I have been blogging for the past few weeks through James K.A. Smith’s great book “You Are What You Love.” Last week, I talked about Smith’s point that most of us probably aren’t aware of what we really love. This sounds like a strong claim. Of course, I know what I love, it’s my love!
But Smith would argue that most of our behavior and thought is shaped by cultural forces of which we are largely unaware. We are shaped by forces that are, on a deep and powerful level, fighting for our heart, and that for the most part we are entirely unaware of how powerfully these forces have shaped us. The part of the book I appreciate the most, Smith has an uncanny ability to culturally critique things that we have grown blind to.
Take the mall for instance. When you go to the mall, you probably don’t consider how much the mall is forming you. But the mall, according to Smith, is not neutral territory. It is, in his language, a Temple, just as religious as anything in the ancient world, and just as pagan (as in Anti-Christian).
Here is how he says it:
The local mall is actually one of the most religious sites in town—but not because it is “preaching” a message or touting a doctrine. No one meets you at the door of the mall and gives you their statement of faith that lists the sixteen things the mall believes. The mall doesn’t “believe” anything, and it isn’t interested in engaging your intellect. (Its targets are lower.) But don’t think that means the mall is a neutral space. And don’t think that means the mall isn’t religious. The mall is a religious site, not because it is theological but because it is liturgical. Its spiritual significance (and threat) isn’t found in its “ideas” or its “messages” but in its rituals. The mall doesn’t care what you think, but it is very much interested in what you love. Victoria’s secret is that she’s actually after your heart.
Smith suggests that we put on our liturgical lens to “critically read” the liturgy of the local mall. Borrowing from people like Ira Zepp in his book “The New Religious Image of Urban America: The Shopping Mall as Ceremonial Center”, Smith points out that most malls are built open and spacious like medieval cathedrals, they give us the sense that being there means belonging to something bigger than ourselves. The mannequins function like Orthodox icons, giving us a picture of what “the good life” looks like. In the mall, it seems that time is suspended, and the calendar is marked out by festivals of shopping high seasons and sales (think of Black Friday as Yom Kippur).
It is not just the advertisements that convince us to go into debt, because we don’t just think our way into consumerism. The reason why we spend more money than we have, buying way more than we actually need, is because we have been covertly conscripted into a way of life. We have been formed by cultural practices that are nothing less than secular liturgies.
Our loves have been engineered by rituals that we were unable to recognize for what they really were…liturgies.
Each time we go to the mall, we repeat a series of tangible, visceral, practices that implicitly carry with them a story about human flourishing that we are learning in unconscious ways. Each time we go to the mall we are practicing to become a certain kind of person and to believe certain kinds of things. Carried in these liturgies of visiting the mall, are several doctrines that if each of us were presented, we would no doubt refute.
Smith says that the creeds that the mall is implicitly teaching us are:
- I am broken, therefore I shop
- I shop with others
- I shop, therefore I am
- Don’t ask, don’t tell (in regard to the secret practices of retailers to conscript cheap foreign labor to drive up profit.)
It would take several more posts to go into each of these, but I find each one of them compelling. They ring true in my own life, and they help make sense of the strong pull most of us have to engage in “retail therapy” when we are feeling down.
It explains why those who care a lot about justice often find themselves struggling to justify their choices about their jeans made by exploitative labor. Because there is a GAP (pun intended) between what we think we love and what we actually love, or what we have been trained to love.
Here is one of the more brilliant concepts of the book. Smith says this little exercise of describing the secular liturgy of the mall is something like what the authors of the books of Daniel and Revelation were trying to do in their day.
For example, the way that Revelation describes the Christmas story is by telling about a woman giving birth and a dragon trying to devour the baby. This is a version of Christmas that doesn’t quite fit into a Charlie Brown special, because it sounds so odd, and way too ferocious and aggressive for the way we celebrate Christmas. It is hard to imagine dragons having anything to do with Christmas, but for some reason, it is not hard for us to imagine the mall being connected to it.
This is where I think Smith is brilliant. He is asking us to use our imagination for what is right in front of us, tapping into the ancient resource of apocalyptic reading of our time, so we can see it for what it really is.
Apocalyptic literature isn’t about another world, it always comes about to help us see this world better. The word Apocalypse just means unveiling, and in their day, these books of the Bible were written not to describe the danger of the future, but the dangers of what was right in front of them, what people had become familiar with, but was really deadly.
Seeing the world and our culture in this way requires a kind of wake-up call, a strategy for jolting us out of our humdrum familiarity and comfort with these institutions in order to see them for what they are. The point of apocalyptic literature is not prediction but unmasking – unveiling the realities around us for what they really are. While the Roman Empire pretends to be a gift to civilization and the zenith of human accomplishment, John’s apocalyptic perspective from a heavenly angle shows us the reality: Rome is a monster.
The goal here is to help us see the world through a slant, to see through all the spin. Because the empires that would like to capture your heart also have something to hide.
The mall is a temple, Rome is still a monster, and Jesus’ followers must learn how to resist her.
But first they must learn how to see her from a slant. First you have to recognize that you’re not just entering a mall, or a theater, or a stadium, you’re actually stepping onto a battlefield for your heart.
You must imagine dragons.