When is a mall just a mall and when does it become an act of idolatry? Recent works by two prominent Christian scholars provide very different accounts of how to understand everyday cultural practices, such as a trip to the mall.

In his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation,[1] James K. A. Smith speaks about malls as part of a discussion on our culture’s perniciously formative practices that shape us as worshipping creatures. Drawing on St. Augustine’s view of the centrality of desire, Smith paints a picture of human beings as worshipping creatures whose daily practices are powerful sources of formation. Smith refers to the strongest of practices, those rituals of ultimate desire, as “liturgies.” Such liturgies not only reflect but also instill a vision of human flourishing and the good life. And they are not restricted to merely the church; they also have their secular counterparts in broader culture. For Smith, then, those practices or liturgies that we enact when we go to the mall provide an alternative vision of the kingdom of God, human flourishing, and shalom. A trip to the mall, according to Smith’s reading, is an invitation to worship. And the god in question is not Jesus.

William Dyrness has a different take. In his book Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life,[2] Dyrness also draws from Augustine’s view of desire, yet with very different results. Dyrness claims that even individuals whose lifestyles seem to be anything but religious inevitably turn to the aesthetic dimensions of their ritual practices as an attempt to meet the human desire for a deep and beautiful life. He suspects that our culture’s fascination with lifestyle and, to a limited extent, our engagement with consumer goods might be an important locus for the religious impulse behind the aesthetic turn. In Dyrness’s estimation, such concerns with style and aesthetics dovetail with a postromantic penchant for seeking something outside the self as the source of fulfillment. This postromantic reflex to find a higher and fuller life through aesthetic engagement provides a point of contact for the gospel. So for Dyrness, a trip to the mall is an invitation to aesthetic engagement. And the god in question just might be Jesus.

So which is it? Is the mall a place to practice idolatry or might it reveal a deep religious search for God? Both of these scholars have added important elements to understanding cultural practices. Smith’s account is to be applauded for its emphasis on the nonneutrality of cultural practices—that cultural practices have their own formative power. And Smith rightfully connects these practices to our formation as worshiping beings, not as neutral bystanders. But Dyrness has rightfully highlighted that cultural practices often provide their own points of contact, points that appeal to our precognitive, religious, and aesthetic sensibilities. Whereas Smith wants to remind us that there are aspects of our culture that are antithetical to the gospel, Dyrness reminds us that God’s spirit provides onramps for the gospel, even in mundane activities. So does the mall offer liturgies to false gods or a potential point of contact for the gospel? This difference in interpretation highlights the complexity of cultural practices and the challenge of reading them. As we shall now see, this difficulty has been with us since the inception of the Christian faith.

The Apostle Paul himself encountered a conflict regarding the dubious cultural practices in the malls of his day, one that was arguably more explicit in its opposition to Christian faith than the blatant consumerism in our malls. The first-century Corinthian market was closely associated with larger systems of Hellenistic pagan (polytheistic) worship, including worship of the imperial cult, and some of the meat offered to idols in pagan temples found its way into the market for purchase. Among the believers in Corinth were converts from pagan religions who had firsthand knowledge of these temple sacrifices, ritual meals, and corresponding sexual activities. Paul’s challenge was to guide these Christians as they undertook the common cultural practices of purchasing and consuming meat. Was it permissible to eat meat sold in the marketplace that had been associated with the socio-religious system of idol worship? If so, did the location of where this meal took place matter? Paul answered these questions with conditional responses—yes, it was permissible to eat such meat, but both the location of the meal and perception of the practice by others must factor into the shoppers’ decisions.

Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 8-11 focus on the type of knowledge that edifies others rather than inflating individual intellects or turning our own personal rights into stumbling blocks for others (see 8:1–3, 9:13; 10:31–33). But we must not miss the theological assumptions that guide Paul in this instruction. Paul speaks in a “yes, but” pattern that keeps theology and ethics in proper relationship. Yes, Jewish monotheism dispels any notion of a real existence of the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods (1 Cor. 8:4–6). But alongside this theological truth, he insisted that Christian actions must bear in mind the past religious experiences of other people (8:7–13), as well as the reality that there was some kind of a demonic presence bound up in the cultic practices of the pagan temples (10:19–22). For both these reasons, participation in the meals of pagan temples was forbidden, but eating meat purchased at the marketplace in private homes might be permitted.

Similarly, using Psalm 24:1 as a reference, Paul affirmed that, theologically speaking, food in itself was clean (morally neutral) and that meat sold in the marketplace was fair game for eating (10:25–26). However, he immediately added that when eating meat bought in the marketplace, one must bear in mind the interpretations or “meanings” associated with this act by those present for the meal (10:27–30). For Paul, the question of whether to participate in this dubious enterprise of eating meat was not a foregone conclusion. Why was that? Because Paul knew people could hold different interpretations of the same practice. Past experiences and associations might lead the so-called weaker Christians to interpret this practice as participation in idolatry, whereas other Christians might participate without a troubled conscience. It is important to notice here Paul’s cultural hermeneutic: for Paul, multiple meanings can be associated with any given cultural practice, and one’s motives for engaging in cultural practices, as well as one’s level of maturity, have ethical significance. Paul’s premise here rests on his assumption that a given practice might form people in a variety of ways.

The work of ritual studies scholars Lawrence Hoffman and Ronald Grimes sheds light on Paul’s approach. In his article “How Ritual Means: Ritual Circumcision in Rabbinic Culture and Today,” Hoffman reminds us that cultural practices have multiple meanings operating simultaneously. Some of these meanings are official (as articulated by those in authority), some are public (shared meanings without official sanctioning), and others are private (held by individuals). The significant point is that all of these meanings are influential and that official meanings are not necessarily the most formative in regard to how participants in the culture see and live in the world (what he calls “normative meanings”). Therefore, Grimes argues that we need to look not simply to those who authorize a cultural practice but also toward those places where practices and meanings are actively being forged—within the practitioners themselves. Paul seemed on the same page as Hoffman and Grimes: he was comfortable rejecting the official interpretation of the pagan priests and allowing for the consumption of “suspect” meat, yet he cautioned those who partook of such meat to be mindful of the private meanings for their fellow Christians in attendance.

Public spaces, such as the markets of first-century Corinth and the malls of today, are complex and amorphous by their very nature. They serve as the environments in which cultural artifacts and practices are created; they are the spaces in which new meanings and motives are generated by the participants of those practices. The complexities to which Hoffman and Grimes alert us reinforce the fact that although we can acknowledge the official meaning of a cultural practice—say, by marketing agencies—part of its cultural impact may be found in the alternative perceived meanings of the participants. Moreover, the formative power of a practice is connected with these perceived meanings. So a cultural hermeneutic (i.e., a framework for interpreting culture) must consider whose meaning we are talking about. Indeed, the danger for any theorist is that meaning can easily be read from the top down and that in doing so, the theorist may ignore the meanings and motives of particular people.

Why is all of this important? Smith has rightly drawn our attention to the essential connectedness of our practices to larger religious and socioeconomic systems. We cannot be naive to consumerist ideologies and practices and the potential influence they hold in de-forming our desires. Idolatrous practices continue to cast their shadow over today’s marketplaces. Hoffman and Grimes acknowledge this power of cultural liturgies and practices but also caution us not to overlook the role that private meanings and motives play in the formation of cultural participants. They point out that the meanings held by particular people often go beyond and even counter to the original intentions of the creators of those practices. In fact, cultural practices can be subverted and made subject to the same kind of re-formation that they attempt to impose on their participants. Therefore, liturgy and culture do not exist in a fixed one-way relationship of imposition. As Paul reminds us—cultural liturgies do not need to have the final say on the significance and purpose of our engagement. Here, Dyrness reminds us that warnings of idolatrous liturgies are insufficient; we need a counter-ethic to buffer against idolatry, one that points to the one God who meets us in our search (see Acts 17:22–23).

So when is a mall just a mall? Our initial question can’t be answered without first asking, “Whose mall are we talking about, anyway?” For Paul, as with contemporary ritual studies, these questions go hand in hand.

[1] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Cultural Liturgies, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).

[2] Dyrness, Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).