One of the misconceptions that recent literature on religion tries to take down is the idea that there is such a thing as “neutral” culture. Consider, for instance, the attention that Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith gives to the concept of “secular liturgies” in his book Desiring the Kingdom. There, Smith makes the audacious claim that seemingly innocent practices such as shopping at a mall actually shape us into certain types of people – people who think, feel, and move as if a better life was only a couple of purchases away. Participation in the liturgies of consumer capitalism – whether we intentionally want it to or not – condition us to become consumers, individuals who invest personal meaning and significance into the things which we own and buy. Our clothes, our car, our furniture all express who we are, personas attainable with but a swipe of the credit card. “I consume, therefore I am” is the mantra which unconsciously screams out from every television, poster, or billboard in our advertisement-saturated society.
In his book, Smith focuses his attention on places and events of particular identity-forming importance such as shopping malls, sports stadiums, movie theaters, and universities. These are “sacred spaces” of sorts, with their own rituals and communities of belonging that, in a way, compete with Christian liturgies of Eucharistic communion. Whether one is convinced or not, Smith’s analysis ought at least to give us pause about the habits embedded into our ordinary lives that might have larger behavior-shaping consequences than we would think.
Consider, for instance, the idea of having a favorite kind of ice cream. It’s a question we’re conditioned to answer from our very youth, from elementary school questionnaires to small group icebreakers, from college applications to password recovery security questions. Along with a favorite food and a favorite color, a favorite kind of ice cream is one of the necessary preferences to ensure that you’re not the awkward one in the circle whom everyone thinks had the deprived childhood. Though most start off with plain old chocolate and vanilla (with the occasional Neapolitan), youth quickly learn to diversify into the mint chocolate chips and Jamoca Almond Fudges. If you’re really sophisticated, it’ll be the Signature CreationTM at the local Cold Stone’s with a name like Cookie Doughn’t You Want SomeTM?
At the core, the question depends upon the seemingly innocent assumption that our preferences give some genuine insight into our identities. For most of us, this is so taken-for-granted that we have never really considered how odd it is to think that. Consider: it is not a story from our personal history that defines us, but an encounter – necessarily repeatable – with a particular commodity that merits the attention of those around us and, supposedly, breaks the ice. We have thus been ushered into a community of ice-cream-consumers which can now move on to tackle other issues in solidarity.
To be honest, part of the reason I’m writing about this now is that I’ve always struggled with coming up with a list of “favorites”. As far as I was concerned, most of the things we’re asked to have preferences on have little significance on what I actually cared about in life. Reading Smith’s book, however, made me wonder how much of our lives are structured by little encounters and rituals which try to get us to say something about ourselves in terms of, say, what we like (Facebook, anyone?), as if liking something is a primary determinant of who you are. The dynamics of consumer capitalism favor people who have strong preferences and who identify with them, but not everyone fits that kind of mold. When I go out to eat with my friends, for instance, a huge problem is often that no one actually has extremely strong preferences and we end up spending half an hour half-heartedly debating our options because most of us are more excited about eating with one another as opposed to eating something we “like”. That’s the way it always happened in my family. We ate whatever was put in front of us because it was what Mom made. There’s a kind of comfort in that sort of given-ness when things are outside our control. We still have preferences, but they are not the final determinants of our consumption. In this sense, family meals serve as a kind of counter-liturgy to the rhythms of the market. And in a world increasingly saturated by voices that want to give us the illusion that we can be in control – so long as we pay – it’s making more and more sense to me why Paul of Tarsus would insist so much that Jews and Gentiles can sit together at the same table. Before feast and Eucharist were really separated, they played a similar role, telling us something important about our food choices: we eat because we’re family. So what if it’s pork?