In the Allegheny Mountain foothills of Western Maryland, a superstructure of steel girders has stood along the highway since 1976. Next to it stands a sign that reads, "Noah's Ark Being Rebuilt Here," though it's doubtful that the biblical figure who built a ship onto which, it is said, he loaded two of every living species in advance of an apocalyptic flood, had steel beams to work with five thousand years ago or so.
This strange sight, for which a little church next door called God's Ark of Safety has been slowly raising funds all these years, caught the eye of Timothy Beal, a religion professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. So did dozens of other unusual roadside religious artifacts - from giant crosses to a biblical miniature-golf course - that he and his family searched out across the country.
In Roadside Religion, his recent book about this expedition, Beal writes that these are examples of what he calls outsider religion because most are mounted by individuals and churches that are outside the religious mainstream.
Some unusual ones include the World's Largest Rosary Collection, the World's Largest Ten Commandments, and what's called the Holy Land Experience. Beal calls the last of these, in Orlando, Florida, a fundamentalist Magic Kingdom theme park and a Disneyesque alternative to Disney World, complete with costumed characters, including make-believe Roman Centurians and a man dressed, pitiably, as a leper.
Beal agrees that some of the sites are off-putting, including one with big letters that read: YOU WILL DIE. HELL IS HOT HOT HOT. Still, he says, these outdoor outposts reveal personal religious experiences in a very open and vulnerable way.
Wide open in the case of Noah's Ark, where the wind still whistles through the steel framework more than 30 years after the project began.
Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith, by Timothy K. Beal, is published by Beacon Press in Boston.
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.