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A Mall is just a Mall, and (Sometimes) That’s All We Want

In their recent essay in The Other Journal, Cory Willson and Robert Covolo position themselves between James K. A. Smith’s approach to culture and cultural practices, as depicted in Desiring the Kingdom, and my own, as they see it depicted in Poetic Theology.1 I basically agree with both their analysis and their creative response to these two approaches. As far as our cultural critiques are concerned, Jamie Smith and I begin at different starting points but end up in fundamental agreement. I think, however, there might be one important difference.

In Poetic Theology, I attempt to highlight two primal elements about the poetic spaces of people’s lives: the attraction of desire and the goods that we desire. First, learning from Augustine, I am trying to retrieve a positive theology of desire. That is, I want to affirm those attractions that move us to pursue certain goods—whether at Nordstrom or (speaking as a Cubs fan) Wrigley Field—as something fundamental to who we are as creatures made in the image of God. For many people, and for all of us some of the time, these poetic spaces stand close to the center of our identity. Of course, all such attractions—or as Augustine would put it, all the things we love—are to be secondary to our love for God. They are, as he put it, “to be loved in God.”2 I think this affirms that the attractions which move us are approved by God and that they are to find their highest meaning in our enjoyment of them in and for God as divine gifts. But the point I want to emphasize here is that this sense that those attractions which move us are most perfectly realized as God’s divine gifts does not invalidate that they are indeed approved by God.

Once I made this point in a lecture and a Korean pastor asked me: “But according to the New Testament, aren’t our desires inherently wrong?” Now, it is true that nine of the twelve times that the word for desire (epithumia) appears in the New Testament, it is used negatively—these are the “desires of the flesh,” which work against the spirit and so on. But we cannot disregard the fact that the word desire also appears three times in a positive sense (mostly in the Gospels), and it is particularly important that we understand why the word had the negative connotations it had in New Testament times. The answer is in the attitudes toward desire that were fostered in the Stoic tradition, where reason was to carefully harness the bodily impulses. Because of the dominance of this tradition, ordinary desires of the body had come to have the negative connotation they largely carry in the New Testament. The problem with this tradition, of course, was that it conveyed a very negative attitude toward the body and created goods, something that Paul goes out of his way to counter in a number of places—including the discussion of food offered to idols which Willson and Covolo address. Perhaps the most prominent example of Paul’s resistance to the Stoic tradition is his advice to young Timothy. Rather than warning Timothy about the danger of desires, he explicitly refers to the Stoic tradition, wherein people forbid marriage and demand abstinence from certain foods, as wrong, for these things “God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected provided it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:3–4). Of course, our desires, like all our human impulses, are disordered, and that is the reason Paul speaks of the need to sanctify or as we might say in modern parlance, discipline them by the Word of God and prayer.

The second element that I wanted to emphasize in Poetic Theology was that goods are reflective of the gifts of creation that God has given us. To argue that the mall necessarily forms us in idolatrous ways is impugning the goodness of those gifts that Paul describes—for example, marriage and food. After all, from one point of view the mall—and indeed all economic arrangements—is simply a vehicle for distributing the fruits of the earth and of people’s labor. Now, it is perfectly true that this distribution is frequently skewed in all kinds of ways—there are those who want to corner the market or advertisers who want us to buy what we don’t need. But these are problems with the structure of things broken by sin, not problems that are inherent to malls, and I think Jamie Smith would agree with me here.

But what I emphatically deny is the claim (to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton) that when someone goes to the mall what they are really looking for is God.3 I find this incoherent. When people go to the mall, what they are looking for is a nice shirt or a dress for the party next month, and indeed, this is what they (usually) find there. And they come home feeling a little bit better about themselves, and they may enjoy the party a bit more. Nothing is inherently wrong with this and, indeed, it can even be seen as a healthy part of life.

Sooner or later, however, looking better at a party calls for a larger story. This calls for more attention than I give it here, but we cannot simply go through life attending parties. At the end of the day, what we want most deeply is a celebration of thanksgiving that is only to be found in the experience of worship. But what we need to help people see is not how misinformed they are by all the shopping they do, but that these acts are better loved and celebrated when they are seen as God’s gifts, when we see that “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17 NIV). Seen in this light even trips to the mall can be sanctified by the word of God and prayer. In this sense, a mall is often just a mall, and that’s fine with me.


1. I want to thank The Other Journal and my colleagues Cory Willson and Robert Covolo for opening up this valuable conversation and giving me an opportunity to respond. See Willson and Covolo, “When is a Mall just a Mall? The Complexity of Reading Cultural Practices,” The Other Journal 20 (2012): http://theotherjournal.com/2012/02/02/when-is-a-mall-just-a-mall-the-complexity-of-reading-cultural-practices/; Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Cultural Liturgies, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009); and Dyrness, Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).

2. See many of Augustine’s works, including The Confessions and On Christian Doctrine.

3. See Chesterton, Collected Works, vol. 1 (San Francisco, CA: St. Ignatious, 1986).

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William Dyrness :
William Dyrness is professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He teaches courses in theology, culture, and the arts, and was a founding member of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts. Dyrness has over thirty years of teaching experience in the United States, the Philippines, Kenya, and South Korea, and has published work in a variety of fields, including theology and culture, apologetics, theology and art, and global missions. His most recent work is Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday LIfe (Eerdmans, 2010), and he is currently at work on a major research project funded by the Henry Luce Foundation on the use of visual images in worship in Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim communities.
  • http://twitter.com/james_ka_smith James K.A. Smith

    I appreciate this exchange, and agree that Bill & I are not so far apart.  However, I do think there remains a fundamental point of difference, and I’m unconvinced by his reply here.  (I won’t rehearse earlier criticisms. See my comment on the earlier post.  See also my [somewhat critical] review of Poetic Theology in issue 69 of Image.  

    The point of difference is that Dyrness seems to think that “the mall” (or the consumer market) is a “natural kind”–that insofar as it is, it was made by God and therefore is good.  For years he & I have been disagreeing on this point.  I think we are agreed that economic ordering is inherent to good, creational life.  But that does NOT mean that any particular configuration of economic ordering is therefore blessed and sanctified.  All of these are cultural systems that we create, and some are more (MUCH more) disordered than others.  To affirm the goodness of creation entails affirming the goodness of economic life; that does not entail affirming the supposed goodness of any particular configuration.  If you ran with Dyrness’ argument in the realm of politics, it seems to me you’d have to conclude that wherever, say, fascism is the prevailing political order, it would have to be affirmed as good–otherwise one would be guilty of rejecting the “goodness of creation.”  I know Bill wouldn’t entertain that for a second.  And because he wouldn’t, he can’t avail himself of the moves he makes here. 

    In sum, the mall is NOT, as he says, “simply a vehicle for distributing the fruits of the earth and of people’s labor.” Dyrness seems to concede this in the next sentence, but then he confuses this by saying: “these are problems with the structure of things broken by sin, not problems that are inherent to malls, and I think Jamie Smith would agree with me here.”

    Well, not quite: I agree that sin disorders cultural systems.  And I agree that “the mall” (as we’re heuristically using the term here) is an example of just such disordering.  But I disagree that there is some inherently good, sort of “prelapsarian” version of “the mall” that is to be affirmed as good.  No, “the mall” is a disordered, unjust configuration of economic ordering.  I can affirm the essential goodness of the latter while criticizing the fundamental disorder of the latter.  Indeed, I think this is exactly Augustine’s move in The City of God, as I hope to show in volume 3 of my Cultural Liturgies project.

    • John Van Sloten

      Hmmm… given that every created thing is disordered, I wonder where JKS would then shop? The mall is an inextricable mix of both good and evil (just like all of us who shop there). To claim that it is devoid of God’s goodness is to indict all created things. Like the mall, the church is disordered. Should we stop going there too? I think the difference between Dyrness and Smith is one of emphasis. As Richard Mouw said at Princeton a few years ago (in reference to his ongoing debate with Ron Sider) – and I paraphrase – ‘Ron believes that the world was created and is fallen, I believe that the world is fallen but was CREATED!”.

      • http://twitter.com/james_ka_smith James K.A. Smith

        I would say we can’t make blanket judgments.  So status as “created” really doesn’t get you very much. (As Augustine always says, even the Devil is good insofar as he was created–what conclusions do you want to draw from that?)  We need to move beyond these sorts of “blanket” assessments and do concrete, ad hoc analyses–which is precisely what I do with the mall in DTK.  I don’t decry the mall just because it’s “the mall;” I offer a sustained analysis of the way of life fostered by the mall and then measure the degree of its antithesis with what Scripture envisions as (economic) shalom.  So the sorts of claims Van Sloten and Dyrness are making here are way more abstract–and wrongly treat my account as if it were equally abstract.

        • Brian Cook

          A bit late to the party here, but if I may contribute my verse:

          I am reminded here of Marshal McLuhan’s oft quoted phrase “the medium is the message”. McLuhan was attempting to help people realize that the form of a thing was a part of its ultimate message because it changed the context in which the message was received. So in this case, the mall is a medium by which a person receives the “message” of the goods contained therein.

          Dryness’ argument appears to be that one can reduce their interaction with the medium unto its sterility; that is, that a person can simply be “looking for a nice shirt” with no other interaction with the institution within which such shirts are contained. He does not argue that mediums inherently do not, or cannot have “messages”, but that one’s interaction with the medium can be mitigated to some degree- thus mitigating it’s message as well.

          In short: Smith, (and McLuhan), would appear to disagree with Dryness, believing that medium and message interact less like a marriage, and more like the resultant offspring of a marriage. A marriage can be diminished or even divorced, but a child cannot separate themselves from their mother and father’s genetic merging unto new creation.

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