The Liturgy of the Mall

Christmas decorations went up on my Catholic university campus on 11 November so it must be time to reflect liturgically on Christmas shopping.  For James Smith, consumer shopping involves the “liturgy of the mall.”*  Arguing that human beings are driven more by desire than by sheer intellectual conviction, Smith writes:

Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because these desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate . . . Rituals and practices of the mall . . . shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world . . . . The visions of the good life embedded in these practices become surreptitiously embedded in us through our participation in the ritual and rhythms of these institutions.

Smith contends that the mall offers a vision of life characterized by a number of features.  Here I will treat three of them.  First, humans are broken / flawed.  “By holding up for us the ideals of which we fall short,” such as snappy clothing and stylish hair, ads seek to “inscribe in us “a sense that something’s wrong with us, that something’s broken.”  Second, shopping with family or friends at a mall involves a “strange configuration of sociality,” in which shoppers construe their “relationships in terms of competition—against one another and against the icons of the ideal that have been painted for us.”  Third, shopping offers “the hope of redemption in consumption.”  On this account, “the goal of shopping is the acquisition of goods and services that try to address the problem” we have come to recognize in ourselves: “our pear-shaped figure, our pimply face, our drab and outdated wardrobe.”  The satisfaction derived from purchases of this kind is often short-lived and so another shopping trip beckons.

I offer comments here on these three features of the liturgy of the mall vis-à-vis Christian liturgy.

Like this liturgy, Christian liturgy also characterizes humans as broken and flawed.  Humans are prone to sin and they do actually sin by failing to love.  Like the liturgy of the mall, Christian liturgy has a social dimension, but in Christian liturgy this social dimension is a matter of being summoned by God to be made into a people who might acknowledge God and serve God in holiness (Lumen Gentium, 9; see also 1 Peter 2:9-10).  Like the liturgy of the mall, Christian liturgy offers and celebrates hope of redemption.  Christian life is one of constant conversion and re-conversion to the Gospel.  One’s dignity derives not from one’s accomplishments or purchases, however,  The root of human dignity is found in the divine call to be in communion with God, a call issued in sovereign divine freedom and graciousness (Gaudium et Spes, 19).  Though human response to this call may and does waver, the call itself is unfailing.  It is this call that summons Christians to be a people forgiven and forgiving, a reconciliation effected in all the sacraments but especially in baptism, Eucharist, and penance.

I wonder, though, if Smith’s analysis is both timely and yet outdated.  Black Friday, with its hordes of shoppers descending on malls, has a clear rival in Cyber Monday, with its shoppers in their individual homes making purchase on-line.  Mall-shopping does not happen only on Black Friday but neither does cyber-shopping happen only on Cyber Monday.  The “strange configuration of sociality” has a rival in the (greater?) fragmentation of sociality of cyber-shopping.

We can never grasp all of the ways in which our character is formed or influenced by our habitual practices.  Smith has offered some suggestions for how character is influenced by shopping at the mall.  How do we understand the ways in which habitual participation in Christian liturgy forms us?

*All citations of Smith are from James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 25; 96-101.

7 comments

  1. I must say, I disagree fundamentally with Smith’s premises, and consider them short-sighted, and just plain neglectful of a wide range of human behavior and motivation that enters into the experience of commerce. In short, his analysis briefly presented here focuses only on the negative end of a wide range of possible feelings and experiences that I consider more prevalent. People would not enjoy shopping half as much as they evidently do if their experience was fundamentally about perceiving themselves as falling short, or being ugly, or marred by anxiety in competition with others. These are psychologically unhealthy attitudes, and although for some people these attitudes may be predominant, it’s not normal.

    Smith doesn’t seem to recognize that the primary motivation, for many people, is that they take pleasure in the activity of browsing and selection of consumer goods which is oriented toward optimizing goals — such as getting the most out of one’s limited resources (snagging a bargain, or being a “smart shopper”), or selecting gifts that will be concrete expressions of love for dear ones, or obtaining goods that provide the owner with comfort, warmth, and delight, and that will put one’s best foot forward in interactions with the wider world. There are benign social as well as personal goals that attach to this activity, which is one of the reasons why it is pursued. It’s unfair to label the whole lot of it with terms that suggest a dysfunctional narcissism.

    The contrast with liturgy is more fundamentally that liturgy isn’t about browsing or acquisition. It is about being and receiving. And this activity of being and receiving — being in the presence of God and one another in the arc of the story of grace — is something that none of our consumerist activities prepares us for. Still, think of Thomas Merton’s epiphany on a street corner in Louisville. Some of those people were no doubt going shopping. That didn’t stop him from seeing grace in them.

    1. Actually the spot where Merton had his epiphany (easy to find because of the state historical marker commemorating it) was at the time the epicenter of shopping in the entire state of Kentucky.

  2. @Rita:
    I think both of you have some good points, and you articulated some of what was missing from the original article.

    You stated that “The contrast with liturgy is more fundamentally that liturgy isn’t about browsing or acquisition.” Ideally, yes, I agree whole-heartedly. However, I frequently hear people talk about “getting” Holy Communion, what they “got” out of Mass, what the parish give-away book will be at Christmas / Easter, how people come to Ash Wednesday because they “get something”, how people “parish shop” for what they like (music, homilies, etc.). The examples are legion and they aren’t necessarily new. That sounds an awful lot like browsing and acquisition to me. Liturgists may not see liturgy, specifically the Mass, that way, but I fear that plenty of folks in the assembly see any liturgy, either consciously or unconsciously, as a commodity to be vended. If they can’t get what they want from the Mass or the Catholic Church, there’s always a non-Catholic megachurch down the street at which to “shop”.

    Anyone who helps with parish liturgies needs to be careful about using language that misrepresents or misclassifies the liturgy (or parts of it) as something consumer-driven. I worry that we have a distance to go in addressing this aspect of the problem, given how financially constrained many parishes have become.

    1. Paul, I totally agree. Many of the consumer attitudes we bring to other parts of life can become a framework of expectation for the liturgy, resulting, as you so well observe, in dissatisfaction when liturgy doesn’t deliver a “takeaway” that is instantly recognized as something of value. Liturgy nevertheless does enrich our lives. And it can help to educate our longings. It tells us a different story about ourselves, and thus awakens new hopes and desires. Commerce has its place, but it’s not an adequate template for the things that are most important in life.

  3. Coincidentally, I spent a couple of hours last week hanging out in the mall of my youth waiting on a phone repair. With no phone, text or internet access to distract, I noticed that the mall was in the process of becoming a different animal than what Smith was writing about a mere 10 years ago. An entire wing has been torn down and is being transformed into an outdoor driving range for golfers. A former department store space is now a Dave and Busters (which for the uninitiated involves bad pizza, beer and games that require physical interaction.) Major retail chains (Banana Republic and such) are gone and replaced by branches of local shops located in the up and coming parts of downtown. And this is a mall that continues to attract visitors. The others have either been torn down or are empty shadows of what they were. (In fact photographer Seph Lawless has made something of a career recording abandoned malls.) https://sephlawless.com/inside-creepiest-abandoned-malls/

    So it would seem that as an icon of American Consumerism, the mall is dead or on life support. It is swiftly being replaced by Amazon Prime’s two day free delivery. But I’m noticing something else happening alongside. The most vital parts of the city are becoming what were the deserted sidewalks of my youth. (Including Merton’s corner of Fourth and Walnut – now Muhammad Ali.) Younger people are seeking out more densely populated, walk-able neighborhoods where there are varieties of people and experiences rather than just the “things” of malls. In turn this is pushing the poor and immigrant population into the more isolated old suburbs.

    My suggestion would be to ponder what longings and needs (real and perceived) are driving these new spaces and rituals, because they are obviously shifting from what drove the growth of malls. And I suspect there might be more links there with the ritual and liturgy that we consider here than we might think.

    1. Interesting insights and observations, Louis. Say more! I’m a big fan of walkable neighborhoods, and I do think that our local landscapes, and how we fulfill our desires within them, are shifting… but don’t get me started on Amazon. The delivery trucks are a plague… Thanks for the reminder of the location of Merton’s epiphany. Perfect.

  4. I recall reading my first book on the mall as a sacred space in the late 1980s, and another about the mall as ceremonial center about 10 years later. (Though neither focused specifically on liturgical/ritual dimensions.)

    The practice of examination of conscience could, I believe, be helpful if we want to assist folks in contrasting the values of the rites of commerce with those valued by Christian rites. Naming the flaws in other areas of life goes a long way toward rectifying them. I know from personal experience (as a substance abuser, I know that shopping/purchasing can become an alternate addiction) that the naming can really help us acquire power over any unhealthy/unhelpful behaviors that can be associated with the U.S. pastime of shopping.

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