The Liturgy of the Mall
What practices and rituals shape who you are as a human being? Answering that truthfully requires time and the capacity for self-examination. To prepare for the season of Lent, I propose that we do just that.
I just finished an interesting book by Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith called Desiring the Kingdom. The chief claim of the book is that Christian worship should function as a counter-liturgy to the other liturgies of formation which are active in our lives. There is, by way of example, the liturgy of the mall. The mall, with its overstimulated images of alleged human perfection, tells us that we are broken. Our out of date shoes and clothes mark us as outcasts in a consumer economy. We can literally purchase our way into community. We are never prompted to ask of the mall "Where does all this stuff come from?" (101) And therefore, "[t]he mall's liturgy fosters habits and practices that are unjust." (101).
The book, written in 2009, is already outdated in an Amazon driven shopping economy. I'd like to see it rewritten with an eye to the liturgy of the smartphone. No doubt, the conclusions would be the same: we are always being formed in powerful ways by the things we spend time with.
But hold on, you say...I thought liturgy meant religious ritual or the music and words we sing and say on Sunday morning. Smith defines liturgies as "rituals of ultimate concern: rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations" (86).
Understood in this way, there can be a liturgy of the mall, a liturgy of Christian nationalism, etc. Quoting theologian Stanley Hauerwas on Texas football is emblematic of the book's claims: "As is well known...Friday night high school football is the most significant liturgical event in Texas" (106). I remember as a young student going to high school basketball and football games. Everybody was expected to stand and place their hands over their hearts and remove their hats. If you have trouble conceiving of these ritual acts as liturgical acts, think about what would happen if you refused to participate, or as Smith puts it: "Just try to remain seated at the next playing of the national anthem" (107).
Actually, we wouldn't have to think hard about what would happen. Our news has been suffused with examples of this kind of liturgical defiance. You can quickly determine which liturgies have the most powerful hold over practices and imaginations by tracking the degree to which it is considered a sacrilege of the national religion of patriotism to kneel during the anthem. Smith claims that most Christians fail to see any tension between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Gospel of Christian nationalism. Why? "[B]ecause, subtly and unwittingly, the liturgies of American nationalism have so significantly shaped our imagination that they have, in many ways, trumped other liturgies" (107).
Imagine an uproar about whether the Doxology was sung with gender inclusive language. That might stir up some drama in a committee meeting, but it's hard to imagine that in the world outside the church, anybody would really care. That people care so deeply about the ritual of the national anthem is a sign of how powerfully formative the liturgy of American nationalism is. This is just by way of example, and no doubt you could identify other formative liturgies.
All of this talk of what forms us led me inexorably to self-examination. Especially insightful was this exercise which Smith calls "A Practices Audit." He asks the reader to pose these questions:
"What are some of the most significant habits and practices that really shape your actions and attitude--what you think and what you do?"
"What does your time look like? What practices are you regularly immersed in each week? How much time is spent doing different sorts of activities? "
"What do you think are the most important ritual forces in your life?" (84)
Take some time and try to answer these questions. What kind of liturgies shape who you are? Lent is merely a week and a half away. Now is a good time to begin the journey of self-examination and communion that Christ calls us to begin.