There was a interesting article in The Economist recently entitled ‘In place of God‘. It is a survey examining the central cultural institutions of the world’s major cities. The title reflects the shift over the last century away from the Church as the central cultural institution. Leaving aside for a moment the problem with regarding the Church as a cultural institution, it raises an important point about the spiritual dimensions of Cities.
Until last century all the urban communities of the Western world were built around Churches. In Britain, before the 16th century a population centre would only be declared a city if it contained a Cathedral – the seat of a Bishop. But for increasingly secular societies Church no longer holds its place as the hub of urban life. The article goes on to examine some of the substitutes our societies have developed: Art Galleries, Museums, Sporting Grounds. But the secular shrine that has truly come to dominate the spiritual lives of modern suburbanites receives only a brief mention: the Shopping Mall.
It’s probably just my over-active imagination, but there are certain times when I walk into a shopping mall and am overcome with the sense that I’m in the heart of a pagan temple. As a Christian there is so much happening in a Mall that is antithetical to the heart of the Christian message and life. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I really enjoy wondering ’round the Mall. I certainly take advantage of the convenience provided by having shops grouped together. But I think that the times when I’m repulsed are probably my saner moments. Buying and selling, the manipulation of thoughts and desires through advertising, the manipulation even of biology through the food courts and careful control of natural and artificial light – I feel like a battery hen.
All the windows in a shopping mall only look into shops, never into the landscape or city. It is impossible to know what time of day it is once you’re inside. Increasingly, it is becoming unnecessary to ever leave.
And yet, the mall is a profoundly dehumanising place. It takes People and makes them no more than cattle, consuming and producing. It justifies the manipulation of minds, hearts, and bodies in order to make this process more efficient. A shopping mall is a factory in which we are the product.
The change from Church to Mall is a massive exercise in Urban Idolatry. The substitution of human productions for the reality of God.
And it’s no wonder that this is dehumanising. Man-made gods always treat us like cattle. Idolatry is dehumanising.
We were created to worship God, the more we draw near to him in worship – the more human we become. Worshipping God is an essentially human activity, it is proper to no other species of creature. We are most human when we are act out our humanity towards God. And conversely, being truly godly is truly human. It’s an image thing. We have the identity and intentions of our creator pressed into our identity.
When we worship something other than God we are bending this out of shape. We stop acting in a properly human way. Even though genetic sequences don’t change, idolatry produces monsters – perversions of human identity. Sharing some of its features but twisted in upon itself.
A city is a collective individual. More than anything else humans produce, it is the concrete representation of our identity. When we substitute something other than God at the heart of the city, it also begins to lose its humanity. It loses its civility, its ‘civicness’. It is no longer a community of citizens bonded together for their mutual good. It becomes truly ‘sub-urban’ a disparate herd of individuals isolated from one other, angry and suspicious, quitely ignoring each other, while seeking to beat each other to whatever bargain is now on offer. A city with no soul.
The gospel of the Lordship of Jesus means that we must speak out against the false worship in a city – calling people to give their loyalty to the Christ.
And it also means calling people back to their humanity.
And calling cities back to their foundations.