America's Sacred Sites (Brad Lyons & Bruce Barkhauer) -- A Review


AMERICA’S SACRED SITES: 50 Faithful Reflections on Our National Monuments and Historic Landmarks. By Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2020. 223 pages.


What makes something sacred or holy? Generally, we think in terms of some form of divine presence or divine blessing. The question is, does something have to be religious to have spiritual or sacred value? If it’s not a sacred site, such as a cathedral, nor a natural site, such as a mountain, can it still be sacred if it’s humanly created? In other words, might a memorial like Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home be a sacred site? Might we find something spiritually enlightening or invigorating in a site that or for that matter a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils like those found at Dinosaur National Monument be a sacred site? That is the question that is addressed in America’s Sacred Sites, a book written by Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer.

Lyons and Barkhauer explored a similar question in an earlier book that highlighted America’s National Parks. That book, published in 2019, carried the title America's Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks. Now they've added a sequel in America's Sacred Sites. This book points us to fifty National Monuments and Historic Landmarks, all of which are managed by the National Park Service. Unlike the first book which had a rather limited number of sites to explore, this one required the authors to choose among the myriad of monuments, recreation sites, lakeshores, seashores, and historic sites. For this book, they chose one site from each state, upon which they offer us faithful/spiritual reflections.

To understand how they chose sites, for inclusion, they speak of places where something happened, an event that stirs the soul in some way. The opening paragraph of the introduction sets the tone:

We have all encountered a place where history happened—a place where something or someone started, was born, ended, or died. An event occurred here that changed the course of history. Perhaps it was something enormous, or perhaps it was more simply an observation that was exactly what that person needed right then to continue working on a challenge or an idea. Even if that event was long ago, if we’re lucky, when we visit that place something in us stirs too, and makes us feel different—maybe a nervous excitement, a subdued dread, or a mind-freeing aha!—and we can feel that God is still working in that place, years later. (p. 9).

I must admit that I've only visited a handful of the sites explored in the book, and so I can’t say that these particular sites would excite my spiritual feelings, but I think that the authors are more interested in calling on us to take a moment and experience the presence of God sites like those described here, and upon which they offer spiritual reflections. While I've not been to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, which lies in my home state of Oregon, not all that far from where I grew up, I appreciated knowing more about the site and its potential to stir the soul. I have visited sites incorporated in California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California and a few others. The book reminds me that are still many more places to visit, often in one’s own backyard. All we have to do is take the time to visit them. So, here are fifty possible choices among hundreds to choose from. While there are fifty sites covering fifty states, some of these sites cross state lines but are linked to one particular state. So, for example, the site chosen for the state of Washington is the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail, which crosses through Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. It’s a suitable site for inclusion, however, because it speaks of floods and recovery, creating unique landforms like eastern Washington’s Dry Falls. As with Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, Oregon’s John Day Fossil Beds, this site, which covers a large amount of ground, takes back into the distant past, asking us to reflect on God’s involvement in the creative process, not as a challenge to science, but as a different vantage point.

While America’s Holy Ground on the natural world, America's Sacred Sites takes us to a more diverse set of sites. Some are natural, like Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Monument, but other sites are places where historic events took place. Thus, they take us to Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Site, where Lee surrendered to Grant, essentially ending the Civil War. There are other important historic sites such as the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor (a site that demands silent reflection), the Statue of Liberty in New York City (a site that reminds us that large numbers of Americans came here as immigrants); Kitty Hawk in North Carolina (where the Wright Brothers flew for the first time); and Ebenezer Baptist Church (the church Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up in and later served as pastor before his death at the hands of a gunman).

Each site is given a defining word and an accompanying text from Scripture. Thus, Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site in North Dakota is linked to the word "Hospitality." West Virginia's Harper's Ferry National Historical Park carries the term "resistance." Rhode Island’s site is especially poignant for religious folk, as it is the Roger Williams National Memorial, and its defining word is Religious Freedom. It’s accompanying text of Scripture is Galatians 3:28. And as with the earlier book, America’s Sacred Sites is filled with color photos, some of which the authors took, though most of them come from the files of the National Park Service. They describe the site, offering insight as to its importance. This is followed by a spiritual application. They write that "what is most remarkable to us is that there is a place in every state of our union that has some significance in shaping us and our history. Consequently, there is a place near you right now where a visit can get you started on discovering more of America's holy ground." (p. 13). Like me, they've only visited some of the sites in the book. Thus, much of the book is based on research. Nevertheless, there is much to ponder.

As with the first book, this is not simply a travel guide, though it does provide significant background information about the sites. It functions differently in that the authors want to draw our attention to the deeper meaning that lies within or beneath the site. They want us to open ourselves up to the possibility that there is something spiritual resonate about a site. Since they include Pearl Harbor in the book, I can bear witness to the somewhat eerie but holy feeling you get as you travel the short distance to the memorial. When you get off the boat, if your fellow travelers are also open, there will be silence and a feeling of a connection to those who died that day on the ship. They comment, regarding the silence, pointing to Moses' experience in the presence of God, noting that "God was in the holy silence. God filled the silence that, for a moment, Moses and the Divine shared. Moses was never the same" (p. 59). You are never the same after visiting the memorial.

As with their first book, I highly recommend this for the spiritual journey that takes us to the different corners of a nation, that is often in turmoil. That turmoil is present in some of the sites chosen, from Little Big Horn to Fort Sumter to the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. They remind us in their choices that some sacred sites are not especially happy places, but each has something to say to us. Thus, when you go to Harper’s Ferry and visit the site where John Brown made his stand for a cause that he died for, but which ultimately prevailed, though not without much bloodshed. Such is the nature of sacred sites in the United States and across the globe. But many are inspiring, including the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, which the authors define with the word “Risk,” is a reminder as well of risks taken, but with great reward. Then, to close, just a note about a natural site that evokes the word “Sacred,” and that would be Devil’s Tower National Monument, a site held sacred to a number of Native American communities. Again with each chapter invites us to ponder the question, where is God present in our world? Then, as a benediction, they offer us quotations from Scripture and famous Americans ranging from James Baldwin to Abraham Lincoln. And I close with this brief sentence from Nancy Newhall, an American writer: “The Wilderness holds answers to questions man has not yet learned to ask” (p. 218).


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