Timothy Beal's epiphany occurred on a drive from Washington, D.C., to Cleveland.
Near Frostburg, Md., a hulking assemblage of reddish girders four stories high suddenly loomed alongside Interstate 68. A bold, blue sign explained:
''NOAH'S ARK BEING REBUILT HERE!''
The following summer, Beal, a religion professor at Case Western Reserve University, found himself in a rented motor home with the wife and kids, exploring the Frostburg ark and other astonishing spiritual tourist attractions. Among them: Kentucky's cheesy and oddly named Golgotha Fun Park (a miniature golf course, now defunct); the world's largest Ten Commandments display; and, the world's largest rosary collection in Stevenson, Wash.
Beal's odyssey has wrought ''Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange and the Substance of Faith'' (Beacon), published just in time for vacation planning or beach reading.
However quirky, Beal says, the 10 sites he examined in nine states manifest believers' desire to create some ''otherworldly realm'' set apart from ordinary life.
Beal's Unitarian publisher calls the author an atheist, but he depicts himself as an ambivalent quester. He was raised in Alaska by Presbyterian parents who were leaders in the evangelical Young Life organization. He met his wife Clover, who was raised Pentecostal, at evangelical Seattle Pacific University, when both were drifting from the faith of their youth.
Today, Clover is pastor of the liberal Forest Hill Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, and Timothy sometimes helps out teaching Sunday School.
Reflecting on his travels, Beal says that people like himself who forsake evangelicalism ''don't tend to revisit that particular culture or theological tradition with much sympathy.'' Yet he had to recapture some of the old warmth to understand what he was observing.
It hasn't been unusual for Beal to investigate the far margins of faith.
He teaches a course on ''religion and horror'' and has written a book titled ''Religion and Its Monsters.'' His original drive past the Frostburg ark occurred after a research trip to the Library of Congress, where he was looking into the use of the Bible by white supremacists.
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