Monday, February 6, 2012

There's power in the mall

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
"Ouch, Charlie! OOOOOOUCH!"
(Photo by ravindra gandhi via Flickr)
Just as I wrapped up reading James K.A. Smith's excellent Desiring the Kingdom the other day, I noticed a post from the always-excellent theoblog supersite, The Other Journal:

When is a Mall just a Mall? The Complexity of Reading Cultural Practices
by Cory Willson & Robert Covolo

The authors are two PhD students at Fuller, focusing on theology and culture, and their post is a weave of Smith's DTK and William Dyrness' Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life. They basically ask if Smith's proverbial "martian anthropologist" reading the liturgies of the shopping mall comes off as too critical of the mall. As a counterpoint they hold up Dyrness' work, which seems to hold out more hope that the mall might be a legit place of divine encounter, or an "on-ramp to the gospel."

The authors offer an excellent illustration from the New Testament church in Corinth, specifically Paul's teaching to them on meat sacrificed to idols being sold in the market and eaten in homes or congregational gatherings of Jews and Gentiles. They then hold up the work of ritual studies scholars, Lawrence Hoffman and Ronald Grimes, whose work helpfully
reminds us that cultural practices have multiple meanings operating simultaneously. Some of these meanings are official (as articulated by those in authority), some are public (shared meanings without official sanctioning), and others are private (held by individuals). The significant point is that all of these meanings are influential and that official meanings are not necessarily the most formative in regard to how participants in the culture see and live in the world (what he calls “normative meanings”).
James K.A. Smith responds to the post, which I thought was awesome and nice, but I made some comments of my own in response. I've slightly reworded them below for posterity...

One thing I wonder about is the power/influence of both the "public" and "private" interpretations/formations in something like the mall. The mall itself is constructed space - its structure and direction, to borrow Smith's terms from DTK - by the "official" powers. So it seems that public and private interpretations/formations would be somewhat constricted and limited, given the relative "thickness" of the mall's environment in form and function and its success in "converting the nations" as Smith puts it.

If public or private interpretations/formations are to have any substantive countering power within the mall, it seems like they would need to be coming from relatively "thick" traditions themselves, and smuggled into the mall in creative ways. What might this look like?

One possibility that comes to mind is the "Hallelujah chorus" flashmob meme during the past two Christmas shopping seasons (here's one by students from my alma mater, Simpson College). This always struck me as somewhat ridiculous. One way of thinking about it would be the "Let's put Christ back in Christmas!" approach, but from the videos on YouTube, it basically looked like people were amused or confused for a few minutes, then entertained, and then just went back to shopping after it was over. Perhaps they had a fun story to tell the family when they got home, but that's about it.

Finally, one relevant piece of literature from the political theology world might be William T. Cavanaugh's "Myth of Civil Society as Free Space" in Theopolitical Imagination or similar arguments in his more recent Migrations of the Holy. I think these are important considerations for "Christ & culture" students, otherwise, "reading" culture might end up being too naive when it comes to questions of social-political-economic power...

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