''If you talk to these artists about their work, they will describe it as a sacred process, as a form of prayer,'' says scholar Timothy Beal, who has studied this ''roadside religion'' over the past several years.
The founders of offbeat sacred spaces such as the World's Largest Ten Commandments in Murphy, N.C., or the World's Largest Rosary Collection in Skamania County, Wash., immerse themselves in spiritual disciplines that are close kin to traditional practices.
Beal is a religion professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and author of the soon-to-be released book, Roadside Religion, In Search of the Sacred, the Strange and the Substance of Faith.
As he studied the quirky, sometimes spectacular creations featured in Roadside Religion, Beal found himself making a journey that included re-examining his own religious roots in evangelical Christianity.
The wildly different places he visited might provoke amazement, even disdain, he says, but they were given birth by a common longing for self-transcendence, relationship and meaning.
''Creating these places is a kind of spiritual discipline and a way for them to meditate on the sacred story,'' he says.
Their reference points and methodologies seem unorthodox, but their need to share profound experience is real. They find purpose in communing with others about a private spiritual experience in the public spaces they create.
Often these offbeat storytellers are people without a church, spiritual pilgrims without a specified destination. Visiting their miniature Holy Lands, grottoes and gardens of wooden crosses with spiritual admonitions emblazoned on rusty appliances became ''something of a religious journey'' for Beal and his family. He began to understand them as spaces set apart in a way ''that orients it towards and opens it to divine transcendence.''
Beal chanced upon his first example of roadside religion.
He had been working in Washington on a more traditional ''scholarly'' project, the functions of biblical interpretation in militant white supremacist groups in the United States. His wife, Clover, a Presbyterian minister, and his two children, Sophie and Seth, accompanied him on that working vacation.
''We were driving back to Cleveland on Interstate 68 and there, on a hilltop near Frostburg, Md., was a giant steel girder structure with a sign in front of it: 'Noah's Ark Being Rebuilt Here!' '' Beal says. ''We kept driving that day, but I knew I'd be back.
''A year later, Clover, our two kids and I were piling into a rented motor home for a tour through the Bible Belt to explore roadside religious attractions like Paradise Gardens, the World's Largest Ten Commandments and Holy Land USA.''
Beal relates that trip in his book. With humor and sensitivity, he analyzes the substance of American faith as he explores what these places mean to the people who made them and to the people who visit them.
His journeys took him to examples of what he views as ''outsider religion,'' places including Golgotha Fun Park, a biblically themed miniature golf course in Cave City, Ky., and Precious Moments Inspiration Park in Carthage, Mo., home to millions of wide-eyed child angels.
The stories behind the places are as interesting as the places themselves. Beal's ability to link each to the Bible and to American religious and cultural history makes his narrative intriguing.
''Just as the highly individual works of outsider art can often powerfully reveal the breadth and depth of human creativity . . . so the places explored in this book can reveal the breadth and depth of human religious experiences and expressions,'' Beal says.
Because they are off the beaten path, he says, such places open new routes to consider central themes in American religious life including pilgrimage, exile, the nostalgia for lost origins and the desire to recreate sacred time and space.
''We tend to think about faith as belief. But at the heart of faith is risk and vulnerability,'' Beal says. ''What really struck me in my various travels and visits for this book was that faith is all about relationship, or, more to the point, hospitality. It's about letting another in.
''That other might be God, or it might be another human being. For many religious traditions, it's both,'' he says.