It's time to seek communion at the mall

A few years ago, the theologians at the prestigious Young & Rubicam advertising agency circulated, in house, an interesting little document about the sacraments of buying and selling.

The big idea was that many of our culture's best-known brand names have, in effect, become substitute religions. These "belief brands" provide meaning for millions of believers who gradually become what they consume while taking communion, so to speak, at the mall.

Here's a quote from a column I did at that time:

"The brands that are succeeding are those with strong beliefs and original ideas," said an agency report. "They are also the ones that have the passion and energy to change the world, and to convert people to their way of thinking though outstanding communications."

When true believers think of Apple, Calvin Klein, Gatorade, Volvo, MTV, Starbucks, Nike and Virgin, they don't just think of products. These uncompromising "belief brands" help establish a sense of identity, according to Young & Rubicam. They are icons that define lives.

I bring this up for a simple reason. The cultural steamroller called "The Holidays" -- formerly known as "Christmas" -- is here in all of its Advent- and Hanukkah-crushing glory. This will lead to a few brave pastors and rabbis preaching sermons on commercialism and selfishness. My Scripps Howard column this week even offers advice for those who want to dare to deal with (cue: drum roll) Santa Claus.

This is a major subject, in part because one does not have to be a neo-Marxist Scrooge to see that the spirituality of the Advent-Nativity Lent season does not blend well with the post-Thanksgiving cultural free for all. Yet it is rare to see actual news stories on this topic. The Denver Post ran one recently -- called "Shopping Nation" -- and I've been watching ever since to see if anyone chased it. Not yet.

Reporter Douglas Brown notes that consumption has clearly become a "sacred and communal act" and a form of addiction. Here's a sample:

Compulsive buying has escalated dramatically during the past 10 years, says April Lane Benson, a psychologist in New York and the editor of "I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self." ... The spread of electronic commerce and television shopping networks, she says, is in part behind the growth of shopping addictions. Shopping also has seamlessly insinuated itself into the fabric of the country. Most people do not realize how central shopping is to their lives.

"Malls are our new sacred spaces," Benson says. "They are substitutes for town halls, town centers. They're kind of like churches; instead, the deity worshiped is the almighty dollar. People spend more time shopping than anything but working and sleeping."

The God talk doesn't end there:

Vincent Miller, a theology professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and the author of "Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture," says the triumph of consumer culture has changed how people relate to religion. In consumer culture, he says, "we expect religion to give us its secrets right away. We expect ourselves to be able to decide immediately whether it's right for us or not. ... We don't get the connections between the beliefs and the practices that give you the transformation.

Let's face it. This is a sacramental system. See this image. Purchase the product. Consume it and become the image.

Has anyone else out there seen a good 2004 news story on this phenomenon? Now, I'm talking news -- not a commentary column. Meanwhile, the Boca Raton News has done a nice little feature on what some South Florida churches are doing during this stressed-out season.

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