Posted by: L. E. Barnes | November 17, 2012

Sacred Space: A Rerun

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, and with it the hustle and bustle of the Christmas shopping season will commence as well. Come Black Friday, people will hit the stores with a vengeance, trying to land the best deals they can find for the items on their family’s wish lists. I’ve never joined the ranks of the fanatical bargain seekers–in part because I have only a few people to get things for, but also because, frankly, I feel such obsession with buying gifts both causes unnecessary stress and takes away from the true reason for celebrating Christmas.

OK, I realize that it’s been a perennial complaint by preachers and pundits that our society has become too materialistic. Yet as you hit the malls this year, think about the ideas presented below. What follows is a post I wrote just over three years ago, when I was teaching a freshman composition class at the local community college. I had asked my students to read, discuss, and write about an article by a professor who argued that materialism was so pervasive in our society that our shopping malls had in fact become, in many respects, our new sacred spaces. (At the time I was not involved in “Sunday Snippets,” and no one has of yet left comments on the original post. So I’m re-presenting it now. )

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?



  1. Great topic. It seems to me that the key function of a mall is to direct your mind and affections towards shopping, I guess you can say it directs your unconscious self towards materialism. But there is hospitality and social opportunities that make it a warm atmosphere but the imagery does not speak to you of God’s presence. Malls lack that sense of sacred presence, a silent presence.

    I believe malls have filled in for neighborhoods and local churches since many families and Church communities became fragmented and distant from each other with the move to suburbs, increased independence thanks to technology, city planning dominated by design for autos and an economy that tends to pull people to move for their career. So malls present a much needed social space.

    • Good observations. Malls are certainly a social space, but I would hardly view them as sacred. The ambiance is designed simply to create an appealing place for people to spend. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  2. I can’t stand malls because I can’t stand shopping. Added to that, my physical issues play into a lifelong abhorrence of crowds except for those I join at the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite. Never did I think of malls as a sacred space, but considering that 20% of Americans don’t consider themselves as being religious in any way, perhaps malls offer people a facsimile of worship – at the altar of narcissism and materialism. I shop on line for things I need, including gifts. Maybe the author is partly right in his assessment of malls. They are a nice space for elderly walkers who go there before the doors open, but given the type of advertising, I’d say for the most part they are a near occasion of sin for most people.

    • I don’t blame you for not liking the crowds, especially at this time of year. Shopping online also saves you time and gasoline! Have malls become, in some regards, a substitute for the community and adoration that should be found in a house of worship? Perhaps to some degree. And doubtless some people–those who have little or no self-control over their spending habits–should avoid malls, lest they become a “near occasion of sin”, as you put it!

  3. Very interesting! But I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said, so I’ll just nod agreement from my end of the web.

    • Thanks for visiting!

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