Life, the shopping mall

It almost never fails. When my wife and I are away from home and on vacation, sooner or later we end up at the mall.

Please understand: we’re not big spenders, and live a relatively simple life. Even if we saw something we thought we needed, we wouldn’t pay mall prices for it, but would go home and look online first (which is why many people are predicting the eventual demise of malls). If anything, we go to the mall because (a) it’s an entertaining way to get a bit of exercise, and (b) we’re hungry, and the food court allows us each to find something we might actually want to eat.

But part of the reason, surely, is that malls offer something new and yet familiar at the same time. On the one hand, there are stores we’ve never visited, and things we’ve never seen. Each mall offers its own unique vibe and architecture. To the locals, perhaps, it’s the same old same-old. But to us, visiting from out of town, the novelty fits the vacation mindset.

On the other hand, the mall experience as a whole is comfortably familiar. You can go just about anywhere in the developed world and find a shopping mall. Once inside, you know exactly what it’s for and how you’re supposed to behave: amble, stop, peruse, amble some more.

There’s even a good chance you’ll be able to find a Starbucks and have your usual.

Those who lived in the ancient world could not possibly have envisioned the technical advances and the vast variety of goods and services we take for granted. And yet…

Imagine with me the apostle Paul transported forward to our time, and dropped into the midst of a contemporary shopping mall. Imagine him experiencing the initial shock of its assault on his senses: the lights, the colors, the sounds. Eventually, he adjusts, and begins to examine his surroundings, curious.

What would he experience?

There’s no way to know, of course. But Paul, I imagine, would sense something similar to the atmosphere of the Athenian marketplace which he already knew. To be sure, ours would seem a strange marketplace, but the sight of people milling about, talking, looking, and occasionally buying, would be familiar.

And I suspect Paul would see more than this in the window displays that surrounded him, the gaudy tableaux into which people peered with a mix of curiosity, desire, and reverence. I think he might wonder what kind of shrines these might be, and what gods they represented.

The mall is more than just an interesting place to go sightseeing, more than just a place to buy things or grab a bite to eat. In a society dominated by consumerism and marketing, the mall is something close to an eclectic house of worship. Look at how the products are displayed, lit, and sometimes even set on pedestals. In some stores, there is an almost palpable sense of reverence. (Personally, I experience it most strongly in the Apple Store, where the newest tech is proudly hyped and the sales personnel function as acolytes. But feel free to insert your own preferences here.)

If the mall is a place of worship, then its underlying “religion” must exist outside its walls: an approach to life that is about endless personal choice and the satisfaction of desire. Even religion proper is subject to its influence, as we slip into invisible habits of thought that make religious commitment a matter of lifestyle choice, a personal selection from what some have called “the spiritual marketplace.”

In some ways, this is not new. Religious diversity has always existed, and the faithful of every stripe have always varied in the depth of their belief and commitment. But as we approach the story of the apostle Paul in Athens, I don’t want us to settle for the typical reading of the text, in which we simply admire Paul’s strategic brilliance in preaching the gospel to philosophically-minded pagans.

Paul was, of course, both brilliant and effective. But it’s too easy to read the story as being about how Paul approached “them,” the denizens of the ancient Athenian spiritual marketplace. Like it or not, we inhabit our own spiritual marketplace, and we need to hear what Paul may have say to us.