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to address the problem” we have come to recognize in ourselves: “our pear-shaped figure, our pimply face, our drab and outdated wardrobe.”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.