I continue to regain my strength after teaching a course this past weekend on Christian worldview in Grande Prairie, Alberta. That’s one reason why it’s been so quiet in the blog as of late. It’s a five hour drive each way with 11 hours of lecturing sandwiched in the middle. For an appropriate metaphor you might think of an Oreo cookie. Except that Friday afternoon saw Alberta hit with a spring blizzard (only on the prairies 🙁 ) that I had to slog through on the drive up, thereby adding minutes to my schedule and grey hairs to my head.
On Saturday I spent a significant part of the day talking about consumerism, a problem that I’ve blogged about here on a regular basis. For example, see “Material consumption as the meaning of life,” “Consumerism as Religion,” “Is the church supposed to be ‘a place for you’?” and “Forever Velveteen: A Reflection on the Soul of Consumerism“.)
In the class I also spend a significant amount of time talking about naturalism and postmodern relativism. While Christians often focus on the challenge of naturalism and postmodern relativism, most Christians are much less aware of the challenge of consumerism. And yet it seems to me that this challenge is much more insidious to a Christian consistently living out their convictions. Consequently, it is essential for Christians to think carefully about the extent to which consumerism is an abiding narrative which baptizes the current expressions of consumer capitalism as well as the ways that they’ve been personally drawn into that narrative.
In the course I show a documentary called “Malls R Us“. The film focuses on the development of the shopping mall in the twentieth century and examines the way that it provides a quasi-sacred space for the practices of consumerism. Mall architecture uses abundant light (e.g. skylights) and water (e.g. fountains), classic symbols of the sacred. Like a church, malls seek to diminish the person through impressive, vaulted expanses of interior space. And it seeks to form community — the most bustling spaces in most civic areas today are found in the shopping malls and other commercial districts.
(One shortcoming of the documentary is that it neglects the fascinating way in which department stores provided the first sacred consumer spaces in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wanamaker’s was the most famous of them all. Led by John Wanamaker, a devoted Calvinist Christian, the original Philadelphia department store boldly echoed a cathedral with the vaulted ceiling of its Grand Court and its massive church organ.)
Shopping today is a form of recreation. Literally. People are re-created through participation in the sacral rite of mall culture. And how ubiquitous it is. On Saturday I lectured about the spiritual dimensions of the mall and its role in consumerism. Not twenty four hours later I found myself in a mall — West Edmonton Mall, one of the largest in the world with over 800 stores, a massive waterpark, hotel, dozens of restaurants, a theme mark, mini-golf … and even a chapel! Not surprisingly, there is rarely anyone in the chapel. But the mall itself is a privately controlled religious space that provides the medium of social exchange and meaning-making, all grounded in the consumption of material goods and services.
Interestingly, I ran into a couple people I know at the mall. One of them described their visit as “retail therapy”. It is an apt phrase. It is almost impossible to exist in the developed world without some reliance on retail therapy. It could be as overt as spending tens of thousands of dollars on an exorbitant shopping spree in New York, or as subtle as buying a coffee in Starbucks. But for virtually all of us the idea of predicating some degree of our personal fulfillment or wellness on the consumption of material goods and services has become part of the air we breathe.
Of course it would be a grave error to think that because you hate shopping malls and you rarely visit them that you have escaped the wiles of consumerism. Buying that coffee is a great example. Canada’s national coffee chain is called “Tim Horton’s”. Every morning in Alberta you can drive by any Tim Horton’s and see a dozen pick up trucks — vehicles that need the wind at their backs to hit 15 mpg — idling in line so that the driver can pick up his morning cup of Tim’s. Those Tim’s customers may hate the mall, but they have inextricably tied their wellness to the consumption of a specific branded material good as that morning coffee assumes a sacral role not far off morning mass for the pious Catholic.
A few weeks ago I broke down and finally bought a new motorcycle. (Well, new for me anyway; it is a 1996 Honda Magna.) I rode a Yamaha Virago and Suzuki Intruder throughout the 1990s and always wanted to buy another bike and now I have. While it is a great bike the decision does not sit completely well given that I once wrote an article titled: “Should I help the poor … or buy a new motorcycle?” Er, this time I chose the motorcycle.
But then it isn’t just about big ticket purchases. Small purchases are moral decisions as well. I regularly choose to buy a new book or that cup of coffee (Tim’s or, more likely, Starbucks) or dinner when I could have chosen to help the poor. Quite literally. I could have chosen to put that twenty bucks in my Kiva account (Kiva is a microlending agency) and lent it out to an entrepreneur in the developing world. But instead I chose to spend it on myself for goods that, in the grand scheme of things, can only be considered trivial.
Every day is a struggle for fidelity to my convictions in a culture where good citizen has become conflated with good consumer. (This theme is explored in Benjamin Barber’s fine book Consumed.)
To make things worse, no money need exchange hands for capitulation to the consumerist mindset. Those who spend their time pining for the latest goods are as enslaved as those who actually buy them. I could easily spend half an hour scrolling through the online Kijiji classifieds looking for the latest deals. In this case window shopping becomes an activity of material consumption all its own.
With the average North American bombarded by 12,000 or more commercial images a day, with countless opportunities to practice the pseudo-sacrament of consumption, with more and more spaces devoted to the inculcation of that anti-virtue “buy it now” mentality, consumerism becomes corn syrup for the soul: a ubiquitous and harmful additive to our daily lives.
If extricating ourselves from consumerism were simply a matter of hunting out products with corn syrup and putting them on a watch list then the problem would be easy. Just don’t go to malls or buy Tim Horton’s coffee and you’ll be fine.
But of course things don’t work like that. Commercial spaces may provide fertile ground for participation in consumerism, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go to the mall any more. And there is room for comfort foods and beverages, for surfing the classifieds, and purchasing relatively big ticket items that need their chrome polished on a regular basis.
The enormously difficult thing about consumerism is that there is no simple list of dos and don’ts. There is no maximal threshold for one’s disposable income. And we all have a notorious ability to justify ourselves and our own purchases. I remember one day walking in my neighborhood and judging a neighbor for the old Cadillac sitting in his driveway with the vinyl roof peeling off. A couple blocks away I walked by a neighbor washing his new Porsche, and I promptly judged him for spending so much money on expensive German engineering.
Then the hypocrisy hit me: I was ready to judge everyone with a car substantially nicer or noticeably not as nice as mine. Cheapskates or materialists, take your pick. Apparently I had achieved the golden mean. Or so I had self-righteously thought.
In the same way that the alcoholic must face every day as a struggle against the bottle, so we need to face every day as a struggle against a society that increasingly wants to define the good life in terms of a certain level of material consumption. The challenge, in short, is to be in the mall but not of it.