Michael Linton of First Things‘ blog, Public Square, has highlighted an emerging story that touches on a favorite theme of GetReligion’s editors: The intersection of faith and commerce. In “The Malling of Mecca,” Linton describes the construction of Abraj al Bait, which will offer space for 600 retail outlets, hotel rooms and posh apartments, all towering over the holiest site in Islam.
Hassan M. Fattah of The New York Times covered this story very well back in March:
Five times a day across the globe devout Muslims face this city in prayer, focused on a site where they believe Abraham built a temple to God. The spot is also the place Muslims are expected to visit at least once in their lives.
Now as they make the pilgrimage clothed in simple white cotton wraps, they will see something other than the stark black cube known as the Kaaba, which is literally the center of the Muslim world. They will also see Starbucks. And Cartier and Tiffany. And H&M and Topshop.
The Abraj al Bait Mall — one of the largest in Saudi Arabia, outfitted with flat-panel monitors with advertisements and announcements, neon lights, an amusement park ride, fast-food restaurants and a lingerie shop — has been built directly across from Islam’s holiest site.
While acknowledging that many Muslims oppose the Abraj al Bait project, Linton argues that such a profane invasion of sacred space would not be as tolerated by Christians:
Of course, there are those trinket shops next to almost every Christian sacred site, but I think that a lot of Christians view them as embarrassments. Even in Rome, I don’t think there’s a Christian-themed shopping center (although there might be one here in Tennessee, if the Bible Park U.S.A. gets built). My guess is that the memory of the story of the Lord whipping the temple money changers makes us edgy about linking religion too closely with commerce.
This feels like wishful thinking. How many historic churches, including the Washington National Cathedral, make space for a nearby (or even an attached) gift shop? Consider Willow Creek Community Church in greater Chicagoland, which offers a mall-style food court. A number of churches have welcomed Starbucks into their lobbies. ATMs are appearing in church buildings as a convenient way of making one’s donations (and, perhaps most important, obtaining an IRS-friendly receipt). If you have any doubts about the church’s ability to make peace with commerce, read Jeremy “Veteran of this Blog” Lott’s “Jesus Sells.”
While there’s still no One Vatican Place or First Baptist Mall, the sad truth applies across doctrinal divisions: If you build it, they will come.