came, his anxieties about what neighbors might think faded. Twenty-seven years later we see what it’s come to: thousands of crosses, scrap boards, and discarded appliances bearing messages warning that the end of the world is near, that sex is hell, that hell is hot and offers no refreshments, and that Jesus saves.


Where does Bill get his ideas for Cross Garden? He told me that God almost always gives him directions in night visions. While sleeping, he’ll see a whole new installation in minute detail, as though already completed: air conditioner housings, for example, painted with specific messages about how there’s no ice water in hell, running up his driveway. As soon as the dream vision ends, he awakes with a start, wakes up Marzell, and tells her exactly what he’s seen. “I just can’t wait till morning. I can’t wait to get it done.”


These days, however, turning dreams into realities is increasingly difficult. Bill and Marzell are now in their seventies, and Bill’s dia­betes has become severely debilitating. So they depend heavily on help from their adult children, especially Jerry who lives in a trailer in their backyard. “The kids, they all back him up,” Marzell ex­plained. “They back him all the way. They’re all making crosses too, just like he tells them to.”


“That’s the part I was getting up to,” Bill interrupted. “That’s an­other gift God give me. God showed me that all my immediate fam­ily, they get to get saved. Just like Noah’s family, who got to get saved with Noah in the Ark. So I don’t have to worry about that.”


With this revelation, I began to see Cross Garden as something of a modern-day Ark, with Bill as its Noah. Granted, this eleven-acre collage of crosses and broken appliances bearing proclamations of immanent divine judgment won’t float when the floodwaters begin to rise. But Bill is nonetheless building it in the hope of sur­viving perdition with his family intact. Like Noah, who was called to build the Ark in preparation for divine judgment on the world’s unrighteous masses, Bill feels that God is calling him to build Cross Garden as a warning of immanent divine judgment on a world gone bad. But inside, he and his family are safe and secure, protected from the storm.


Readers with a strong interest in religion, especially in the varieties of American religious practice, will find Roadside Religion interesting. Most other readers will come away from this book bewildered.


Steve Hopkins, August 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the September 2005 issue of Executive Times


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