I grew up in one of the biggest mall towns in America: King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. I know everyone thinks the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota is bigger, but technically the King of Prussia Mall is the largest shopping mall in America when measured by retail space. (None of these silly amusement parks or mini-golf courses for us). These are the kind of things you learn to be proud of when you grow up in King of Prussia. My hometown was a commercial capital, another kind of religious heartland, where the faithful make regular pilgrimages from points far and near, shopping their way all up and down the East Coast.
When talking about my spiritual formation, I always mention this piece of my biography because growing up, I experienced the mall and the commercial culture it represented as my first house of worship. You might think “worship” is a pretty heavy word to be throwing around here, so for some background, let’s go to the highest source, Wikipedia:
“The word is derived from the Old English worthscipe, meaning worthiness or worth-ship — to give, at its simplest, worth to something, for example, Christian worship.”
One of the ministers at my UU church in DC had a similar definition for the act of worship. When we worship, she said, we are “lifting up things of worth.” Through this definition, we can see clearly how some of us worship God, but how others may worship many gods, or nature, or hope and optimism, or human potential, or the wisdom and work of the ancestors, or serenity and centeredness, or the value of community… the list goes on. If we stopped to think about it, I bet we’d find that many of us worship more than one of these things at the same time, even though our individual theological understandings may hold one element higher above the rest.
We worship whatever it is we think of as having supreme value. So does that mean there are people who worship money? Status? Power? Control? I would say certainly, yes. Most forms of religion would have us transformed through faith or conviction, recognition of our relationship to the most high. If your concept of the most high includes attaining an identity that requires a pair of Jimmy Choos, the best way to attain personal relationship with your deity is through your credit card. The pursuit of personal transformation through possession – through the things we buy and own (and show off) – is a great American impulse, which for sure is rooted in capitalism, but which I'd argue is also part of something deeper, more spiritual, and more closely connected to whether we feel that we each have value in the larger context of creation.
Gender and African-American studies scholars have done substantial work on the way consumer products help us construct our identities, which in turn helps us build up our own sense of self-worth when confronted with a context of supremacist ideology and internalized oppression (skin-lightening cream, as well as makeup in general, fits into this category). But the White man can fall prey to this impulse too. The “bootstraps” narrative, personified in the archetypal self-made American man, is all about transformation – from pitiful sufferer of poor circumstance to tycoon with purchasing power, working and striving until he gets as close as is possible to the centers of money and power. In traveling this path, he gains the symbols of worth – and can even reach the point where he owns their means of production.
As a little girl, I spent a lot of time flipping through catalogues and magazines, watching ads on TV, thinking that one day I would have the perfect house, and the perfect stuff to put in it, and that these things would not only make me happy, but would show the world what a great lady I was. I'm not advocating that we replace religion with capitalism. What I'm suggesting is that, to a considerable extent, we already have. So for those of us pursuing religious leadership, seeking to bring people “back” into the church/mosque/synagogue/temple/ethical culture society/etc., we need to consider what we’re up against. Our competition may not be the megachurch with the hot new praise band, the new atheist movement, or the conservative fundamentalist machine, but the shopping mall down the road.
Lee is an MDiv candidate at Harvard Divinity School, preparing for ordination as a Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister. She spent the last five years doing community-based youth development and health action work in Washington, DC, and has a BA in psychology and women’s studies from Swarthmore College.