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”?