Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (9)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: Yes, God’s people are to love, even love their enemies, because that is the character of God himself, but since God is also a righteous and holy God that wants justice amongst his people and in the world, it seems to me that while love is not a social program in the Bible, nonetheless, it is a viewed, perhaps as a byproduct, as a means to change society for the better. Yes we love the marginalized because God loves them, but that love has no concreteness to it if we are not trying to improve their living conditions etc. Jesus after all told us we need to be feeding, clothing, and visiting the least of these in prison. That sounds like a social program to me, even if it’s motivated by love. Comments?

PATRICK: I agree. Love is tangible action for the good of another. I conclude chapter 2 on Deuteronomy 10 with an appeal for Christian integral mission based on loving others in need as we have been loved by God. In regard to the global refugee crisis, for example, I say

“One thing is sure: our hard-edged capitalist culture has no room for those who are not contributing to its ruthless system of acquisition and consumption. The church’s vocation is to provide, with generosity and love, that room for those forcibly displaced” (p.41).

As you know, the history of evangelicalism during the 20th century was marked by major divisions over the relationship between the gospel and social action. It was John Stott and Billy Graham who had a key role in Lausanne 1974 in helping the evangelical movement recover from an unbiblical split of the two that had characterized 20th century fundamentalism. I’m certainly not wanting to go down that fundamentalist path of retreat from social action. My critique is of a hermeneutical jump where the New Testament’s overwhelming emphasis on love within God’s new covenant community is uncritically broadened to apply to the world in general. For example, where Jesus’ and James’ teaching about caring for the poor within the kingdom community subtly shifts to become a basis for political action to end all poverty.

BEN: Let’s talk about the Shema for a moment (pp. 56ff.). As you rightly stress, ahav is the word here for love, which is a more generic term used for the love of all sorts of things and people in the OT. It even is used for the love of mundane things— like Esau’s soup! And as you rightly stress, loving God involves cognitive as well as affective and behavioral love. My issue with the Shema is— how in the world was hard-hearted Israel supposed to love in the total way described in the text when they did not yet have the ongoing internal presence of the Holy Spirit in them and in their community? This sounds like the Don Quixote song ‘To dream the impossible dream’ or like Thomas More’s Utopia. Even Christians who are full of the Holy Spirit have trouble loving God with all they are and have. So how should we view incredibly demanding exhortations like this without trivializing them as just dramatic hyperbole?

PATRICK: I guess that question could apply to all of the OT in comparison to the NT. As you know much better than me, 2 Corinthians 3 is probably the most explicit text in the NT in terms of comparing the ministry of the Spirit Old to New. It is with Christ and the gift of the Spirit that God’s people now have the ‘veil removed’ and are able to ‘see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror’ (2 Cor 3:18). In regard to love, I see it like this: human love for God in Deuteronomy is obviously real. God doesn’t give intentionally impossible commands. But in the NT, humans can enter into a deeper transformative relationship of love with God through the Spirit of Jesus. The Old foreshadows fulfillment in the New. (And we should say, present new covenant experience of love in turn foreshadows perfection of love to come in the new creation – 1 Cor. 13).

As an aside, this relates to wider theological debates about love within the Christian tradition which I could only mention in passing in the book. Luther’s theology of love is particularly interesting and significant. He distinguished between divine love (amor Dei) and human love (amor hominis). Humans have genuine capacity to love, but this love is marred by sin. God’s love alone is perfect; it loves what is sinful (humanity) in order to make it good. We are not loved for our innate lovability, but out of God’s grace. It is being united to Christ through faith, that we are enabled to love both God and fellow humans aright. In other words, justification by faith leads to participation in God’s love. A couple of quotes from Luther illustrate the point:

“Paul’s view is this: Faith is active in love, that is, that faith justifies which expresses itself in acts” (Table Talk, 1533). “[Paul] does not say ‘Love is effective.’ No, he says: ‘Faith is effective.’ He does not say: ‘Love works.’ No, he says: ‘Faith works.’ He makes love the tool through which faith works.”

Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (6)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook

BEN: At one point you say, in dealing with the key text of Exod. 34.6-7 if there had only been vs. 7, there would have been no land, no covenant, no future, no hope, and if there had not been 34.6, there would have been no kings, no temple, no prophets, no messiah, no incarnation, no atonement for sin on the cross (p. 24). In short, all this in some sense hangs on the love and compassion and mercy of God, who also judges his people (not love without judgment, and vice versa). How does one strike the proper balance between vs. 6 and 7 without on the one hand falling into ‘sloppy agape’ and cheap grace, and on the other prompting the caricature that the God of Exodus holds a grudge for many generations after a sin has committed by an Israelite? Do you agree with Fleming Rutledge when she says that God’s wrath is always exercised in the service of his good purposes, indeed it is the expression of his unconditional love and opposition to anything that gets in the way of his loving purposes?

PATRICK: I began the book with a chapter on Exodus 34:6-7 for a couple of reasons. Chronologically, it’s one of the first occurrences of God’s love for his people in the Bible and is a foundational text regarding the character of Israel’s God. The text doesn’t flinch from proclaiming Yahweh’s extravagant love right alongside his fearsome judgment and this tension continues to run right through the Bible. It seems to me that, to be faithful to Scripture, Christians have to try to hold that tension.

I recognize this is far from easy. Today, ‘judgment’ has become a ‘bad’ word. To be ‘judgmental’ is socially unacceptable; it’s a symptom of intolerance and is opposed to love. In the Republic of Ireland, where I live, Irish Catholicism used to use fear of divine judgement as a weapon of social control. Now, even to mention the notion of divine judgment in public is likely to land you in a lot of trouble. And this reaction against past misuse of judgment has impacted a large swathe of contemporary Christianity. Mostly, I think, by not overtly denying the reality of judgment but rarely, if ever, talking about it. Such silence says a lot.

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddFew people have taken on such silence with skill, passion and depth as Fleming Rutledge – I absolutely loved The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ and blogged through the whole book. Her recent book on Advent is excellent as well, with much to say about the goodness and necessity of divine judgement. In the Exodus chapter I conclude that God’s judgment is never his preferred course of action – it is always a response to human sin and evil that imperils his good purposes. God is ‘slow to anger’. God would not be loving if he were not also a judge. It is not as if God’s love somehow ‘overcomes’ his wrath, he is wrathful because he is loving.

Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (4)

9781783595914This is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook

BEN: One of the major points you make in dealing with the OT discussion about love, is that the caricature of the God of the OT being simply a God of wrath and the God of the NT being a God of love (going back at least to Marcion) is just that— a caricature, since God is portrayed as a God of love in the OT as well, and there is plenty of talk about God judging folk in the NT, indeed even Jesus being the final judge. Why do you think that the caricature still persists, even within the more conservative end of the church? Does it have something to do with God also being portrayed as a warrior and an advocate of holy war in the OT, but not so much in the NT?

PATRICK: I’m sure you’re right Ben. The imagery of God the warrior commanding what sounds to us like ethnic cleansing in the OT is powerful and troubling. It seems incompatible with the non-violent self-sacrificial mission of Jesus in the NT. Perhaps it is also due to a long tradition of distorted Christian interpretation that sees Judaism as a religion of works / law as opposed to the new covenant of faith / grace and liberty. I suspect that another reason the caricature persists is how in the NT love comes into sharper focus. An astonishing picture results: God’s love takes physical form in the utterly unlikely story of an incarnate Messiah who is God’s Son; human love for God responds to that immeasurable divine love; believers’ love for one another imitates that of Jesus and flows from the promised gift of God’s Spirit. This represents a remarkable development of how love is understood within the NT, but without care, it can all too easily be portrayed as discontinuous with the OT.

BEN: Early on in the book, you say that a contemporary portrait of love entails beliefs that love is unconditional and undemanding, it affirms the beloved just as they are and does not ask them to change, in other words it is non-judgmental, and that love is what life is all about (p. 5). What is wrong with this picture from a Biblical point of view?

PATRICK: That discussion is summarizing how the philosopher Simon May describes contemporary love in the West (his excellent book is called Love: A History). We tend to think ‘love’ has a universally understood meaning, but he shows how, when it comes to love, the past truly is another country and that our modern understanding of love is historically novel. It has become an article of faith, a religion if you like, in which true meaning, hope and transcendence is to be found. ‘God is love’ has become ‘Love is God’. If this analysis is accurate, and I think it is, then it becomes clear where modern love clashes with a biblical theology of love. It is naïve about sin, overly optimistic about the human heart, tends to assume love is easy and is the key to happiness. All this is relentlessly anthropocentric – a secular form of salvation.

The Message of Love – interview

Last Monday I was interviewed by Paul Caffrey on ‘God Talk’, a half-hour show on local Dublin radio Near FM 90.3 that he hosts weekly with Anthony Brabazon.

Thanks to Paul for his hospitality and probing questions. If you are interested you can listen to it here. It lasts about 25 minutes.

The Message of Love (2)

This is the first of two posts about The Message of Love, which is published today

What is this book?

While many questions begin to emerge when the topic of God and love comes up, this book was not written as a theological textbook systematically addressing theological issues.

The genre of the BST Themes series is each book being a set of expositions of Bible texts relevant to the theme – in this case love. It is out of those expositions that a broader theology of love emerges, but this was not the primary goal.

I like this way of doing things because it is the way the Bible actually works. The challenge in writing was to let each text speak for itself and see where that led.

So each chapter is a stand-alone discussion, structured something like a sermon in that exegesis of the text leads on to contemporary application. I say ‘something like’ in that the BST series shows the academic ‘workings’ behind that process – something that should lie well in the background of a sermon if it isn’t to become indigestible!

So the book requires work from the reader. It will best be read with an open Bible alongside the relevant chapter.

The structure is a biblical theology of love via 17 chapters unpacking and applying key ‘love texts’ within the Bible. They are organised into 4 parts:

Introduction

PART 1: Love in the Old Testament (5 chapters)

PART 2: The Love of God Revealed in the Mission and Death of Jesus Christ (4 chapters)

PART 3: Love in the life and teaching of Jesus (4 chapters)

PART 4: The Church as a Community of Love (4 chapters)

Conclusion

Each chapter makes its own distinct contribution to The Message of Love and can be read in its own right.

Why this book?

It might sound over-spiritual to say but I think that God put this topic on my heart some years ago and it wouldn’t go away. In reading, teaching and preaching the Bible it became clearer and clearer to me that not only is love a core (or perhaps the core) theme of the Bible, but it gets to the great question of who God is and what biblical faith in God is ultimately all about.

These are big and important questions. I also remember being challenged by listening to theologian Miroslav Volf speak in Ireland some years ago and encouraging Christian authors to write about things that matter – big issues that connect to people’s lives and the heart of God.

Love fits that bill for sure. There are very few people not interested in love. Our culture is ‘in love’ with love – indeed one philosopher says that love has become the religion of the West, it is worshipped and idolised while faith in other belief systems has crumbled. ‘God is love’ has become ‘Love is God’.

This means at least three things.

One is that the church needs to be thinking clearly about love. What is Christian love? What does it look like and how and where does it differ from and conflict with contemporary Western individualised and romanticised notions of love? Where has the church conformed to the culture and needs reform and renewal? This is a particularly urgent question in a consumer society that relentlessly forms people towards self-love. Where does love call the church to confront evil and sin, especially on behalf of those who have no voice to defend themselves? What does it mean to love our enemies?

A second is that, fairly or not, in post-Christendom it is Christianity and the church which are seen by many as opposed to love. The church is exclusive and judgemental, the God Christians worship is malevolent and bullying. Much of this criticism is grossly unfair but sadly far from all of it. It has always been true that the church, if it is to be authentic, needs to live up to its calling to be a community of love, but today that calling has a sharper missional edge. There is no ‘Christendom cushion’ giving the church a free pass because of its privileged place in society.

Third, related to the last point, if God is love; if love is the goal of the law and the first fruit of the Spirit; if love is to define everything a Christian does (‘do everything in love’ 1 Cor 16:14); if faith working itself out in love is ‘the only thing that counts’ (Gal 5:6); if the heart of the Christian life is remaining in God’s love by loving one another (John); if a Christian marriage is to be characterised by counter-cultural love (Ephesians 5); if discipleship means above all loving Jesus wholeheartedly – then there is no more important challenge for mission and authenticity than putting love where it belongs at the centre of all Christian teaching, preaching and living.

Well that gives a sense of what and why. The next post will give a flavour of some of the chapters and talk about some of the theological, pastoral and missiological implications of The Message of Love.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Message of Love (1)

Very pleased that this just arrived. Publication date tomorrow.

You can read a bit more about the book at this link

Book Launch at Irish Bible Institute, 22-24 Foley St, Dublin 1 on Monday 14 October at 6.00pm. Prof Craig Blomberg from Denver Seminary is speaking. If you are in Dublin that day you are welcome! Do let IBI know so we can gauge numbers coming http://www.ibi.ie/events/themessageoflove

I’ll do a post or two about the book to mark publication.

The Message of Love is on its way!

9781783595914

Delighted to announce that The Message of Love will be out in September. You can pre-order your copy now before it sells out!!

Seriously, I won’t be pushing the book on this blog apart from this announcement and maybe a couple of posts when it comes out.

Few things are more boring than an author obsessively banging on about their book.

So excuse me this post and then we will move on.

It has taken up weekends, evenings and holidays for the last couple of years or so, so it’s exciting to see publication in sight.

I’ve loved writing about love. For me, the book effectively turned into a biblical theology of Christianity.

It did not start there but that is where it feels like it finished.

By ‘biblical theology of Christianity’ I mean it engages with the great core questions at the heart of the Christian faith. That theology emerges via exegesis, discussion and contemporary application of 17 individual key ‘love texts’ in the Bible.

The sorts of issues are listed below. They are not a table of contents but some of the theological themes that surface along the way.

Who is God and what is he like?

God’s love for his people Israel – unbreakable covenant love, judgement and forgiveness.

God’s just love for the poor and marginalised

The love of the Father for the Son

God is love

God’s great love shown in Jesus Christ

God’s love poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit

Human love for God

Wholehearted love for God – heart, soul, strength

The cost of discipleship love

Love and worship

Love and obedience

Love for one another

The difficult discipline of love as a foretaste of the future

Enemy love

Love, freedom and the Spirit

Erotic Love: sex, the body and desire

Love and Marriage

Misdirected love: the love of money

Every chapter has discussion of implications for how the ‘Bible Speaks Today’.

The more these themes came into focus, the clearer it became how and where a biblical theology of love confronts and contrasts with how love is understood in the twenty-first century West.

Overall, the book discusses how the Christian faith is effectively a beautiful vision of a flourishing life together. 

But it also asks some hard questions.

If God’s people are called to love and worship a God who is love, what does that look like in churches? In how Christians treat opponents? In a culture where the church is often seen as opposed to love rather than the embodiment of it?

If love describes God’s character, his dealings with his people and his attitude to the world; if love is the ultimate goal of his redemptive work and is heartbeat of the Christian life and future hope; if churches are to be communities of other-focused love – what challenges does this pose to churches today?

To you and I?

Where do we need repentance and renewal? What is the connection between love and mission?

That hopefully gives you a flavour of what The Message of Love is all about.

A couple of encouraging endorsements are in from NT scholars Scot McKnight and Ben Witherington.

Press Reviews

For close to two decades I have studied both how the Bible presents love and how Bible scholars have expressed that presentation. Luminaries like James Moffatt and Leon Morris, from two considerably different traditions, have become standard treatments but I found both coming up short for different reasons. No one will ever offer the final word on what the Bible says about love, but I know of no volume that is as thorough, sensitive to context and contour, as Patrick Mitchel’s sparklingly clear and faithful exposition of how the Bible presents love, how in fact the God of love loves the world and the people of God in Christ. This will become a standard text for my classes on New Testament theology.

Scot McKnight, Professor of New Testament, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lombard, Illinois, USA

Oddly enough, it has been decades since a really good study of love in the Bible has appeared. Finally, we may now thank Patrick Mitchel for remedying this oversight in The Message of Love. There is a reason that Jesus said that the great commandment has to do with love, and Paul said love was greater than even faith and hope. It is because God himself is love, it is the essence of his character, and Mitchel in this book lays out for us how that is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. Highly recommended.

Ben Witherington III, Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary, USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Important is Love? (2): ‘Love Alone’ theology

aliandninoThis is a second of a series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

In the last post we talked about the relegation of love within the theological priorities of post-Reformational traditions where love comes in a very definite second to faith.

In this post we’ll look at the opposite trend: how in (some) contemporary Christianity love is celebrated and extolled, prioritised and spoken about in terms that elevate it to such a degree that it becomes a goal in itself.

By this I mean that love takes on a sentimental and even mystical nature, that when experienced you have reached a higher spiritual existence.

Love itself becomes divine – the ground of our being.

This links back to a post on how, in contemporary culture, we have shifted from John’s famous statement, ‘God is love’ to ‘Love is God’. Where love itself is idolised and revered as that alone which gives life meaning.

As the fab 4 sang, ‘All you need is love’.

This is all quite subtle and hard to pin down, after all, you have to be a miserable old curmudgeon to be anti-love don’t you?

‘Love Alone’ theology

Here are some symptoms of what I call ‘Love Alone’ theology

1. Love is spoken and sung about in ways that it is detached from the narrative of the Bible. Love becomes what we want it to be. Yet, in contrast, Christian love has a particular character – it is shaped by God’s self-giving love in Christ. It calls for a wholehearted response of obedience to God. It requires humility and repentance. It depends on God’s grace. It entails deep cost to the self.

2. The ‘content’ of love is assumed – the assumption being ‘sure we all know what love is don’t we?’. That content tends to be sentimentalised – love is warm, inclusive, feel-good, fulfilling. It is that which meets our deepest needs.

3. The difficulty of love is downplayed  – it is assumed that love is automatic and easy. Little or nothing is said about our own distorted loves and sinful desires.

4. The cost of love is ignored – love is that which brings happiness and joy, not that which often involves pain and sacrifice.

5. The focus of love tends to be individualistic – faith in God is what gives ‘me’ an experience of God’s love that brings me comfort and hope.

6. Love trumps all – if something is loving, the presence of love trumps all.  So, for example, a couple in love who want a baby to love pay a woman to rent her womb. Love trumps any ethical concerns over surrogacy. The outcome (love) justifies the means.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

How Important is Love? (1) love as secondary to faith

This is a first of a wee series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

Here’s a proposal: there is a curious ambivalence towards love within quite a bit of post-Reformational Protestantism / evangelicalism. (Love in Catholic theology has a distinctly different flavour – maybe that’s a topic for another day).

By ambivalence I mean that, while love is extolled and spoken of as a good thing, it is somehow not at the heart of doctrine or preaching.

Does this sound familiar to you? What is the place of love in your theology and in your experience?

Obviously this is a broad claim, but at a general level I think a good case can be made for it. For example, how do you read Romans and Galatians or had them explained and preached to you? Is it something like the following?

In Romans, chapters 1-8 form the great doctrinal core of the book (sin, justification by faith, gift of the Spirit), 9-11 the confusing bit about Israel and then the ‘applied theology’ bit on practical Christian living from chapters 12 on?

In Galatians, a bit of Pauline biography in chapters 1-2, the great doctrinal core of the book (justification, adoption) from 2-4 and then secondary practical instructions on ethical Christian living in chapters 5-6.

In both, the ‘practical’ tends to be seen as secondary to the ‘doctrinal’. They are ‘follow ons’ – advice and commands that should flow from the doctrinal … but what really matters is getting doctrine of justification by faith right.

Faith is primary. Chronologically this makes sense – the Christian life follows from conversion. But, I suggest (and this is a blog post – it would need proper research) historically the dominance of justification, the strong distinction made between it and subsequent sanctification and what I call the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ of works being smuggled into saving faith, has meant that place of love within Paul’s thought has either been downplayed or simply overlooked.

Some time ago the NT scholar John Barclay said this about the relative neglect of chapters 5 and 6 of Galatians in 20th century exegesis:  (Obeying the Truth: Paul’s Ethics in Galatians. 1988. Fortress.)

[I]t is a by-product of the “Lutheran” theological consensus. If one considers that the main thrust of Paul’s attacks on “works of the law” is against human works and achievement, one is apt to conclude that his specific ethical instructions are merely an appendix or, perhaps, an attempt to prevent himself from being misunderstood as antinomian. To give these instructions any more integral place would be to admit that Paul also is concerned to promote works.

So love (and the ‘works’ of the Christian life in general) are not integral to saving faith. Note that Barclay is NOT saying that Luther taught this (we’ll come back to what he did teach about faith and love in a later post), he is saying it is a symptom of later theological post-Reformational theological emphases.

On this tack, another scholar, Stephen Chester, gives the example of Lutheran scholar Gerhard Ebeling’s major work The Gospel of Truth (2001) on Galatians in which 230 pages are given to chapters 1-4 and a paltry 25 to chapters 5-6. For Ebeling, yes, love (and works associated with it) is important, but it is nevertheless subsidiary to core doctrinal priorities of the letter. As Chester comments, the impression is given that Paul’s argument is essentially complete at the end of chapter 4 (and a similar point could be made for Romans – effectively the really important doctrinal argument is finished by the end of chapter 8).  (Stephen Chester, ‘Faith Working Through Love (Galatians 5:6): The Role of Human Deeds in Salvation in Luther and Calvin’s Exegesis’).

There is something gone awry here because this relegation of love just does not ‘fit’ Paul – nor does it do justice to Jesus or to John or the tone of the New Testament in general.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

You are what you love 2 (or how to develop your love life)

9781587433801Chapter 2 of James K A Smith’s book is ‘You might not love what you think’

If the first question of discipleship is ‘What do you love?’, a possible problem arises: ‘Do you actually love what you think you love?’

He tells the story of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker  – where characters are given the terrifying choice of entering the Room where their deepest desires will be revealed. What if their conscious choice is not what they are given? The lesson being explored is whether what we think actually aligns with what we want. What we really desire is revealed in our daily life and habits not necessarily in what we say or think we love.

And Smith also goes to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty where Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham (why are all Lester’s ‘losers’? – see Fargo) pursues ‘freedom’ – including in the form of Angela, the teenage friend of his daughter. Without ruining the plot, at a critical moment, Lester finds out that he doesn’t actually want what he thought he wanted.

In essence, Smith is arguing that a holistic approach to discipleship needs to appreciate how we are formed by all sorts of unconscious influences, desires and habits that “orientate our being-in-the-world.” (33). He refers to modern psychology that suggests that 95% of what we do in the world is unconscious habit (‘second nature’), only 5% is the result of deliberate choices.

He argues that ‘virtues’ are on the unconscious register – these are acquired habits that dispose to act in certain ways (36). Good character isn’t accidental – it is a web of accumulated dispositions. These can be acquired intentionally by upbringing, training and practice, but also unintentionally.

How?

Smith says we engage in formative routines and habits all that time but rarely recognize what is going on – indeed we are surrounded and immersed in environments (‘liturgies’) that have their own formative power to train our loves.

So, he argues, we learn to love rival kingdoms because we are participating in rival liturgies. Just assuming that ‘we are what we think’ is reductionistic and naïve – it misses the reality of who we are and how we love.

So Smith is writing as a sort of ‘wake up call’ – to see things as they really are. The rest of the chapter is about how to read these secular liturgies. He unpacks the spirituality of the shopping mall – an intensely religious centre at the heart of everyday life.

(I get my students to do an assignment around visiting a big shopping centre and analyzing the beliefs and practices at work. It seems utterly normal and benign, yet is full of ‘theology’ and ‘liturgy’ and the attracting power of ‘loves’).

shopping-mall
Interior of İstinye Park shopping center in the İstinye quarter of Istanbul, Turkey with 291 stores, 85,250 sqm of retail area, and four levels of underground parking. Sep 8, 2012.

Back to Smith: in brief what is going on in the mall?

  • It is not trying to engage our thinking, but it is not neutral
  • It is interested in what we love – it is aimed at our hearts. Nice line – “Victoria’s secret is that she’s actually after your heart.” (41)
  • Architecture (see back to this post on ‘Brandscapes’):
    • familiar and homogenous – we feel at home whatever city or even country we are in (the picture above in Turkey could be virtually anywhere)
    • large atriums and foyers welcome the faithful pilgrims; funneling them into the worship centre
    • High vaulted ceilings, open to the sky, bright lights, calming music draw people into a space cut off from the outside world – he makes a nice point about how the walls hide the surrounding moat of cars and distractions of the outside world. You are brought into a sanctuary, retreat and escape. (42)
    • You are ushered into a sort of timeless zone, comfortable peaceful space with its own rhythm.
    • The space has its own calendar of remembrances and festivals – one morphing into the other during the year: a ceaseless litany of holidays and special days (with new ones being created regularly) in order to draw in more pilgrims.
    • The structure parallels the great Medieval Cathedrals with side chapels for devotion
    • Rich iconography lines the walls and windows – manniquins inviting us to imitate them – ideals of perfection representing the good life.
    • This is all packaged in themes of compelling beauty – inviting us to participate in this life that can be ours.
    • Inside the ‘chapels’, us ‘seekers’ are welcomed unconditionally as we look for something that will give us joy, satisfaction and pleasure
    • The consummation of our worship is a transaction of exchange and communion – we leave with something ‘concrete’, more tangible than feelings

“Released by the priest with a benediction, we make our way out of the chapel in a kind of denouement, not necessarily with the intention of leaving (our awareness of time has been muted), but rather to continue contemplation and be invited into another chapel. Who could resist the tangible realities of the good life so abundantly and invitingly offered?” (45).

We are not intellectually reasoning ‘this stuff will make me happy’ because, if we did think about it much, we would quickly know that no it won’t. But by endless repetition I’m ‘covertly conscripted’ / my loves have been automated / I have been formed by secular liturgies that are loaded with meaning.

And Smith says similar ‘liturgical’ unpacking can be done of all sorts of everyday rituals

  • A stadium as a temple of nationalism and militarism
  • Smartphones – in terms of content we look at and the rituals that tie us umbilicially to them – we see how they are loaded with an egocentric vision of life where I am the centre of the universe.

So what is the ‘ultimate story’ (or I would say gospel) of consumerism in the mall?

[much of what he says here about the ‘good news’ of consumerism is not new (see posts on consumerism here and especially those on William Cavanaugh) – but it is helpfully and creatively put together with the idea of liturgy

1. I’m broken, therefore I shop.

Consumerism pretends to offer a picture of unbridled endless optimism. Far from it – underneath the message is you are imperfect (‘sinner’) who needs fixing. These visions of happiness, friendship, sexiness, contentment and joy (the good life) – are not yours. You know it and so do we. You need redemption and we can provide it.

2. I shop with others.

While consumerism is associated with individualism and self-interest, it also, says Smith, is a social phenomenon – but one that fosters competition not community; objectification rather than other-regarding love. We compare ourselves to others as measured against mall’s perfect image of what we ‘should’ be.

3. I shop (and shop and shop) and therefore I am.

The market’s liturgy is an invitation to redemption – to a solution to our brokenness. Shopping as therapy and healing, a path to joy and overcoming sadness and ourselves – whether body shape, looks, clothes, cool technology. But, as Smith reminds us, the ‘secret’ of bright shiny happy consumerism is that nothing it offers is meant to last. The thrill dissipates fast – and we are back in the cycle of the next fix. A pattern not only of aquisition but of relentless consumption. The ‘unseen’ side of the story is all the discarded ‘good’s that are now useless. Consumerism reduces things to nothingness. Nothing has lasting value. In the process we are being trained to overinvest in things than cannot deliver, while at the same time wastefully devaluing things that become tomorrow’s rubbish.

4. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

By this Smith means the dark side of consumerism. The mall deliberately insulates the pilgrims from the inconvenient truths about their worship. Behind the perfect shiny mythic façade is a way of life that is unsustainable globally, as well as being built on the backs of the poor in the majority world. The image is as if the goods on sale have magically arrived from nowhere and been made by no-one. The mall cuts all connections between consumer and the person who actually made the thing in question. Issues of ethics and fair treatment of workers are airbrushed out of existence. The dream is an unending and ‘costless’ provision of absolutetly anything we desire. This is the American way after all. The vast waste and environmental cost is hidden away out of sight. Don’t ask, don’t tell, just consume – be happy.

None of this ‘gospel’ is announced or explained in written form. It is ‘caught rather than taught’. Because we like to think we are thinking beings, we imagine sin and temptation as a rational choice that we will have time and space to decide upon.  Rather, says Smith, we have disordered loves and poorly shaped habits. We need –re-formation in our lives.

Smith suggests a couple of ways to approach this:

We need to reimagine temptation and sin – not just as rational intentional choices – but often sin is the result of vices – badly ordered habits and practices.

To begin to reorder our love lives, we first need to become aware of the daily liturgies in our lives. He mentions the Ignatian Daily Examen :

  • Find time to pause for reflection on the rituals and rhythms of your life
  • What are the things that do something to you?

What vision of the good life is carried in those liturgies?

What story if embedded in those cultural practices?

What kind of person do they want you to become?

To what kingdom are they orientated?

What does this cultural liturgy want you to love?

And as we become more attuned to the presence and power of these liturgies, we then can begin to consider engaging in counter-liturgies within Christian worship … as a powerful way to be reformed in our loves and imaginations.

 Any examples of a daily liturgy in your life come to mind?