Category: DTK Case Studies

The Mall as Consumerist Cathedral

When I give talks based on Desiring the Kingdom, I often revisit my analysis of the mall as a consumerist cathedral.  The concreteness and universality of the experience is usually a helpful entrée into the core concepts of my liturgical analysis of culture.

A couple of resources to add to that analysis:

When I was in Charlottesville recently, Louis Nelson, an architectural historian at the University of Virginia, pointed me to Ira Zepp’s book, The New Religious Image of Urban America: The Shopping Mall as Ceremonial Center–which seems to confirm much of my reading. 

Second, Jeroen van der Zeeuw from the Netherlands passed along this stark image: an aerial photograph of a mall that makes the “cathedral echo” quite explicit!

Bruce Springsteen, Educator

I was 15 years old when “Born in the U.S.A.” was released, and even those of us in Canada couldn’t evade its impact and allure.  This was also the era of the emerging ubiquity of the music video, so Courtney Cox’s cameo in the “Dancing in the Dark” video is forever emblazoned on my memory.

I’m nothing close to a Springsteen “fan,” however; and yet David Remnick’s recent New Yorker profile  was captivating.  What’s not to love about a working class Jersey guy who reads Dostoyevsky?

The dynamics of his relationship with his father–and its impact on his creativity–is compelling, and I’m sure has a kind of universal resonance.  As Springsteen frames it at one point:

“T-Bone Burnett said that rock and roll is all about ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s one embarrassing scream of ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s just fathers and sons, and you’re out there proving something to somebody in the most intense way possible. It’s, like, ‘Hey, I was worth a little more attention than I got! You blew that one, big guy!’ ”

But it’s his long-time bandmember Steve Van Zandt who offers an analysis of their generation that was almost epiphanic for me.  Talking about Springsteen’s tortured relationship with his father (a product of that proverbial “Greatest Generation” that endured WWII), Van Zandt observes (warning: mature language ahead):

“The torture we put these poor guys through, when you think of it now. My father, Bruce’s father—these poor guys, they never had a chance. There was no precedent for us, none, in history, for their sons to become these long-haired freaks who didn’t want to participate in the world they built for them. Can you imagine? It was the World War Two generation. They built the suburbs. What gratitude did we have? We’re, like, ‘Fuck you! We’re gonna look like girls, and we’re gonna do drugs, and we’re gonna play crazy rock and roll!’ And they’re, like, ‘What the fuck did we do wrong?’ They were scared of what we were becoming, so they felt they had to be more authoritarian. They hated us, you know?”

I’m sure the gist of that has been said a million times before, in a million different ways, but it just caught me short in a way that was revelatory.  The insight is probably more perennial than we realize.

Remnick’s profile also confirms the way that David Brooks has invoked Bruce Springsteen.  I’m thinking particularly of Brooks’ 2009 column, “The Other Education,” in which he recounts the sentimental education he received by immersing himself in Springsteen’s lyrical universe and concert energy.  “Over the next few decades,” Brooks noted, “Springsteen would become one of the professors in my second education. In album after album he assigned a new course in my emotional curriculum.”

This is no accident.  Springsteen playfully and ironically confesses as much to Remnick.  When he emerges from the dressing, he snaps into a posture in which he challenges the audience: “‘Are you ready to be transformed?’ What? At a rock show? By a guy with a guitar?  Part of it is a goof, and part of it is, Le’s do it, let’s see if we can.”

Or as he sings it in “No Surrender”: “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”

The Mall-ification of America

A friend pointed me to this article on the “Mall-ification of America”–which dovetails with my analysis of the mall’s liturgies in Desiring the Kingdom, particularly highlighting the assimilation that happens when we naively adopt what we (wrongly) think are “neutral” forms. Consider these concluding paragraphs:

There is some data to go on, though: According to the 2008 Hartford Institute survey,47% of megachurch income typically goes to employee salariesand benefits, compared to 13% for missions and benevolence. According to Leadership Network, a Christian nonprofit, pastor salaries in megachurches can reachas high as $400,000 a year. The IRS monitors salaries and specifically prohibits shareholder-like pay for ministers and church employees. Still, popular personalities regularly command higher salaries.
Churches maintain that monetary growth is just a means to the end of gaining new converts, not the other way around. On its website, Southland writes: “Some say, ‘We don’t need more churches. We’re only draining the rolls of other churches.’ Our hope is that we’re draining the rolls of hell. More locations provide more opportunity for evangelism.” For churches like Southland, paintball courts and letters to Britney are ultimately good because they help bring more people to God. Malls, similarly, are tools that bring in more members. But at what point does embracing commercial culture change one’s religious message? While holding services in a renovated Dillards might not affect how worshipers see Jesus, giving away flat screen TVs and cars to new attendees as prizes on an Easter Sunday “egg hunt” probably does. (The hunt, hosted by Bay Area Fellowship of Corpus Cristi, TX, also served as a casting call for a new season of MTV’s reality show “Made.”) Even when they become shells of their former selves, malls’ pasts never completely disappear, as Summer Grove’s recycled mall Christmas decorations suggest.
Whether you fasten on a steeple or add a glass facade, Americans remember malls as childhood fantasy lands, where they could meet Santa Claus and play with any toy. Perhaps it’s not a bad bet, then, that as adults, they might come back to meet Jesus.

Imagine the “Jesus” they’ll be meeting.

Google asks: “What do you love?”

When I give talks based on Desiring the Kingdom, I sometimes try to crystallize the philosophical anthropology at the heart of the book in this way: “If I really want to know who you are, I’m not going to ask what you know. I’m not even going to ask what you believe. If I really want to know what you’re about, the question I will ask is: What do you want? What do you love?”

Well it appears that Google is now asking just that question.

[Thanks to Dieter Bouma for the pointer.]

The iPhone-ization of our World(view)

Every technology is attended by a mode of bodily practice. So even if the computer is primarily an information processor, it can never completely reduce us to just “thinking things” because it requires some mode of bodily interface: whether we’re hunched over a desk, glued to a screen; or looking downward at a smartphone, our attention directed away from others at the table, etc.

Apple has long understood the bodily nature of this interface. In this respect, we already take for granted how revolutionary the touch screen is: it is a new, differently-tactile mode of bodily interface. Indeed, working on a MacBook feels distant and disconnected compared to the fingertip intimacy of the iPhone or the iPad. (Do you ever thoughtlessly try to touch your MacBook screen? Then you know what I’m talking about.)
But as Pierre Bourdieu would emphasize, such “micropractices” have macro effects: what might appear to be inconsequential micro habits are, in fact, disciplinary formations that begin to reconfigure our relation to the wider world–indeed, they begin to make that world. As Bourdieu puts it in The Logic of Practice, “The cunning of pedagogic reason lies precisely in the fact that it manages to extort what is essential while seeming to demand the insignificant” (p. 69).
One could suggest that our interface with the iPhone is just this sort of micro-training that subtly and unconsciously trains us to treat the world as “available” to me, and at my disposal–to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed. (In fact, one might wonder whether the basic orientation to the world that is “carried” and learned in this micropractice isn’t analogous to the “training” one would receive from viewing pornography.)
I was struck by this when I recently saw a rather inane Michelob Ultra commercial that nonetheless signaled just this kind of iPhone-ized relation to the world. Consider it an illustration of this case in point:

The Medium is the Message

In giving talks around the country about Desiring the Kingdom, one of the themes I regularly press is the refusal of any form/content distinction when it comes to Christian worship. This is central to my argument: when I claim that Christian worship forms and orients our loves, it’s not just any old version of Christian worship that does this. Indeed, much of what evangelicals think of when they think of “worship” (=music) does not have the potential to be formative in this way. What we need is Christian worship that embodies the unique logic of the Gospel, practicing and enacting the specificity of the Christian narrative. This is why, over time, the church, led by the Spirit, has communally discerned a certain given “shape” for core elements of Christian worship (which can then be “indigenized” in different ways in different contexts at different times).

The Gospel is not a “content” that can be distilled and just dropped into any old “form” that seems hip or relevant or attractive. You can’t distill Jesus from Christian worship and then just drop him into the mall or the coffee shop or the concert: while you might think you’re “Jesu-fying” this medium, in fact you just end up commodifying Jesus.

As I try to unpack this argument in various contexts, I sometimes allude to Marshall McLuhan’s famous claim that “the medium is the message.” The intuition is the same: there is no neat and tidy form/content distinction because we can’t sort out the message from its medium: the medium is the message. That’s not a bad shorthand for the point I’m trying to make–it’s just that I think catholic Christianity discerned this long before McLuhan.

Turns out, however, that McLuhan’s intuitions owe something to Catholic Christianity. When I was staying in Toronto earlier this summer, this was confirmed for me on two separate occasions. First, while visiting my brother and joining his family on a trip to the local library, I sat down with a recent issue of The Walrus, sort of Canada’s version of Harper’s or The New Yorker. Lo and behold, the issue contained an article by Jeet Heer, “Divine Inspiration,” in which Heer unpacks the significance of McLuhan’s conversion to Catholicism as the “background” of his theorizing. Fascinating stuff.

Then just a couple of days later, in a basement bookshop on Bloor Street, I hit upon another little gem (this is why I believe in bibliographical providence): The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion which is a collection of McLuhan’s essays and interviews on religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, with some illuminating reflections on liturgy in particular.

There’s work to be done here.

The Pedagogy of Sermons

Josef Bengston passed along this interesting little snippet from Alain de Botton, an old favorite of mine. This is lifted from a TED talk in which he looks to religious sources for secular practices (kind of, in a backhanded way, confirming some of the analyses in Desiring the Kingdom):

A sermon wants to change your life and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. I think we need to go back to that tradition of sermon in education.

This, of course, only works as an exhortation if the sermon itself hasn’t just devolved to a didactic lecture.

3-D Icons: A Short Film on Mannequins

In Desiring the Kingdom I offer an opening phenomenology of the mall as a temple–a religious, liturgical space whose labyrinthine corridors are lined by tiny chapels devoted to various saints. And those saints, I suggest, are “pictured” not in the flat renditions of stained-glass but in the 3-D icons of mannequins draped in the au courant vision of “the good life.”

Well, in that vein, my former student Bryan Kibbe recently pointed me to an almost incredible short film that documents the work and vision of a mannequin factory. Titled “34 x 25 x 36” (you can guess why), the documentary unveils the unapologetic industry of female “perfection,” eliciting from the owners and designers a shameless articulation of their goals. This is a must-see for those working in gender studies.
But halfway through the film (at about the 3:30 mark), one of the owner/designers begins to rhapsodize about their work as a deliberate extension of religious devotion to the saints–embodying the now secular, materialist ideal for women to emulate, yea, “worship.”

This is Your Brain on Marketing

Friends and readers now regularly float me tidbits that sort of serve as confirmations and illustrations–or at least case studies–of some of the kinds of claims I made in Desiring the Kingdom regarding cultural formation (like the recent study on the cult-status of Apple for devotees). So I’m going to crowd-source here and feature them in an occasional series of “DTK Case Studies,” with thanks for the tips and suggestions.

Mark Roeda (who’s provided tips before) pointed me to Jonah Lehrer’s recent observations about the formation of memory by marketers, and the brain science that underlies this. (Lehrer makes regular cameos in David Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal.)

Here’s the tease:

How could a stupid commercial trick me into believing that I loved a product I’d never actually tasted? Or that I drank Coke out of glass bottles?

And here’s the upshot:

This idea, simple as it seems, requires us to completely re-imagine our assumptions about memory. It reveals memory as a ceaseless process, not a repository of inert information. The recall is altered in the absence of the original stimulus, becoming less about what we actually remember and more about what we’d like to remember. It’s the difference between a “Save” and the “Save As” function. Our memories are a “Save As”: They are files that get rewritten every time we remember them, which is why the more we remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes. And so that pretty picture of popcorn becomes a taste we definitely remember, and that alluring soda commercial becomes a scene from my own life. We steal our stories from everywhere. Marketers, it turns out, are just really good at giving us stories we want to steal.

Now go read the whole article.

This is Your Brain on Apple…

Given the argument I make about the mall as temple in Desiring the Kingdom, several friends pointed out a recent study which purports to confirm the religious nature of “super brands,” lending some MRI support for what The Persuaders showed us already several years ago.

Scanning the brain activity of Apple devotees, the researchers found that the emotional experience associated with Apple stimulated the same regions of the brain that are stimulated by religious experience.

Always nice to have little reductionistic empiricism in the back pocket of my argument!