When the Mall Became an Idol’s Temple

I think my wife and I have only been to the mall together about three times. We tend to feel uncomfortable there. First of all, if I could be honest, we can’t afford to shop there (we are missionaries), and second, we are unsettled by the materialistic ethos and idolatry  that it contains. Let me explain.

As I reflect on my last walk through the mall, I remember the romantic feel of every image displayed: humans flaunting items that made them even more beautiful, popular, and worthy of attention. I remember not only feeling attracted to them myself, but also feeling the pressure to conform to the image that was being displayed.

The spiritual nature of this environment became clear to me when I came across the Apple store. As I stared through the window, my attention was drawn to the many customers who were smiling while their eyes were glued to their gadgets. Outside of the store, dozens of people walked while hypnotized, as it were, to their phone screens. Returning my gaze to the Apple store, my attention was taken by a flat-screen displaying these words: “What will your verse be?”

Capture(Click on Image)

Now, I don’t know about you, but that is a deep question for me. As the video progresses, humans from a variety of different cultures and walks of life were shown engaging their sacred cultural activities in flashes. After every flash, folks from the same people group were shown using Apple technology to connect with an activity, namely a cultural activity. The narrator asked deep existential questions, things pertaining to the meaning of life and to one’s personal narrative. The narrator’s voice then progressed from gentleness to passion as it culminated with a challenging question: “The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse… what will your verse be?”

Very captivating video! Life, destiny, legacy; what will my verse be? But then it hit me: Apple’s persuasion to become a consumer of its products was being done subtly through this video. The way the images were used and the way in which the question was posed forced me to think and feel insignificantly about myself: my identity and purpose was being questioned while the video displayed images of fulfillment. The video strongly communicated the message that there is more to life than what I had previously thought and it implied quite clearly that one step toward attaining this meaning was the  electronic products it was promoting. In a nutshell, through this video, Apple expressed itself as a sage at whose feet I could discover myself. Accordingly, the biggest sin would be for me to not take the next step toward self-discovery and story-making which would only be accessible through Apple’s items.

As I looked around the mall I saw that Apple was not the only company marketing its item in this fashion but that it was one among many. The images of perfect human bodies decorating themselves with the products of each store were reminiscent to the statues of the gods from Greek mythology: pillars in front of doorways, inviting the people to come into temples. In these “sacred spaces,” people were being persuaded that they would find meaning, purpose, and destiny.

That day, I saw people conforming to images. It became very clear to me that it was a holy day in the mall and that the congregation inside of it was celebrating the day by sacrificing their money at the altar of each temple. My understanding of the mall as a center of consumerism began to fade and a new image became very vivid: the mall was not just a hotbed for consumption; it was a temple full of contemporary gods on high places, on the hilltop where the public came to worship.

I don’t think Beth and I purchased anything. We left. We decided to go across the street to a second hand shop and do our shopping.


The Criminal Justice System Should Never Define Our Neighborhoods for Us

[Parts of the following selection were taken from ch. 4 of my Master’s thesis]

Be careful. Don’t allow the criminal justice system to define people or the neighborhoods in your city. This is your responsibility.

The criminal justice system’s primary purpose is to protect the public, maintain order, and preserve justice in society, particularly, by preventing and controlling crime.[1] As such, it specializes in acquiring and managing criminal information. The criminal justice system is not the kind of institution that possesses top of the line, anthropological and sociological dexterity; its primary role and expertise does not involve defining or theorizing about people, culture, or cities. It is an administrative institution that uses the applied sciences. It is what Jacques Ellul calls an “organizational technique” or “technical apparatus,” which resembles a machine, involving “a group of [operational and methodical] movements… organized and traditional, all of which unite to reach a known end.”[2] This end, of course, is public protection and safety. However, as a society, we have allowed—and, in many ways, delegated an authoritative role unto—the criminal justice system to define the very things it was not designed to define: people and neighborhoods.

Granting the criminal justice system this kind of leverage is unwise: it causes the system to misapply its role and create for society inaccurate ways of understanding people and space. An architect attempting to define a neighbor’s home will more likely focus on the architecture of the house rather than the cultural dynamics of the family, who call the house their “home.” The reason for this is that the architect is an architect, and this is the way in which architects tend to interpret homes. In the same way, the justice system will tend to interpret people and neighborhoods narrowly, using criminal data which tends to be rigidly statistical, systematically propositional, and consistent with its own expertise but not always consistent with the broader reality. The system’s interpretation, like the architect above, may be accurate, at least from a certain angle—from the standpoint of the way they appropriate numbers and data—but it is incomplete nevertheless. However, the narrow way in which that information is communicated or understood, especially if the interpretation is absolutized, can distort one’s perception of the people or the neighborhoods being interpreted.

Consider the way in which local justice institutions tend to construct an image of the common criminal (keep in mind that the following is a broad portrait based on national statistics):

The [criminal] is, first of all, a [male]. Of 13.1 million persons arrested for crimes in 2010, 75 percent were males… Second, he is young. Nearly half (42 percent) of men arrested for all crimes were under the age of 25… Third, he is predominantly urban. Cities with populations over 250,000 had a rate of 275 arrests for violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants, while cities with populations under 10,000 had 146 such arrests per 100,000 inhabitants… Fourth, he is disproportionately black: Blacks are arrested for violent crimes at a rate more than three times that of their percentage in the national population… Finally, he is poor. Almost one-third (29 percent) of 2002 jail inmates were unemployed (without full- or part-time work) prior to being arrested.[3]

Certainly, these criminal statistics reflect actual occurrences of crime arising from the reports made by real civilians. Yet the criminal justice system has a proclivity to focus on the type of crime that exists in the urban context rather than the type of crime that exists among the affluent.[4] While I am not questioning or challenging the veracity of this kind of criminal data, I must point out that the way that this type of data is projected overlooks the characteristics of human personality and reduces people into lifeless numbers. This kind of lifeless data is then reconstructed into an image of criminality that is broadly applied, an image that the system–and consequently society–treats as a primary anthropological lens for engaging the urban context.

Surely these types of images are helpful in many ways for justice institutions, but they ultimately distort the image of the people represented by the numbers (e.g. young, Black males from poor urban neighborhoods). By generalizing criminality in this way, the justice system ultimately moves beyond managing criminal data and into overgeneralizing a whole community of people. The statistics represent the criminality of a few, but the image created includes the characteristics of the many. As a result, both the criminals and the broader community to which the criminals belong become indistinguishable. In mathematical terms, the numerator (criminals) is equated with the denominator (their ethnic community), and the fraction (differences) consequently transforms into a whole number (sameness).

Be careful. Don’t let the criminal justice system define people or your neighborhoods for you. Otherwise, you will also be, like many others, part of a culture that wrongfully generalizes groups of people. Instead, get to know your neighbors and you neighborhood. Then you will have a much more accurate grasp of who your neighbors are and what their neighborhoods are like.

[1] Leslie J. Smith, Coordinating the Criminal Justice System: A Guide to Improve the Effective Administration of Justice (Lanham: University Press, 2008), 2-3.
[2] Jaque Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 22, 100, 13.
[3] Jeffrey Reiman and Paul Leighton, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Poorer: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, 10th ed. (New York: Routledge Publisher, 2016). Kindle ed., chap. 2.
[4] Gregg Barak, Paul Leighton, Jeanne Flavin, Class, Race, Gender, and Crime: The Social Realities of Justice in America, 3rd ed. (Landham: Rowman& Littlefield Publishers, 2010), 227.

Dear Hipster … Sincerely, an Original Hipster.

Dear Hispster,

For a while now, I would love to have a cup of coffee with you. I know that this offer is invaluable to you because like me, you enjoy dark coffee, usually without sugar or creamer–straight old school and simple.  Or maybe you prefer tea. Yes, tea, with the hipsterspices you’ve grown on your front porch. In either case, whether you’d like coffee or tea, or anything else, I’ll make sure that you feel welcomed. I don’t even mind riding my bike to the store down the street to purchase anything we may need for our time together. I have done this for guests before, sometimes in haste. In fact, one time I was in such a hurry that my jeans, near my ankle, got caught in the crank of my bike and I flipped over my handle bars to the ground. My jeans tore in several places, especially near my knees. But this was no problem since now a days it’s kind of cool to sport jeans in this fashion.

Anyhow, the conversation I’ve been wanting to have with you is about your rising trendiness. I have noticed that there has been an emergence of young people who are growing more concerned about some of the same issues I am concerned with and who are creatively reflecting an image that I can somewhat relate to. The other day, I walked into a restaurant for a burger where the waiter–dressed somewhat raggedy and had a “Pancho Villa” mustache– served me. He had a sleeve of tattoos going down his arm and a pair of glasses, seemingly held together by a piece of tape. He brought me a delicious order of rootbeer. And not just any rootbeer … a rootbeer served in a jelly jar. Then I noticed that around the room, everyone was drinking out of different jelly jars, having lively conversations.

This made me think about my upbringings: when I was a kid, my mom only had a few nice drinking glasses. We only used them on special occasions. So you know what we used on a daily basis? Yes, jelly jars! When friends came over, this would often embarrass me. So I used mom’s nice glasses, only to be reprimanded by her later. “Mijo,” she would say, “stop using the glasses and use the jelly jars instead!”

Dear Hipster, your friends and their trendiness, young people who happily ride their bikes in torn jeans, drinking black coffee and tea in jelly jars, may not understand the implications of what they are reflecting. You see, I ride my bike because I’m car-less; my jeans are torn because I am clothed in poverty; I drink black coffee because I don’t have money for sugar and creamer; I grow my tea because it’s cultural for me; and I use jelly jars because we’re poor. I don’t choose to live like this. I have to live like this.

You, on the other hand, don’t have to live like this. So why do you imitate our lifestyle? Do you intend to be in solidarity with us, or do you mock us? Are you seeking liberation from your own privilege, or are you capitalizing on our cultural creativity born out of our poverty? If you are in solidarity with us, why are we not invited to your events? And if you are seeking your liberation in tangent with our ours, where is your presence when we protest against the injustices that we suffer in our barrios and hoods?

Dear Hipster, we see your laughter and ease of life. We see it as you enjoy copying our ways and branding them as your own. For us to be in solidarity, all I ask is that as you borrow our customs, will you please invite us to the celebrations that others believe you created? Will you give credit where credit is due? And will you completely immerse yourself in our reality so that our pain will become an inexpressible part of who you are? Then, and only then, will you do justice the creativity you express in your ways of life.

Let us work together.


An Original Hipster