Tuesday 1 October 2013

Mall Culture

This article was originally published in Christian Courier, Issue 2965, July 22, 2013.

Bourbon Street, Chinatown and Europa Boulevard are all here in the West Edmonton Mall. I am walking one of the High Temples of North American culture. This is how James K.A. Smith writes about the North American mall in his book Desiring the Kingdom.

Looking around, I see some people declare their fundamental allegiances—what they worship, in other words—on their clothing. Is it Hollister, Abercrombie, Guess, or Aeropostale? Almost everyone carries packages to remind them of their religious pilgrimage.

There is an indoor waterpark for those who worship there, an amusement park with incredible roller coasters for those who crave that excitement. I noticed a simulation of creation in the undersea adventure, although it was not functioning. Young children can use the indoor hockey rink to prepare themselves for ritual entry into the high priesthood of Canadian hockey.

Some worship in the variety of food expressing cultures from throughout the world, either on the high-end in restaurants or the low end in the food court. I experienced Bourbon Street and had blackened bourbon chicken in the food court. The Ferguson Brothers, in their humour book How to be a Canadian, reference Canadian culture as a mall culture with the food court as the primary food heritage of Canada

Consumer Culture
The stores all look alike. How many shoe stores does a mall need? This mall has thirty-five, plus sports stores. How many clothes do we really need to squeeze into our closets? Does anyone need Restoration Hardware or the Pottery Barn? What? No Restoration Hardware or Pier 1 Imports? I count 33 cellular services, 34 financial services and ATM’s, 62 health and beauty stores, 49 places for jewelry and accessories, and at least 68 clothes stores, not to mention the 12 shops for lingerie only and 8 bridal boutiques.

Is the combination of shopping, entertainment and adventure simply a way to gather all the things we worship? Stuff, food, entertainment, sports, appearance…North American culture.

I am perhaps too harsh and judgmental. Maybe the mall is a place of community. Maybe it is the place where cultures enjoy each other's differences, learn from each other, share with each other.

I did not fully participate in the worship in the mall. I ate because it was dinner time. I did not buy anything—maybe because I worship money. I did want to ride roller coasters. If I had more time and were more prepared I would have enjoyed the waterpark as I did 25 years ago when I brought 450 young people here from Grand Rapids, Michigan for the Young Calvinist convention in Edmonton. What did this excursion to the mall tell them when they were attending a religious gathering for young people?

Churches and Malls
When people go to church, it is often in isolated cultural ways. Malls seem to bring people together. Church seems to split people into separate ethnic groups. Malls are culture. Churches are sometimes a culture of the past. The mall has something for all ages, all cultures, if you have the money. The church is free, a place of grace, but declining in numbers in North America. Is the church too separated from culture?

Christ and Culture
The church’s relationship with culture is a difficult question. In 1951 H. Richard Niebuhr laid out approaches to culture from various Christian traditions in his book Christ and Culture. He delineated the positions of Christ Against Culture (often the approach of Fundamentalism and Anabaptists), Christ of Culture (often associated with “liberal” Protestantism), Christ Above Culture (associated with Roman Catholicism), Christ and Culture in Paradox (in Lutheranism and being revived in Reformed “two kingdoms” discussions), and clearly Niebuhr’s position of Christ the Transformer of Culture (the traditional Reformed view). Although Niebuhr’s analysis and categories have been challenged, it is still a helpful heuristic. More recently, Andy Crouch has advocated for Christians to be Culture Making.

Should we be separate and make our own culture, or engaged in shaping our culture’s culture? What does that look like? What does it mean for a businesswoman, a stock trader, a salesperson, a consumer? These are the questions with which our Christian institutions, especially churches and schools, need to wrestle.

What are the needs that both the mall and the church are addressing? Are we only consuming culture? Is the alternative now to retreat into subcommunities or just live in both worlds? How do we bridge between God’s new world in Christ and the mall?

Tom Wolthuis, President