Pahl compares religion and malls

Jon Pahl, professor of the history of Christianity in North America at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, presented his lecture, “The Desire to Acquire: Shopping Malls, Religious Violence and Actual Places of Grace,” last Wednesday, Oct. 11, at 5 p.m. in the New Library Auditorium. Pahl discussed the almost religious adoration of consumerist establishments like shopping malls and its connection to religious violence in and outside of the United States.

“We need to rethink what violence means,” Pahl said.

After presenting two contrasting takes on the concept of violence from both minimalist and “maximalist” standpoints, Pahl presented a theory of his own, which was outlined by what he called the “violence iceberg.”

At the tip of the iceberg is criminal violence, categorized by actions like vandalism, murder and theft. Below it is institutional control, entailing the violence dealt by the justice system. Below that are economic and social violence, dealing with inequalities in healthcare and education. Finally, at the iceberg’s bottom is cultural violence. Pahl contended that hate speech, racism, sexism and ethnocentrism were the basis for all other forms of violence.

Pahl explained his definition of religion, which he compared to the principles of a shopping mall. In most religions, salvation is the goal. In today’s society, salvation is perceived as prosperity, which triggers the desire to acquire more. There is no better place to acquire than at a shopping mall.

A typical shopping mall is full of light, very spacious and adorned with trees and fountains. They are, as Pahl said, “sanctuaries of relative civility in an uncivil society.”

Pahl said 40 percent of people enter malls with no intent to buy anything and only 10 percent achieve this goal. With this statistic taken into consideration, Pahl posed the question of why so few people were able to abstain from buying things. The answer, Pahl contended, lies in the scenery.

The fountains and trees in shopping malls serve no conceivable purpose. Certainly, they make the mall aesthetically pleasing, but Pahl claimed they held a more symbolic meaning.

“Fountains serve no utilitarian purpose. They are there to communicate a message – go with the flow,” Pahl said.

Trees, too, symbolize constantly budding life without death or a continually replenished wallet, leaving the owner with no buyer’s remorse. This sort of scenery, Pahl said, is how shopping malls disorient their patrons.

Pahl went on to discuss the detrimental effects this deception causes. Such an infatuation with consumerism distracts society from real issues and real places of grace by promising salvation through material gain.

“It presents stairways to heaven that are actually just escalators to nowhere,” Pahl said.

Pahl offered the example of his daughter’s actions while they were in the Mall of America. Suddenly, while they walked along, she exclaimed that she wanted to buy something. It did not matter what she bought, but she remained adamant about the fact that she just wanted to purchase something for the sole purpose of wanting to spend money.

Pahl ended his lecture by recalling the first time he looked into his son’s eyes. He said that the moment was of far greater meaning than any sort of material gain. Love, honor and grace, not blind obedience, Pahl said, were the ways to true happiness.