Archive for August 2nd, 2008

Consumer Cathedral

The vacation is almost over, but today we had a chance to visit the cathedral to consumerism, the modern capitalist equivalent of St. Peter’s — The Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minnesota. Given all of my tirades on consumerism lately, one might think I’d look with disdain at this glitzy consumer Mecca sitting right where the old Metropolitan Stadium (home of the Twins and Vikings for 20 years until 1981) stood, but the visit was fun, and seen in context, the Mall of America is a fascinating microcosm of American consumerism.

First, it’s fun. When the mall first opened it boosted “Camp Snoopy,” an indoor amusement park with rides based on the theme of Charles Shultz’s Peanuts comic strip. Recently, however, that changed to “Nickelodeon TV,” with the more marketable faces of Dora the Explorer and Spongebob Squarepants, with rides more expensive and a bit more adventurous than before. It is loads of fun, and we spent far more time there than actually in the mall (and spent money only there and at the food court). My two year old spent 45 minutes building things at the Lego land display, free of charge.

Second, the food’s great. While the food court has the usual Panda express and the like, there are delicious gyros, experimental ‘fast food,’ and a wide range of restaurants from the unique to the down home. Whatever your taste, you can find it at the Mall of America – with good quality too. Where else can I get a quick, cheap, yet high quality gyro (with the right sauce and meats), plus a delicious side of spanikopita?

Finally, you can find whatever you want. When I lived in Minneapolis, the MOA was my shopping mall. I went there to buy the things I needed, as it was closer than other malls, and I knew I could find what I wanted. It has virtually everything, and many stores are intriguing on their own right. Granted, we didn’t experience that so much this time because of the focus on the amusement park, but there are good deals, and a variety of offerings you can’t find in most places. It is a mix of the pragmatic and the sensational.

And I mean sensational — it overloads the senses. Much like the old European Cathedrals of the dark ages, the Mall of America is spectacular. From the moment you enter sounds, images, and an open expanse create a sense of wonder. For the average rural Minnesotan, used to flat plans and small towns, this is an eye opener. There’s an energy and a vibrance to the Mall of America that is compelling. I used to come here and people watch when I was bored, often buying nothing but some oatmeal butterscotch cookies and just walking around, observing. I recall when I came to Farmington for my job interview, I knew I was going to be in for culture shock when I asked the student giving me a tour of the campus what Farmington was like. She got a big smile and said with excitement, “we just got a Walmart!” Yikes.

Tomorrow before our flight we’re heading to downtown Minneapolis so the boys can see real skyscrapers and what a city is like. In Farmington Maine we’re rather secluded. When I first moved to Maine, I missed the Twins Cities, where I’d lived for ten years. Minneapolis is known for its music scene, awesome theater, and arts. And while it is a real city with traffic jams and crime, it also has numerous lakes within its city limits (I think 11), and in the suburbs even more. One can get on a bike path and go from park to park around the city and along the Mississippi without feeling like one is in an urban center. Farmington is small, the nearest ‘good shopping’ is 45 minutes away, and while being a university town it does put on some good plays and concerts, well, rural Maine stands no chance against Minneapolis-St. Paul!

Tonight, though, I felt glad that this is a place we’ll go simply as tourists, not as a normal weekly or even monthly event. Just like the Cathedrals of old used incense, colors, and stained glass to create an other-wordly impression, as if the horrors of daily medieval life didn’t exist, the sanitary ‘catering to every whim’ atmosphere at the Mall of America creates an impression of the individual consumer as King. I am here, my wants are primary, others are here to serve. I have to give money, to be sure, but in exchange I am pampered and complimented — all in a fun, exciting environment. The message is clear — you deserve to treat yourself to something special, even if you have to borrow to do it. Everyone else is, why be left behind?

Thus this new religion turns traditional faith on its head. Rather than a sense of something higher, with community paramount, material wants are privileged, with individual satisfaction the highest value. While most religions try to produce some sort of introspection on life, it’s meaning, and our place in the world, consumerism’s message “don’t worry about that heavy stuff, buy something and enjoy yourself.” Most traditional religions demand adherence to one story, myth or creed. Consumerism can coopt virtually any religion, “sure, shop around for your church or faith, believe that…but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a good consumer too!”

I noted awhile back that most religions no longer are viable, given changes in science and human knowledge attained over the past few centuries. Visiting this consumer cathedral, it reinforced my sense that we’ve let our cynicism about faith lead to an embrace of pure materialism that is at its core empty; short term efforts to fill a void that requires something deeper and emotionally satisfying. In an earlier blog I called this ‘spiritual dehydration,’ a sense our material fetishes cause us to miss something about the creative or ‘spiritual’ side of life. At the Mall of America, one sees consumerism in all its material glory, using fun, food, spectacle and excitement to make consumerism seem fulfilling as well. I suspect most people still can find a happy medium, and don’t get sucked in completely. But it is an amazing place — a true cathedral to consumerism. I recall last February’s visit to St. Peter’s in Rome on the Italy trip, an extravagant spectacle that was so expensive it helped push the Germans towards revolt and the reformation.

Then it hit me. For all of the spiritual and ethical intent of Christian teachings, the result of Christianity as practiced was often to simply keep the powerful wealthy and the powerless in servitude. Corrupted Popes or modern day corrupted televangelists, all using emotion to line their pockets and fleece the masses. Perhaps the two cathedrals don’t represent things so different after all; this current cage is simply a gilded one.