What If Shopping Malls Are Really Sanctuaries?

The mall in my town looks more like a religious sanctuary than I ever realized. 

I mean, its presence is literally cathedral-like.

mall entrance

In fact, the mall itself is a nod to medieval Christian architecture in its “cruciformity” (the building, from above, is the shape of a cross).

mall cruciformity

Several pyramid-style steeples sit atop the stores stationed in the traditional cathedral “anchor” positions.

mall steeple

The flower pots in the front of the building look like giant incense bowls, offering up their pleasant aromas.

mall incense bowls

Whereas gargoyles once scared away evil spirits from cathedral walls, intentionally unambiguous cameras sit perched atop the mall’s entrance, giving the illusion of security to all who enter.

mall gargoyles

Romanesque cathedrals of the Middle Ages used natural (sometimes called “divine”) light as an important feature of the worship process.  Instead of the dark, dank, candle-lit interiors of previous cathedrals, architects placed windows toward the base of domes as a means of letting in God’s light.

And an arched skylight runs the length of the mall’s cruciform floorplan.

mall light

Wreaths, trees, and holiday decorations demarcate the passing of seasons.

mall tree

Shops like Abercrombie and Fitch and Armani Exchange have placed huge murals showcasing elite human physiques at the entrance to their stores. You cannot see into the store without walking around these walls, effectively discouraging mere commoners from entering… something akin to the exclusive cloistering of monasteries.

mall cloistering

Like old-school temples, the mall offers blessings of fertility… albeit in the form of sexy adverts, body improvement stores and constant appeals to family.

And like any good religious center, the mall offers identity. Down to the different bags shoppers walk around with, the shopping experience is self-expression.  Faceless and headless manikins dot the mall like so many small statues begging to symbolize every onlooker.

Religion, on the other hand, is mentioned nowhere.

That is with the exception of one place…true religion

…where the one true religion is preached. Jeans.

Other than that? Nothing.

This fact can actually be somewhat eerie once you notice it. Even though a majority of shoppers have some sort of faith, the divine is conspicuously absent from the mall environment and the advertisements tailored for them.

In some sense, the mall seems like a sanctuary from God.

This might be due to the fact that God doesn’t facilitate the sort of consumer culture malls thrive on.  The relationship with God that many people have reassures them that they are valued as God’s creations, meant to connect with things beyond the immediate, and are responsible for their actions.  The mall atmosphere, on the other hand, tells people they need supplements, smells, and an impressive pair of underwear to be valued.  It directs them away from the transcendent to the immediately gratifying.

Not that the mall has to be a church or anything. It’s just that the absence of religion is striking, given the thoroughly religious atmosphere.

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

Latest posts by Allen Marshall O'Brien (see all)

Share this:
  • Connie O’Brien

    A sanctuary from God….. that sounds about right.

  • Mike G

    Do you notice the other conspicuously-missing element?

    Check the window dressing in any mall. How often are they bound together with cord? Never.

    This is because the money-changers learned their lesson back in John 2:15. The Lord’s good work now requires that one BYOC (bring your own cord).

    This also explains a huge, and heretofore largely ignored, mall-mystery. Why are there no Doves sold in malls? (John 2:16) Seriously, when was the last time you bought a dove at a mall? You can’t. You have to go way out of your way to the much less ornate pet store for that sort of thing. Despicable. Inconvenient and despicable.