Is the mall your temple?

Two weeks ago, we looked at how “secular temples” have the power to shape our desires. Today we’ll put some feet on this idea as we look at the mall (and the entire consumeristic complex) as a temple that shapes our souls by forming our conception of the good life, in antithesis to God’s conception.  I’m borrowing this example from a (far) more extended social commentary in James K.A. Smith’s (far superior) Desiring the Kingdom.

For the moment I ask you to suspend your disbelief, and imagine with me the mall in religious terms. Let’s look at with a new lens that gives it the shape of the temple, and see what we can learn:

Like pilgrims from far off lands, we descend on the mall. We park. We enter. Finding a map, which lists all of the shrines within, we proceed to our demi-god of voice: clothing, jewelery, sports, food, gadgets, or entertainment. Our personal tastes and interests guide us as we disperse. 

Once in these shrines, or stores, there are images and ikons of people living a happy, fulfilled, good life. “How?” We wonder. But then we see their clothes and their gadgets and their jewelry. “How?” They have stuff; they have the right stuff. The shrine is littered with idols dressed up like these happy people.

Advertisements in an out of the mall evangelize to us this good life of looking good, and feeling good, and having stuff. Online shrines invite us to melt away the hours perusing the limitless symbols of happiness that we cannot have, but might with a simple click. The whole temple points to our deepest problem: we don’t have enough stuff.

So we try stuff out, put it on and go to the altar, or cash register, to lay down our personal offering of money. We do not leave empty handed, but exit with a new piece of the good life in our shopping bag. But it never gives us redemption. We must return again and again to remain fulfilled – the good life requires continual consumption.

The mall gives us a vision of the good life. It gives us a way of understanding ourselves: we are what we buy and what we wear. It also provides a rubric for others: they are their exterior. Let’s consider three quick examples of practical ways that the mall’s vision of good life shapes our lives outside the mall.

1. We make friendships based on temple rules. Christianity pictures a diverse community of appearances coming together to love God and one another. The mall envisions a community where Carhart bibs pal around with Duck Commander calls. J. Crew is, well, a real crew. Hipsters are magnetically charged to ironic garb and opposed to polos. While each self-presentation appears different, they share the same logos: does this person’s look fit into my image of the good life? Do we write off people because of their appearance? Do we reject Christ’s diverse community for the homogenous superficiality of the mall?

2. We seek transcendence through commercial interactions. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul explains the visible is transient, while the invisible is everlasting. This order is inverted in the mall. What is valuable is what is seeable, touchable, tastable. If you can’t wear it or experience it, then it’s suspect. The closest thing to a spiritual experience is the elation you feel right before you pay. Rock bottom, is realizing you’re stuff is old. Are we satisfying our hearts’ longings for transcendence by the invisible Holy Spirit or the visible gods of Amazon?

3. We begin to understand all institutions as malls. Do we see Church as a spirit-filled body of believers, or a place to give money in exchange for entertainment? Do we see School as a learning place or a perfunctory technical training, where we gain tangible skills to do stuff that helps us get more stuff? Bars become the place where we act out the posters we see in The GAP. The hook-up culture is actually a commodification of sex in friendship, as taught by the mall.

Do we engage the world as consumers or as Christians? Has God’s temple (the spirit-filled body of believers) shaped our desires? Or has the mall?

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