Cathedrals of Consumerism
Issue 97 October 2012
Places of religious pilgrimage have always brought together large groups of people. Makkah, before and after the Prophet is an example, but so too are Jerusalem, Rome, and Lourdes.
Great structures, mosques, synagogues, and cathedrals were built to celebrate God, and there was elaborate accommodation and hospitality ready for the pilgrims.
In Gothic architecture, light was considered one of the most beautiful ways God reveals Himself in the world. Cathedrals, such as those of Reims and Notre Dame in France, had the most exquisite stained glass windows to enhance the beauty of the light. The high ceilings of these great monuments give a sense of vastness that dwarf the individuals who worship within the sacred walls, compelling emotions of awe, and marking out the Church as an institution of power and wealth.
Today, such architecture is more often used for Apple stores than places of worship. The glass cube on New York’s Fifth Avenue is a monument for the Apple pilgrim. The Shanghai branch has a glass spiral staircase that draws adoring fans. Many branches are in historic buildings, and refurbished to make use of marble pillars, double height ceilings, spiral staircases and the like. Paris’ Opera Apple store for example has mosaic floor tiling and sculpted ceilings. The BBC documentary, Secrets of the Superbrands, asked a team of neuroscientists to examine the brain of an ardent Apple fan using MRI scans. The results showed that Apple products stimulated the same parts of the brain as religious imagery did in people of faith.
Apple is not unique. The Trafford Centre in Manchester built in a Rococo/late Baroque architectural style is decorated in varying shades of coloured marble throughout, embellished with gold. Huge paintings, and three domed areas—one larger than at St Paul’s Cathedral—give shoppers a sense of grandeur historically reserved for places of worship. The grand, glass-vaulted space of London’s Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford is yet another example. Opened in time for the Olympic Games, at nearly two million square feet it is the biggest urban shopping centre in Europe. Such malls can be found all over the world, including the Muslim world, which is building increasingly larger and grander structures for people to shop.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, once described consumerism as the new religion of the 21st century, with malls being its cathedrals. When I lived in Saudi Arabia in 2000, I saw malls being built; I was also aware of the prohibition on the construction of churches in the Kingdom. The irony was not lost on me.Governments ask us to spend ourselves out of recession, becoming obsessed with growth. Shopping is framed as a patriotic duty. Psychiatrists have recognised the power of retail therapy. Our media promotes the next ‘must have’, the latest trend, and the essential upgrade, to feed the desire within us that can never be satiated. As the Catholic priest and philosopher, Ivan Illich, put it, “The myth of unending consumption has taken the place of belief in life everlasting.”
Far too often Muslims have a very secular understanding of religion. They limit it to just the five pillars—as long as these are in order, then other questions are not asked. We do not have to worship ‘gods’ carved out of wood and stone, as they did in the time of Abraham and Muhammad, for the central focus of our lives to be other than God. When we confine our religion to the mosque, synagogue, temple or church, we cause a schism within society. It allows mammon to run wild, and spirituality to be locked away. When we divide faith from life, we cause a rupture within ourselves. When we do not create a link between faith and people’s reality, we create an internal dissonance. Where a person feels there is a conflict between their religious life and their ‘real’ life, the more alluring side will win. When religion distances itself from everyday realities, necessities and indeed desires, it becomes irrelevant and will soon become redundant—except for births, weddings and funerals.
“We have to take our faith with us to the shopping mall, in order to ensure the shopping mall doesn’t become our faith.”
We do not have to run away from modernity. We do not have to believe that modernity is at loggerheads with our faith, and become rejectionists of every innovation. We do however have to be aware of the power of trillion dollar industries which pander to our weaknesses and rely on us succumbing to them. We have to find ways to connect life with faith. Our purchasing decisions can be a yielding of our incomes to the will of the Merciful. Our engagements with others can be a submission of our egos to the Kind. Our every choice can be surrendered to the Divine. We have to be conscious, and make good intentions before our actions. We have to make sure we take our faith with us to the shopping mall, in order to ensure the shopping mall doesn’t become our faith.