Middle of Nowhere

Religion, Art, and Pop Culture at Salvation Mountain

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Sara M. Patterson
  • Albuquerque, NM: 
    University of New Mexico Press
    , February
     2016.
     224 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780826356307.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Middle of Nowhere: Religion, Art, and Pop Culture at Salvation Mountain examines stories about the modern American prophet, Leonard Knight, and the sacred space he created out of discarded junk, sand, and paint in the harsh desert outside of San Diego, California: Salvation Mountain. Knight hand-painted waterfalls, flowers, trees, and above all, biblical messages in bright colors and he topped the mountain with a large cross. Inspired by his personal, Born-Again Christian experiences, Knight built the mountain to proclaim God’s universal love for humanity. While at first glace Salvation Mountain may appear kitch, author Sara Patterson insists that there is a complex Christian message and anticapitalist critique of American society at the heart of Knight’s work and community.

Patterson exhibits a remarkable talent for making theory accessible to a broader audience. Moreover, students of religion would recognize a number of the theories presented in this book. For example, Patterson draws upon Jonathan Z. Smith’s frequently cited argument that “Map is not Territory” to portrary Knight as “a mapmaker of his own religious reality” (72). Instead of presenting Smith’s point as an abstract theory, Patterson beautifully retells Smith’s recollection of his internship at a dairy farm as a young man preparing for agricultural school. That is, Patterson recounts Smith’s personal experience which led him to the realization that “there is nothing that is inherently or essentially clean or unclean, sacred or profane. There are only situational or relational categories, mobile boundaries which shift according to the map being employed” (71). Patterson utilizes a variety of theories, both in and out of the discipline of Religious Studies, including: sacred space, pilgrimage, and gift exchange, just to name a few. Still, inclusion of affect theory, or theories of Religion and Emotion more broadly, would have allowed for a more positive description of the affect and “feel” of Salvation Mountain.

As both a story about people and an argument for the power of material culture and place, Middle of Nowhere would work well in an array of undergraduate courses, including but not limited to: Religion and Art, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Material Culture, Religion and Space, Religion in the American West, and Religion and Capitalism. Middle of Nowhere would work especially well in History of Christianity courses. Patterson draws connections between Knight and his Salvation Mountain, and Judeo-Christian prophets, deserts, and mountains. She discusses the ambiguous relationship that Christians have with embodiment, material culture, and the institution of the church. Patterson even discusses—at length—Christian rock music.

I enjoyed reading Middle of Nowhere, so much so that I am disappointed that I will not be able to assign this book in my New and Alternative Religions course. Perhaps Patterson was overly focused on the “outsider” status of Knight, Salvation Mountain, and Slab City in that she neglected to analyze her subjects within the context of the counterculture, particularly that of California. Instead, Patterson notes alignments with trends in Holiness and Pentecostal Christian traditions. Patterson retells caretaker Mike Phippen’s calling to Salvation Mountain from the Jesus People USA (JPUSA) in Chicago. Further, Patterson examines Knight’s more contemporary audience, which includes the kindred spirits of “seekers of the strange,” evangelical artists, and art students. While Patterson briefly notes that some evangelicals consider Knight’s message of God’s universal love dangerously close to the “New Age,” I was left wondering whether or not Knight and Salvation Mountain were historically connected to the New Age movement.

Patterson’s book exhibits some of the best of the academic study of religion. At the very least, it offers readers the opportunity to recognize case studies as strange as Knight and his Salvation Mountain as someone and something more familiar.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Megan A. Leverage is Lecturer in Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University.

Date of Review: 
March 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sara M. Patterson is an associate professor of theological studies at Hanover College, where she teaches courses on the history of Christianity, religion in America, and the intersections of religion, gender, race, and ethnicity.

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