Posted by: L. E. Barnes | September 10, 2009

Sacred Space

We need sacred spaces. That’s what chapels, churches, basilicas, and cathedrals are for. But can shopping malls be sacred spaces?

My students’ reading assignment for yesterday was an article by history professor Jon Pahl entitled “The Mall as Sacred Space.” Pahl asserts that malls have taken on a quasi-religious nature in our society. By means of senory overstimulation–ads, smells, decorations, etc.–they induce people into buying. In fact, Pahl observes that while some 40% of people who go to malls have no intention of buying anything, only about 10% of all visitors leave the mall without having succumbed to the temptation to spend! But he takes this argument further and insists that malls even employ religious archetypes. Water, lighting, trees and other plants, music, and language used in advertising–all these elements come together to give shoppers the feeling that they have entered a sort of consecrated place where they can find what they need for personal fulfillment. Of course, this tactic simply masks malls’ true purpose, which is to get shoppers to part with their cash.

Interestingly, Pahl also notes that the sexes react to malls differently. Women, in his view, tend to be more susceptible to malls’ advertising ploys, especially ads that promote a supposedly ideal body image. Men, on the other hand, tend to dislike malls.

Yet Pahl maintains that despite their drawbacks malls do have some positive features. He even goes so far as to argue that malls have stepped in and filled a social and spiritual gap left by actual places of worship. However, he still warns readers to beware of the materialistic escapism that malls hold out to the public.

I admitted to my students that I never would have considered malls to be in any sense a sacred space–unless you regard them as places to offer a sacrifice of money to the gods of materialism. I also opined that Pahl was perhaps stretching things too far. My students seemed to agree with me. One fellow pointed out that people frequently go to the mall simply for socializing, and one young lady felt his claim that women were more easily enticed by malls than men was inaccurate. Yet the article certainly provides food for thought.

So the next time you visit a mall, stop to consider whether there’s more to the place than just buying and selling. Have malls actually succeeded in providing an environment that’s more inviting than our churches and other places of worship? And can that environment be considered sacred to any degree?


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