Recently my local shopping centre, Eastland, has been making improvements. When we first moved into the area it was in the process of getting demolished. It used to feel like a sad, 90s shopping centre, just ripe for a few factory outlets, closing down sales and small time drug deals. Now it has been rejuvenated. Like a butterfly, it has been destroyed only to be reborn as a magnificent, architectural wonder.
It really is a beautiful shopping centre. When it opened I was all ready to think of it as just another shiny, ho-hum shopping centre, but it isn’t. In a newly built town square the centre has a small, ufo-like entrance, where you enter and ride the escalators down into the earth. But instead of finding yourself in some rabbit warren of shops, you are welcomed into a catacomb-cathedral. Bright shining spaces, high ceilings that beckon you to look up in wonder. You are descending into the earth to purchase your daily needs, and rising into the heavens on Jacob’s escalators to purchase your high-end fashion and goods.
I’ve long held the entirely unoriginal view that shopping malls have replaced churches as the centres of our communities. They are temples to the god of materialism. While they have long been functional places, more and more they are also becoming beautiful places. Only when I entered our newly resurrected, local shopping centre have I felt like the shopping centre has stopped merely functioning as a temple, but has chosen to own it’s place at the centre of our community worship.
This afternoon I took a photo and posted it on Instagram with the accompanying quote by R.C. Sproul: “The use of high ceilings, vaulted space, towers, and spires all served to communicate that in this building, people met with the holy.” Finding the quote and seeing it next to the image drove home for me the audacity of this new building.
In Eastland it’s as if the architects have blatantly appropriated the designs of ancient cathedrals for this new building, it is like they have stopped pretending that they are merely a meeting space, a place of entertainment, a place of commerce, but have almost explicitly stated that this is house of worship. Our eyes are drawn up, so that we might be impressed by the transcendent power of our god, that we might sacrifice our wealth, covet the wonders in the windows, and purchase by purchase inch a little closer to our sanctification.
The shopping centre is even designed with beautifully instagrammable spaces so that others too might see the glory of our god and they too might be drawn to worship.
What challenges me in this is that while we Christians are off worrying about the influence of Islam and homosexuality on our society, a new temple to an old god has been built on every major road and no-one has protested, we just want bigger and better temples. Perhaps the food that is sacrificed to idols is not halal meat that we might feel the need to boycott, but the free samples handed out in the food court. We get concerned about our young people who spend too much time in nightclubs, but perhaps we should be more concerned about all of us who spend too much time at the shops. And even when we’re not physically at the shops, we’re lusting over the products that flood our Instagram and Facebook feeds, and receiving emails in our pockets about the latest sale at JB Hifi or the Iconic.
So do we boycott the shopping centres? Probably not. But we should at least be aware that they are not spiritually neutral places. Our hearts yearn to worship, and materialism is as good a god as any. Some of us can shop at the shopping centre and all it is a place to buy food for the week and clothes to wear – a place where we gratefully receive our daily bread. For some of us they are places to meet friends, enjoy our community, have a drink and hear each other’s stories. But sometimes our shopping centres are darker places, tempting us into dissatisfaction with our lives, offering us a better, false reality. They invite us to hand our money over with the promise that with just the right box-set, outfit, appliance or experience we will be happy. Perhaps for me and for you, we find ourselves sacrificing to a false god before we even asked the question, “which god’s house are we in?” In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul challenges his readers that they can not expect to sacrifice to an idol and then expect to also be welcomed by God to his table. All gods require sacrifice, only one God has made that payment on our behalf. We would do well to remember that the battle for our hearts is less likely to happen in the temple of some foreign god, and much more likely to take place between the carpark, Coles, and H&M.