In the final episode of the third season of HBO’s crime drama True Detective, there’s a fleeting overhead shot of a landmark that most Ozarkers would instantly recognize.
No, that’s not the image you see, nor the image you’ll see if you drive out to this statue. What you’ll see is this:
Yes, Christ is looking the other way. How’s that for a ready-made metaphor?
The “Christ of the Ozarks” statue sort-of overlooks Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It faces in the direction of Eureka Springs, anyway, although it’s hard to see from most parts of the town. It’s an easy statue to criticize, with its oversized head, weirdly neutral expression, and boxy shape, almost as though it’s actually a radio tower disguised to look like a statue of Jesus. And is that a bosom? But aesthetics are not really that statue’s point, anyway.
Religion has played an enormous part in the cultural story of the Ozarks. Historians identify Baptists and Methodists as the largest of the early denominations, with significant pockets of Catholics and Lutherans in particular areas. In later years, Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God and others experienced great growth. By the time the “Christ of the Ozarks” was erected in 1966, the area, like the South in general, had been entrenched for more than a hundred years as a bastion of no-nonsense Protestantism. Even today, a new arrival is likely to experience the “have you found a church home yet?” question within minutes in a conversation with neighbors.
The religious influence has been, pardon the phrase, a mixed blessing for the area. On the one hand, the deep-rooted Christianity of many of the people I have known and loved has been a constant example of our better capabilities, our capacity for kindness, love, generosity, and unselfishness. Unfortunately, there’s also the intolerant and judgmental side as well, and sometimes those two components coexist side by side.
When I look at the statue, I see the weird history behind it. The brainchild of far-right radio evangelist and anti-Semite Gerald L. K. Smith, the statue was intended to be the centerpiece of a religious theme park that would include a replica version of Jerusalem, a premise that John Mort plays with in his short story “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him” in his new collection Down Along the Piney. Jerusalem never got built, although the park does have a “Holy Land” tour featuring selected replicas of Biblical scenes, the statue, and a Passion Play. I’ve searched their website and can find no mention of the park’s founder. Just as well – the Ozarks don’t really need a designated memorial to a white supremacist and Nazi sympathizer who founded the America First Party, in 1943 no less.
This statue has a triumphalist vibe to it, like some kind of Hittite monument, and quite frankly it gives me the willies. Oversized statuary always makes me question the message of the image. Mount Rushmore comes to mind, of course, with its pantheon of heroes; the nobility of expression on those faces recalls us to the potential of America’s greatness, although I’ve sometimes wondered if their crowding on the mountainside also implies that no one will ever achieve that greatness again (Where would we put him/her?). The massive monument at Stone Mountain, Georgia, likewise, places its figures into a setting of godlike heroism, although the meta-message there seems pretty disturbing.
The choice of immensity is intended to be overpowering, to bear down all doubts and questions. Don’t like this Jesus? Too bad. He’s going to be gazing down at you with that blank and inscrutable expression wherever you go. But the question remains: Why erect a two-million-pound Christ over a region that has been unflinchingly Christian for generations? It’s not as though the people down below need inspiration.
Every theme park needs a landmark, I guess.