On Flash Mobs and Secular Liturgies

A number of folks have been sending me links to the various viral videos that document “flash mob” performances of Handel’s Messiah in mall food courts and department stores. Here’s a sample:

These are coming to me, I’m guessing, because Desiring the Kingdom opens with an extensive analysis of the “liturgy” of the mall–outlining how the visceral, affective rituals of the mall constitute the worship practices of the consumer gospel, training and forming our desires and longings, and thus actually shaping our identities.

I also criticize North American evangelicalism, particularly in many of its megachurch versions, for unwittingly reducing Jesus to one more commodity precisely because, in the name of “relevance,” they’ve adopted a worship “style” that simply mimics the mall. Since I think the form/content distinction is specious, you can’t simply take Gospel “content” and drop it into the “form” of the mall’s worship because that form is already loaded and primed to another end or telos. This doesn’t make the the church relevant; it reduces Jesus to a commodity.

So what to make of these irruptions of the Messiah in the food court? How should we think about these insertions of the church’s music in the mall? Does this represent a little “redemption” of the mall, a reorientation of the mall’s liturgies?

I don’t think so. For at least a couple of reasons.

First, while we might associate this with “liturgical,” high-churchy music, in these flash mob performances it only functions as an event. Liturgies are formative precisely because they are repetitive, shaping us over time within the context of the Christian story as it is “carried” in the practices of worship. Too much of North American evangelicalism already thinks of worship as merely an expressive event, and these flash mob events do nothing to displace that.

Second, these irruptive events do nothing to counter the formative effects and disordered telos of the mall’s consumerism. Indeed if anything, they provide comfort to such practices–injecting a little dose of transcendence into the frantic pursuit for stuff, thus leaving the shoppers to happily continue on their way after the event.

The church’s worship cannot be reduced to–and should not be confused with–a flash mob. (I’m tempted to make a jab at Barthian notions of revelation as an “event” here, but will resist.) If the liturgies of the mall are going to be countered, it will take the plodding, faithful presence of the Spirit in practices that will never be exciting enough to go viral on YouTube.