Malls’ shifts to icon status feel inauthentic

By Clyde Davis: CNJ Columnist

Anytime I get off the interstate to head toward my parents’ home, I pass the shopping mall where I used to work. Penney’s hardware and sporting goods departments helped, greatly, to finance my seminary education. Sadly, today’s Penney’s carries neither category of item.

This mall, of course, would be in the midst of its usual post-Christmas slump, and the tape on the boxed up decorations is still settling into place, waiting until next year when those pieces of holiday cheer come to life again.

The mall where I worked is not a twin, but rather a pale reflection of, Minnesota’s Mall of America, the nation’s monument to commercialism. Nonetheless, I could tell stories, given the room and time, about some of the situations I encountered at the mall where I worked.

That was then, this is now, and the disease which the mall personifies has gotten, not worse, not more prevalent, but perhaps more blatant. Paraphrasing an article in Parabola journal, a journal for spiritual seekers, the mall is a symbol of our immersion in things, objects, externals, appearances, and consumption, an immersion which we use all too often to hide from ourselves.

In other words, it creates a false world — kind of a consumer’s Disneyland — where we can hide from ourselves and the challenges of dealing with who we are. Don’t like yourself today? No use asking why. Maybe a pair or two of new jeans, a stylish hoodie, will fill the empty space. Feeling hurt, angry, guilty, afraid? A visit to the cosmetic kiosk ought to help you out.
Thus, you don’t have to deal with who hurt you, why are you afraid, or maybe the guilt is a good sign, pointing you to something you need to correct. It is simpler to cover it up, like the cosmetics cover one’s face, the jeans cover one’s legs, etc. Paradoxically, the mall, as you may have noticed, is replete with mirrors, so you can check your look. You cannot, however, see inside yourself with those mirrors.

There is another paradox, borne of the particular location of the mall where I worked.
Beginning about 10 minutes east of that area and stretching for several hours in that direction, are the Laurel Mountains, which contain a large percentage of what one might call wild Pennsylvania — mountains, forests, streams and rivers which, because I grew up so close to them, I often found myself heading into, on a weekend, after school, on a break time, or with any free time longer than an hour.

In a lot of ways, while growing up, I found myself making the short trip into that wooded, outdoor and mountainous quiet so that I could work on the journey of finding myself.

Precisely the task the shopping mall, as the icon which it has become, would interfere with.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the education which those Penney’s paychecks paid for. I even have some great memories of what it was like, especially during the Christmas rush — though most of those involve friends and coworkers, not consumerism. But doesn’t the Mall bring into focus one of the key issues in our culture?

Clyde Davis is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Portales and a college instructor. He can be contacted at: