The Ruin

If you were seeking God, you probably wouldn’t think to look in Inver Grove Heights. The fast-growing St. Paul suburb is a good place to buy a fleet of used Cessnas, or a truckload of corn chips, potash, or mechanical heart valves. At the town’s center stands a massive petroleum refinery—a strange, stippled city of smokestacks, steel cauldrons, and tangled pipes. Nearby vacant land is zoned for industrial use, with special tax breaks and cut-rate financing. Places like this exist all over the Midwest, at the ragged edges of our cities, where bulldozers and chainsaws reign and industry and sprawl inscribe the landscape. Yet in spite of its dismal aspect, the town was once a place where a person could come to find God.

Near the refinery, in a forgotten field passed over by bulldozers, there stood for decades an unusual sacred monument—or at any rate, its ruin. There was never much to it: a pair of stone arches connected by a low wall, half overgrown in summer by thistles, asters, and prairie grass. Its rough stones were set in uneven ranks; its arches rose to points. Around it, swallows swooped and wind bent the grasses. It was a scene out of time, with the ruin at its center like the ancient gate to a decayed abbey. In an average month, nearly half a million autos rolled past it on U.S. Highway 52 on the circuit from Rochester to the Twin Cities. Among those drivers who glanced up from the road, the ruin must have been something of a puzzle.

Two years ago, highway crews finally bulldozed the stone structure. The destruction put me in low spirits. Though my way hadn’t often taken me in that direction, I missed the old pile. I’ve always liked such places, where our sense of order is ruptured and out come feelings both strange and powerful. And I had spent some time getting to know this place in particular. Who, I had to wonder, would have built so far from water, miles from any town—and with pointed arches? And when? Finally one day, I had called the local historical society. The woman who answered the phone knew the ruin and told me it had been a billboard sign. She put me on hold and pulled the file, which contained a newspaper clipping that described the dedication of the sign in 1940.

A few days later, I held the clip in my hand. A religious organization, the Outdoor Scripture Sign Crusade, had erected the shrine. Between the two arches and affixed to the stone base had been a wooden sign that was sixteen feet high and sixty-five feet long. It read, in huge letters trimmed with Persian orange paint, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”

History can seem like nothing more than a collection of questions that take hold of you and won’t let go. Answer one, and two more grow in its place. I’m especially susceptible to such mysteries. And in this case, the strange confluence of symbols—the Gothic arches, overtones of the Resurrection, and echoes of Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”—appealed to my sense of the dramatic. I resolved to learn all I could about this ruin at the edge of the city, the men who built it, and the forces that destroyed it.

The charismatic personality behind the Outdoor Scripture Sign Crusade was Marius Marvin Schlief. In 1940, he was a boyish twenty-two, with fleshy cheeks and a ready, thin-lipped grin. An itinerant salesman, he traveled from town to town selling meat for the Swift Company. It was in this capacity, perhaps, that he discovered the power of what he called “eye advertising.”

Marius was born in Berthold, North Dakota, a dusty railroad town not far from Minot. His family farmed, and they harvested their share of troubles. His mother had married at sixteen, then quickly bore four children. At twenty-five, she became pregnant with another man’s child and left her husband and their kids to marry her new love, James Baah. Then came four more children. Marius was the youngest, born on October 30, 1918. He came into a tumultuous world of war and disease. Soldiers had brought influenza home from Europe, and a few months after Marius’ first birthday, the disease killed his mother. She had been “highly esteemed among neighbors and friends,” according to her obituary, “for her many commendable characteristics and Christian fortitude.” James Baah was less fondly remembered after he impregnated the fourteen-year-old girl he’d hired to mind the children. He was sent away to Canada, and Marius and his siblings were placed for adoption.

Distant relatives, Adolf and Francis Schlief, adopted the children. The Schliefs were in their early thirties, with no kids of their own and an aging mother for whom they cared. Adolf, a butcher, rose early for his shift at a meatpacking plant in the South St. Paul stockyards. Francis stayed home to raise her four new wards. The Schliefs ran a strict, joyless home. Francis, inexperienced and sometimes frantic, was given to bursts of temper. According to family legend, she once beat one of Marius’ brothers with a cast iron skillet.

Adolf and Francis were deeply religious. They worshipped in the Brethren Church—a breakaway Protestant group nicknamed the “dunkers” for their full-body baptisms. As new members of the family, Marius and his siblings also became Brethren and were initiated into the rites of the church. The Brethren advocate fealty to the Scriptures. Jesus washed feet; the Brethren wash feet. Jesus had communion in the evening; so do the Brethren. Marius absorbed this early immersion in evangelism. It defined him as a child, and by the time he reached his teens, he was possessed by religious fervor. He joined Christian Endeavor, an evangelical youth group, and with his brother Vernon began publishing a religious newspaper. Marius played the violin, Vernon the guitar, other friends the cornet and accordion, and they all played together at religious gatherings. At street meetings, the brothers preached by bullhorn to anyone who would listen. Marius always was at the center of these events, a frequent speaker who liked to sermonize. He took his Bible study seriously, memorizing passages using mnemonic systems (each finger, for example, represented a memorized Bible verse). He kept a running tally of the souls he’d saved.

It was a time of evangelical awakening all across the country, and also a time when Christianity developed a mean streak. One famous radio preacher, Father Coughlin, praised the Nazis to his thirty million listeners. Luke Rader, from the radio booth in his Minneapolis Tabernacle, raged against “Satan’s Synagogue.” Billy Sunday’s convulsive fire-and-brimstone sermons drew crowds of thousands to fields and tents in every state. It was as if the sheer helplessness of the Depression years wrung families hard until a sour trickle seeped out. If Christianity’s paranoid fringe affected Marius, however, the notes and documents of his life don’t show it. His was a cheerful disposition. He was a practical joker, and in the same notebook where he tallied his saved souls, he kept a list of jokes for handy reference.

According to a short history of the organization, apparently penned by Marius, the idea for the Outdoor Scripture Sign Crusade (the name was later shortened to Gospel Signs Inc.) came to Marius and Vernon “during one of the periods of prayer, to which they constantly resorted for comfort and guidance.” The brothers had noted the new, commercial “outdoor posters” along local highways, and they were entranced by this means of spreading the word. “It is our conviction that Christians should not ignore this valuable instrument,” Marius wrote. Their first sign went up in 1938 just south of the St. Paul city limits, a small wooden placard that read, “Whosever shall call on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” Marius and his friends quickly erected five more signs. Supporters donated land, materials, and labor, “making possible both low cost, and appearance whose modern design is colorful and attractive.”

Around this time, Marius met Elinor Olson, a young pianist recruited to accompany his violin performance at a church service. It wasn’t love at first sight, but Elinor soon joined the Schlief brothers and their friends in frenetic rounds of church meetings, music sessions, and parties. For his part, Marius found in Elinor’s family some of the tenderness that he missed in his own. He was soon a fixture at the Olson home.

“He was a delight,” Elinor’s sister Shirley recalls now from her house in Okalahoma. “He loved our whole family. We’d do all kinds of things. For entertainment, it was always with the church group. Marius would bring his friends over to my mother’s house. She’d make a hot dish and rolls. We had skating parties, parties where they played games. They were outstanding young people. They had good jobs, a lot of them. We really had a good life with him. I can’t remember that we ever fought.”

Like Marius, Elinor had suffered a troubled childhood. Her mother and father had separated when she was five. Her father moved into a residence hotel. For years, the family took pains to keep up appearances. “We never admitted to anyone that our dad did not live with us,” Elinor wrote in a brief autobiography she left when she died a few years ago. “When we had unexpected company from the church at night we had to call Daddy at the Jackson Hotel, and he would come out for the evening and then return to the hotel after they left.”

Elinor was twelve when her family became born again at a Luke Rader revival meeting. After that, they were regulars at evangelical gatherings, including Billy Sunday’s traveling show and faith healings orchestrated by a local preacher. Elinor took these meetings to heart. “We had been preached to about the end of the world coming September 9, 1934,” she wrote. “I decided that I wanted my mother to have a new bread box, so I took my earnings and bought it for her that summer so she would have it before the end of the world.”

Within six months of their meeting, Marius proposed to Elinor. “He did not believe in diamond rings,” Elinor wrote, “but he gave me a gold watch with diamonds around it.” Their wedding, long delayed for lack of money, was a simple affair. “We just had the family in the living room, then went downstairs to take pictures, and then our Gospel Signs friends came over for a simple reception.”

All this time, the crusaders had continued their work of posting the highways with billboards: “Jesus Christ Said: I am the way, the truth and the life; no man cometh unto the father but by me.” “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” “Prepare to meet thy God.” “The Wages of Sin is Death.”

With each new sign, the group received letters—many containing a dollar, some with sizeable checks. The idea of building the massive stone edifice on Highway 52 came in late 1939. The other signs were modest structures of plywood and steel. The new one would be different: imposing, permanent, an enduring monument to Christ. An artist in the crusade sketched a plan for the sign, and even printed stationery featuring the drawing. Everyone prayed for guidance. If Marius suffered any doubts about the project, worries of idolatry or pride, he didn’t show it. It’s more likely that the project’s ease—the donated land, the stone hauled for free from a nearby quarry—justified the work, for why would God bless the project if it were not in his plan?

The dedication ceremony took place a few days shy of Marius’ twenty-second birthday. The day dawned clear and bright, and slowly the cars came rolling to a stop along the highway. A few surviving photographs show a large crowd gathered on what was, at the time, flat farmland. The men wore suits, their hair slicked back or combed over. Young women in tailored jackets tugged their children across the grass. A farmhouse and barn stood in the distance.

Marius presided as the master of ceremonies. He said, “It is the will of God that this stone is erected here.” Another speaker predicted that, “the time was not far distant when provision would be made for signs in the air for those who are flying.” Robert Olson, a mainstay of the crusade, played a cornet solo. Everyone sang “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.”

One afternoon, before the ruin was knocked down, I decided to view the arches up close, in order to see and touch the stones. I was curious, but I also felt possessed by a force I couldn’t quite put into words. I pulled to the side of the highway and stepped out of my car, feeling displaced and out of scale with my surroundings. Semis shook away from the nearby stoplight, snorting through their gearboxes. A skunky stench came from the refinery. I entered the waist-high grass, where I found tire tracks to follow to the ruin. And then I was beside it. The sign was built from gray slabs and brown runty stones, all mortared together in uneven rows, not a solid foundation, but a mosaic. It looked homemade, the product of artistic vision. I found no trace of the wooden sign. My guess is that it rotted away long ago. Standing there, I had the sense that the ruin was speaking to me, but I couldn’t decipher the message.

Such ambiguity is endemic to ruins. Their symbolic meanings are as unstable as their structures. Celebrated in poems, songs, and paintings since the dawn of recorded history, ruins have been said to signify everything from triumph over enemies to sublime nature to the shadow of our own mortality. Something about a ruin makes a person feel frail and inferior in the presence of a higher, destructive force. It makes no difference if we call that force nature, time, mortality, or God. The fact of our inferiority remains. The ruin is its proof.

The issue is considerably confused, in this case, by the ruin’s history as a religious object. The Bible is full of ruins that signify God’s wrath. “Do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it,” God warns the Israelites in Leviticus, or, “I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings.” If erected in God’s honor, was Marius Schlief’s ruined billboard a symbol of God’s rebuff? And the erasure of its remains his final word?

Then again, in the shadow of the great refinery, the ruin seemed a delightful monument to folly and romanticism, a challenge to our prevailing notions of progress and competence. It is our misfortune to live in an age that honors efficiency above all other qualities. Truth and honor are sacrificed to it. What makes this an especially bad bargain is that, despite its trappings of scientific rationality, efficiency is a fiction—as immeasurable as hope, which is far more useful. All those automobiles speeding past the ruin, for instance, were efficient only if you discounted the thousands of men who extracted ore from the earth; made it into steel; and bent, burned, and riveted it into shape. To say nothing of the great machines—the cement mixers and rock-chewers—that were employed to make the highway. Efficiency is a bedtime story we tell ourselves to shut out black chaos. A ruin, on the other hand, is a gateway into that chaos.

For a good while, I stood before the ruin. Then I snapped some photographs and tramped back along the highway toward my car, which I noticed had been flanked by a pair of shiny jeeps with darkened windows. Two men clothed in paramilitary gear—black shirts tucked into black trousers, tucked into black boots—eyed me as I approached. The younger one pointed toward my camera and asked if I had been taking photographs. I nodded. Then he pulled a small card from a plastic dog tag that hung around his neck, and read that it was his duty to inform the Federal Bureau of Investigation of any suspicious activity in the area unless I surrendered my film.

I said I would take my chances with the FBI, and then we fell to talking.

“I always wondered about that thing,” said the older man a little wistfully, when I mentioned my interest in the ruin.

I asked why all the fuss about the FBI. He told me the ruin, along with the nearby refinery, stood in a “level-one security zone,” protected from terrorists night and day. The idea of a ruin under guard, or, for that matter, under attack, only heightened the prevailing sense of unreality. How could a pair of armed security guards hope to fight off the forces of decay and entropy?

It seems reasonable that Marius Schlief, with his winning smile, his lists of jokes, and his charismatic demeanor, was on his way to becoming an evangelical force—another of his era’s booming voices. But, as he might have said, God had other plans. A few months after his marriage, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He resigned as president of Gospel Signs, quit his job delivering meat, and enlisted in the military. He graduated from basic training in 1943, and then shipped out on the submarine USS Batfish.

During his tour, he kept a small notebook, which his daughter has saved. In it, he jotted updates of his works as a lay minister: “Met two Christians on forecastle, Feb. 23, first Bible class same night; two fellows accepted Christ, five in all—praise Him!” He also typed, or wrote out in his careful script, the notes for his Bible study sessions. Most of them are concerned with matters of doctrine and bear such titles as “The Nature of GRACE” and “Things that Pleased God.”

One entry, though, stands out. Titled “Christians Fighting,” it consists of a rationale for his own service. Unlike the other entries, which are little more than notes with Bible references, this one is composed in full sentences. In it, Marius lines up several arguments in favor of war. He cites instances of “Most Victorious battles” from the Old Testament. He argues that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” refers only to murder, not to capital punishment or war. “In discussing the question as to whether a Christian should go to war, we never should quote this command as having anything to do with it,” he concludes. He concedes that early Christians refused military service—not because killing ran counter to Christ’s teachings, but because soldiers were required to “bow and worship” an image of an emperor. “This the Christians could not do, and would not do.” Finally, he proposes a separation between the “Spiritual Kingdom” of Christ, which “does not accomplish its advancement by carnal weapons” and the “material kingdom of the world, which needs to be judiciously ordered by material means.”

Judging from the passage, Marius was a man at war with himself, wrestling with the age-old problem of moral action. Crouched over his typewriter in the belly of the Batfish, Marius wrote this sermon, one senses, to convince not his fellow gunners, but himself. There’s something vulnerable and deeply moving in Marius’ arguments—especially his comparison of killing (such an unambiguous moral prohibition) to the compulsion to bow to a graven image (which, I suspect, Christ would be willing to forgive). In any case, his submarine was highly decorated and sank a total of nine Japanese ships, including three vessels in the space of four days in early February 1945.

World War II ended the work of the Outdoor Scripture Sign Crusade. And by all accounts, Marius came home a changed man. He maintained his strict doctrine, but no longer channeled it into evangelism. If this were fiction, I could pretend to know exactly what happened in the bowels of that submarine, between the praying and the killing. But Marius never spoke of the war. As it is, all I can say is that he returned to his wife, started a printing business, had children, and never re-formed the crusade.

Marius died in 1973, but I met his daughter, Sandy, and spent an afternoon poring over photographs and family trees in her dining room. It was clear after a few minutes that she still cares for him in that fierce, absolute way that some daughters do for their fathers.

“He was wonderful,” she said, and her eyes got misty and lost. “He spent, I would say, sixteen to eighteen hours a day working, but he always had time for us. He never made us feel unwanted. But there were rules. It seems like most of my childhood was sitting in church. He was very strict with us. There is a nerve in the knee, and if we misbehaved, he would squeeze it. He never believed that children should play during church. You sit during the service. And we did.

“My dad had a big ego,” she continued, her impressions coming in bursts. “He wasn’t obnoxious, but he needed to be in the limelight. My dad was in the front; my mom tagged behind. She said she never got tired of holding his hand. She would always say, ‘The best isn’t good enough for Marius Schlief.’ Everything he did was absolutely perfect. It was his spirit. He never preached hellfire and brimstone. It was all in the way he treated people. ”

Sometimes he would drive Sandy to the edge of town and show her the stone billboard sign. But with no one to maintain it, the paint had begun to peel and fade, the signboard to rot, the mortar to flake. Little by little, the sign fell apart.

One of Marius’ confidants after the war was his brother Cledis, which is surprising in that Cledis never took to religion. In fact, while Marius forbade his children to dance, Cledis ran a dance hall on Highway 55, not far from the billboard sign. Schlief’s Little City was an old-fashioned roadhouse that drew crowds from all the surrounding towns, friends who brought their own liquor and danced. They danced the waltz, the fox-trot, swing, mixers, the chicken dance, the polka, all to the accompaniment of an accordion, a clarinet, and a stand-up bass.

Marius and his family often stopped by on Sunday afternoons, when the dancing was over. And Sandy and her sister would sneak into the ballroom, with its stale smoke and dim lights, and they would spin together on the wooden floor.

The last surviving member of the Outdoor Scripture Sign Crusade is Bob Olson, the man who played the cornet at the billboard’s dedication. He lives with his wife in a Twin Cities senior housing project. I paid him a visit to find out what he remembered about the sign, and while we were talking, it occurred to me that he hadn’t seen it in some time and had no idea that it had fallen into ruin and been destroyed. I explained the situation. I said it seemed that the forces of man—industry, commerce, and so on—had displaced the seeds of godliness that, as I understood it, his organization had hoped to plant. At that, he chuckled and shrugged.

“Satan is just working harder,” he said. “A lot harder. That’s all I can see.”

I asked him why a bunch of young guys would set out to build such a monument. The question seemed to take him by surprise.

“We were interested in souls,” he said, as if explaining something to a particularly slow child. “That’s the reason—absolutely the only reason we would go to all that trouble. We were interested in seeing people accept the Lord.”

Turns out, that’s still his preoccupation. It didn’t take him long to question the condition of my soul.

“How long have you been saved?” he asked.

“Well, I don’t know that I am,” I hedged. “I suppose I was baptized.”

“But have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”

I hadn’t. But I hated to let him down. The truth is that my religious training was patchy at best. The child of a Catholic and a Jew, both lapsed, I slipped between the cracks. I went to a few Bible study sessions in grade school. I listened to a lot of old-timers’ stories about Nanabouzou and the Great Spirit on the Indian reservation where I grew up. I drank wine from a homemade chalice at hippie Sabbath celebrations. Today, the extent of my spirituality is a kind of rueful respect for the great mysteries of life and death and for my minuscule place in the scheme of things. Over the years, I have decided not to care what name is given to these mysteries. No, that’s not right. I have come to believe it necessary not to name them. Because as soon as they are named, they cease to be mysteries and become human interpretations, steeped in all our folly and hubris.

But how could I explain this to Bob Olson? “Last night I prayed about you coming here,” he said, “and I want to read something to you.” He opened his Bible and read aloud the verses in John that are the cornerstone of the born-again philosophy. In the text, Jesus tells a rabbi that to see the kingdom of God, he must be “born again.”

“How can a man be born when he is old?” the man asks. “Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answers: “That which is born of flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and wither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”

To Bob Olson, stammering over the verses, the key point was that “you must be born again!” But as I listened, I was captured by Jesus’s metaphor: the Spirit is the wind, its source and destination a mystery. There is only its touch upon your cheek. And yet here we are, Bob Olson too, struggling to catch the wind, explain it, pin it between the pages of a million Bibles. Suddenly, I felt lighter than I had in a long time.

Recently, I drove past the spot along Highway 52 where the ruin had stood. Not only were the stones gone, but so was the grassy meadow. It had been replaced by dirt, gravel, and sawdust. The oaks that once provided shade lay in a tangled heap. I thought I caught a glimpse of the ruin’s stones at the far edge of the construction site, scattered like rubble from a beaten city. Where the sign had stood, highway crews erected a concrete buttress. Steel beams lay stacked next to it, the future understructure of a freeway overpass.

All of this I saw in a flash. Then the traffic hurtled me forward. I drove on, a little heartbroken, a little stunned, a little weary. But as I considered the situation, I thought to myself that it was not so surprising that the ruin should be replaced by a new freeway. What was surprising was that it had stood in the first place.