Liturgy of Consumption or Why the Mall Kills Your Soul…

Does a trip to the mall for a few hours of shopping have the same affect as a trip to church for a few hours on Sunday morning? Surely not, right? One is just a collection of stores conveniently arranged with a totally secular purpose of selling things. The other is a religious place, where you go to worship, and think about God.

I’ve been reading this book by James K. A. Smith and I think his answer to the question I’ve posed above is pretty insightful… so I wanted to share! In it, Smith teases out a set of liturgies inherent in our well known cultural institutions – like the mall. You may be familiar with that term – liturgy – or you may not. It is used in a lot ways with various depths of meaning: some use it as a fancy way of saying “the order of worship” and others give it a much richer meaning that encompasses pretty much all of life. For Smith, liturgy is a practiced ritual that aims to both reflect and define what matters the most in our lives; it reveals what we care about and it also shapes and transforms those things.
One of the main points of his book is to “raise the stakes” on our everyday secular practices (like going to the mall) and show us how these “secular” practices shape the aim of our hearts – our desires – in the same way as a worship service. There are no “neutral” practices: everything we do shapes us whether we know it or not. Even more, these practices contain a certain vision of the good life that we are drawn towards as we participate in them. As Christians, our aim, our goal, our ultimate desire should be defined by Matthew 6:33

Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven.

Now, does a trip to the mall shape our desires such that we are desire the Kingdom of Heaven? As you may have guessed from the title of this post… No. It doesn’t. The question becomes – What exactly does it do to our desires? How does it shape our hearts? What vision of the good life is contained in it? Well, Smith lays out four features of the liturgy of consumption:

  1. I’m broken, therefore I shop. The mall is full of images; happy people in cool clothes with cool stuff and lots of friends. Every time we see those images our brains think: “That’s not me.” Our lives never match the level of joy and fulfillment and success we see in these images. Since we don’t measure up to the ideals, we fell broken – like something is wrong. But alas! There is hope… just shop! Just buy the stuff the people in the pictures have and maybe you’ll feel better… and maybe not. These images play with our very real, and good, desires for friendship and joy and fulfillment in life but the way they offer for us to seek  these desires actually works against us. Everyone knows that no amount of shopping actually fulfills our desires. While telling us that we’re broken, the mall plays off our shame and embarrassment and offers us a counterfeit remedy.
  2. I shop with others. Consumerism is usually linked with individualism, but shopping is usually a social event. However, it is social in a weird, destructive kind of way. Instead of building community, it fosters competition as it teaches us to objectify ourselves and others. When we’re at the mall, we can’t help but notice how other people look. We are constantly looking people over and comparing them with ourselves and with the ideals we see in all the images (see #1). Its all competition. It teaches us to value other people as objects rather  than love them as humans.
  3. I shop (and shop and shop), therefore I am. At the mall, shopping equals redemption. First, it is considered almost like a kind of therapy – a “healing activity.” Going to the mall is like going to a sanctuary where we can get away from all the frustrations of life and “be surprised” by something we find (maybe its even on sale!?!). Second, it “fixes all our problems” by giving us all the things we need to look like the people in all the ads we see (again, see #1). But then we go home… and the feeling kind of fades. Our shopping thrill is fleeting, and then what? We go back for more. Shopping exalts the things it sells as our redemption, but then encourages us to throw that redemption away after a few weeks (or days) so we don’t fall behind on the fashions. It’s not that we just go to the mall once and buy some things that make us feel good; its that we then dispose of those things and go back for even more.
  4. Don’t ask, don’t tell. The mall has its secrets and there is one question it does not want us to ask: “Where does all this stuff come from?” It really, really doesn’t want us to know how all of it was produced and what it took to get that stuff to the mall. Otherwise, we might just figure out that the way of life the mall has convinced us to desire is completely unsustainable. Along with being unsustainable, it selfishly lives off the backs of the majority world. The “good life” envisioned at the mall is one that will literally destroy creation. It is not a life we could ever hope to share with the rest of the world because there would simply be no world left if we did.
Well, that was harsh. I know. Obviously, I didn’t like going to malls before I read this book and now I just feel vindicated. But maybe you do? I was actually at a mall today (to get lunch at Chick-fil-a… praise God). I’m not trying to throw you under the bus for being a frequent shopper. Actually, I hope that maybe you’ll read this and begin to think a little more about how shopping affects you, how it mis-forms you, how it aims the desires of your heart away from the Kingdom of Heaven. While I may not be a frequent shopper, I am an American and that means my life has been very much enmeshed in our consumer culture. I have just as much work to do with unraveling my heart from this mess as anyone else.
And its not just the mall. All our practices shape us in some way or another. As I continue reading this book, I hope to post more of Dr. Smith’s thoughts on how Christian worship practices can counter all the mis-formations we encounter in order to heal, re-form, and re-orient our desires towards the Kingdom.
Again, just want to point out that these ideas are not mine. All credit goes to Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith.

3 comments on “Liturgy of Consumption or Why the Mall Kills Your Soul…

  1. Awesome post, Joe. Thanks for sharing these really important insights. I think it’s really important to see our cultic practices as liturgy because it allows for practical parallels with what the Church is supposed to be doing. That is, Church is supposed to be an alternative community; an alternative culture with its own distinct liturgies, life-rhythms, and such. Great stuff.

    And thank you for your honesty. It is hard to be an American and critique our own culture because, after all, we’re all hypocrites. But that shouldn’t deter us from being critical thinkers.

    p.s. “fell” in #1 should be feel (?)

  2. […] participate in “liturgies” all the time – going to the mall, attending a sports game, or going to college. These seemingly “secular” and […]

  3. […] is particularly interested in how we are shaped by “secular liturgies” (like going to the mall) and the role of Christian worship as a practice that re-shapes or re-forms us over against all […]

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