Liturgies and Malls 2

Last month, I wrote about the liturgy of the mall and James K.A. Smith’s contention that this liturgy fosters an anthropology like and unlike Christian theological anthropology.  I return to the mall in this post not so much to address whether or how shopping at a mall generates judgmentalism and insecurity in the minds and hearts of shoppers but rather to draw attention to the environment of the shopping mall.  In a recent contribution to the online Church Life Journal, Scott Beauchamp reflects on the Gruen Effect.  This principle, named for developer Victor Gruen, concerns how to design an environment conducive to shopping.  Beauchamp offers this summary.

The mall itself has to be comfortable, heated or air-conditioned and giving the impression of near sterility.  And it helps if there’s a sense of abundance.  Scarcity forces one to consider material necessity.  But most importantly, the mall needs to be sealed off from the rest of the world.  There should not be any worries about the weather outside or politics or the environment . . . . The factor which defines the Gruen Effect . . . is the eradication of moment to moment time and the establishment of a sort of synthetic sense of eternity.  The creation of a comfortable stasis or an illusion of escape from the vagaries of the embodied world.  Which is to say, the world itself.  This is the secret heart of the shopping mall’s utopian aspirations: to become an ersatz eternity.

Generally, malls do not feature clocks or windows.  Skylights, if there are any, are typically opaque, shielding shoppers from any perception of light, darkness, or weather conditions.  As Beauchamp puts it, “your sense of being situated in a specific time and space deteriorates.”  There is no outside factor to distract the shopper from shopping.

I wonder if or to what extent there is a parallel Gruen Effect in our liturgical environments and practices.  In his 1977 The Eucharist and Human Liberation, the late Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya wrote:

[Some find in liturgical uniformity] a wonderful witness to the oneness of the church.  But it does also provide a very supple instrument for the domestication of believers.  The Mass adjusts itself very little to even major social revolutions or calamities.  Generally the Christian community continues to worship as if nothing much has taken place over the centuries.  The impression created is that here is an efficacious way of personal sanctification.

Many figures (Virgil Michel, Karl Rahner, Bernard Häring, Juan Luis Segundo, Don Saliers, Vigen Guroian, and Louis-Marie Chauvet to name just a few) have written about a connection between liturgy and ethics, a connection each of them sees as intrinsic.  How well this connection is perceived in our Sunday assemblies is a separate question.  In the more than 40 years since the appearance of Balasuriya’s book, does his point hold?  Are our liturgies marked by “a synthetic sense of eternity” and / or an “escape from the vagaries of the embodied world”?


  1. It’s not only some malls that have no clocks or windows. This is typical of all casinos. Both types of establishment want to remove any sense of the passage of time so that customers will spend more.

    My analogy would be those liturgies that are so engaging that people are not aware of exactly how much time they have lasted. The trick” is getting the engagement level right. I was once part of an extended Vigil that lasted 7 hours in total. (Yes, there were bathroom breaks.) At the end, the majority of people had no idea that they had been celebrating for so long, they had been so caught up in what was happening.

    But that is an exceptional case. In the same way that it’s simply not possible to celebrate in top gear all the time, should we allow that some liturgies will be less engaging than others — perhaps even quite boring — in order that the good ones will stand out by contrast and really feed the participants? As a liturgical practitioner, I’m ambivalent about this. My instincts tell me that we should always be striving for excellence in engagement, and that to coast along is being irresponsible; but I realize that this can be asking a lot of people, both ministers and those being ministered to.

  2. To some degree, I think it depends on whether we want liturgy to mimic life or transcend it. Do we want the Mass and other services to embody the struggles of the church in day-to-day existence, or do we want these occasions to elevate the congregation beyond the everyday to something higher? If we take a both/and approach, what is the ratio then? That would seem to depend on the occasion.

    1. We have clearly been told by Vatican II to take a both/and aproach. Gaudium et Spes #38:
      “The Lord left behind a pledge of this hope and strength for life’s journey in that sacrament of faith where natural elements refined by man are gloriously changed into His Body and Blood, providing a meal of brotherly solidarity and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.”
      I agree that the balance depends on the occasion, but my opinion is that rather than embody the ‘struggles of the church’ within the liturgy, we should be strengthening those present to go out and return to the fray. ‘Go, and announce the Gospel of the Lord’

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