On Christmas and Temples: how the coming of Jesus challenges us to see ourselves as givers not consumers

I went to temple today. A modern, secular, temple where I was surrounded by hindus, and sikhs, and buddhists, and muslims, and atheists… A temple that today was extra glittery, and sparkly, filled with magic, and crowded; oh so crowded. It was packed with worshippers.


Image: A snapshot from my trip to the temple today where I scored a park in front of this sign…

Temples don’t have to be obviously religious, or even obviously connected to a god. Temples are places where we practice our worship together. They are places where our gods; and the image of our gods, is revealed; when we know where to look. They’re places we go for stories about what the good human life looks like. And Christmas is a time for worship. In his famous This Is Water speech, David Foster Wallace said:

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

In a passage in his novel Infinite Jest, Wallace writes a dialogue between two characters, Steeply and Marathe, about temples and worship and a third person’s ‘worship’ (Tine)… it builds on his fundamental insight about the way us humans work… we’re worshippers. Fanatics. Looking to give our love to something that we hope will love us back.

“Marathe had settled back on his bottom in the chair. ‘Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple.” ’

‘Oh Jesus now here we go again,’ Steeply said.

‘As, if you will give the permission, does this love you speak of, M. Tine’s grand love. It means only the attachment. Tine is attached, fanatically. Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.”

Steeply made motions of weary familiarity. ‘Herrrrrre we go.’

Marathe ignored this. ‘Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.’

‘How are your wife and kids doing, up there, by the way?

You U.S.A’s do not seem to believe that you may choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self.’

Steeply laid a hand between his misdirected breasts: ‘Ohh… Canada….’

Marathe leaned again forward on his stumps. ‘Make amusement all you wish. But choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice.’

So I went to the temple. The temple to probably the most popular god in Australia; the one that promises and promotes a vision of the good life that I even find myself subscribing to; a picture of humanity that teaches: I consume, therefore I am, or perhaps I am therefore I consume. My local Westfield shopping centre. As I walked through throngs of smiling happy people, ate food from the far flung reaches of the planet alongside families who may have come together from even further afield, as the artificial light bounced off tinsel and sequins and Christmas stars and bathed my fellow humans in its soft glow, as carols pumped through the sound system following us on our pilgrimage, and as I spent my dollars on trinkets and baubles designed to express my love for my family this Christmas season, I did feel like I was having something like a religious experience. There is something beautiful about the way the shopping centre can bring people from all walks of life together in a levelish playing field (I mean, I avoided Myer and the expensive looking jewellers today so it’s not totally level, but you don’t know unless you stare at the collection of shopping bags in someone’s trolley or pay close attention to the quality of their shoes and handbag if someone is your equal or not). The shopping centre aisles feel like an equaliser until you really pay attention; digging beneath the hypnosis the centre foists on you as you walk through the doors. But I wasn’t paying attention to this stuff. I was hypnotised. I was bought in; a sucker for the sales pitch put before me by the centre’s preachers. I spent more; gave more of myself; than I’d planned. I’m not sure if I was manipulated because I certainly feel like I did this willingly as an act of greater love for my family. I did, for a moment, wonder how much my experience echoes the experience of people who might wander into church with us tomorrow for Christmas; perhaps ticking off something else on the Christmas checklist.

James K.A Smith, working with the same fundamental picture of the human being as David Foster Wallace, that we’re, fundamentally, worshippers, talks about the shopping centre (or mall, because he’s American) as a modern temple. He describes how the mall-as-temple shapes us and orients us to see the world, and ourselves, in this particular way; as consumers.

This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us. This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires. It compels us to come, not through dire moralisms, but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life… The symbols and colors and images associated with their religious life are readily recognized the world over. The wide circulation of these icons through various mediums even outside the sanctuary invites us to make the pilgrimage in the first place. This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us.

This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires and compels us to come not with dire moralisms but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life. (Yet one should note that it has its own modes of exclusivity too; because of its overwhelming success in converting the nations, it is increasingly difficult to be an infidel.) And it is a mode of evangelism buoyed by a transnational network of evangelists and outreach, all speaking a kind of unified message that puts other, fractured religions to shame. If unity is a testimony to a religion’s truth and power, it will be hard to find a more powerful religion than this catholic faith. And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but in return receive something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season.

This isn’t just a metaphor for Wallace or Smith; they’re actually convinced that participating in life as worshippers shapes us, and what and where we choose to worship has the potential to be very good, or very bad, for us in terms of how we understand ourselves and the world around us. In Smith’s treatment of the ‘mall’ he points out that our experience as shoppers are liturgical; shopping centres work to form our habits in particular ways, forming us as we take part in their vision of the good life, as we participate in the story the marketers are telling us, and so have the rhythms of our lives slightly altered. He points out the shopping centre shapes us so that we think of ourselves as consumers and of consumption as the path to joy, or this good life. Only life as a consumer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It leads us to consume others; it only works if we’re able to be hypnotised to the point that we think the success of our relationships; our families; depends on buying them the right thing, or if we’re able to get past the fact that all the presents we buy at Christmas ultimately don’t deliver the lasting satisfaction we hope for; so we go back day after day, week after week, Christmas after Christmas, looking to scratch this itch. Smith talks about our vain attempts to buy redemption at the shopping centre; to consume our way to happiness; he says it should be evident (because we keep going back) that this is a path that doesn’t satisfy, that never actually delivers a good life and this sort of worship transforms us in harmful ways, but also has us pin our hopes on things we end up sending to landfill:

By our immersion in this liturgy of consumption, we are being trained to both overvalue and undervalue things: we’re being trained to invest them with a meaning and significance as objects of love and desire in which we place disproportionate hopes (Augustine would say we are hoping to enjoy them when we should only be using them) while at the same time treating them (as well as the labor and raw materials that go into them) as easily discarded.— James K.A Smith, Desiring The Kingdom

I know the truth of the ‘landfill’ thing too well, because today as I did my ‘Christmas shopping’ — as I participated in worship Westfield style — I was buying exactly the same present I bought Robyn a few years ago, from the same place, because our kids had destroyed the last one. This stuff is finite; and profoundly geared not to permanently satisfy. How anti-Christmas…

The problem with picking things we’re going to bin as the things we attach ourselves to, and seeing the place we buy them from as our ‘temple’ (whether we know it or not), and participating in Christmas shopping as the ultimate form of modern, consumerist worship, and ourselves as consumers whose happiness depends on our consumption, is that we end up being consumed.

Wallace was aware of the danger of worshipping something like this; things that make us consumers not givers in our sacrifice. In This Is Water he says:

“And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

And then he turns to his own little excursion to the shops, to challenge us to break the way they deform us into selfish people who consume rather than truly love others… he invites us to head into the shopping centre eyes wide open. Into the checkout line where our consumer frustration kicks into gear because in consumer world our fellow shoppers are people in our way, or in competition with us for resources… when you view life as a consumer you tend to view other people a little negatively or judgmentally, and so Wallace invites us to see people differently by paying a different sort of attention; by becoming a different sort of worshipper (this is a passage directly before the bit I quoted above).

“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…”

The goal of this sort of worship; and seeing; for Wallace, wasn’t better consuming but a totally different sort of us; it’s about overturning our tendency to see ourselves as consumers, it’s an invitation to think differently about ourselves, the world, others, and perhaps most importantly what the ‘good life’ looks like as we live in the world with others. Wallace wanted his listeners to free themselves from destructive defaults that come from wrong worship, malforming temples, and harmful attachments. He saw the sort of worship cultivated by temples with an agenda to make us see ourselves as consumers as dangerous, and suggested we had to pay attention in order to escape and to relate to others as givers not consumers. That was his vision of the ‘good life,’ at least as he invited others to see it.

“Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.

This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Seeing the good life; freedom; this way will transform the way you participate in life at your local Westfield; it’s enough to challenge you to think about what you’re doing and to break the hypnosis of the light, and architecture, and sensual bombardment you face when you walk through the doors. But I’m not sure it’s enough to really deliver an answer to that ‘gnawing sense’; that haunting feeling of there being something more out there than Westfield and its retailers can provide for you. The problem with Westfield-as-temple is that what worship there delivers for you are just trinkets and baubles; they’re finite, fleeting, breaking, and boring.

The answer to this problem is in a new sort of worship that changes our sense of who we humans were made to be, how we ideally relate to others, and what a good life really looks like. The answer to this problem is actually to rediscover Christmas not as a consuming holiday, but a giving holy day. When the Apostle Paul wrote about us being worshipping creatures he had a particular picture of the good human life in mind. He had a particular sense of what Christmas is all about in mind too.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2. 

Consumption is a ‘pattern of this world’ and Paul’s answer to this pattern is to change the script; to not be consumers with our bodies, but givers, to be those who ‘offer our bodies as a living sacrifice’… It’s the Christmas story, and a new sense of what a ‘temple’ looks like, that allow us to truly love others, to in Wallace’s words ‘sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways’; to be ‘free’… We need a new temple, new attachments, a new story with a new vision of the good life, in order to become givers at Christmas, rather than destructive consumers. All this, for Paul, is caught up in what Christmas is actually about. It’s amazing how much it’s the anti-thesis of the Westfield ‘gospel’; or Westfield’s implicit and explicit account of what the good life is about; and what Christmas is about. Real worship; worship that doesn’t destroy us; is caught up in worshipping the giver of life. Real worship is caught up with recognising that Christmas is about the word that gave life and light to the world becoming flesh; becoming our temple. The temple isn’t just where we worship; it’s where we meet and see God and the image of the flourishing life; at Westfield that’s the mannequins and the posters and the glitz and glamour, at Christmas it’s the babe born in a stinking stable as a human who’d eventually be nailed to a cross. The Christmas story couldn’t be further from the tinsel and plastic prettiness of the modern Christmas shopping experience. The sacrifice Jesus makes begins in him taking on human form amongst dirty farm animals, first visited by stinking shepherds; it’s a form he still has now, a sacrifice he still makes, on behalf of the dirty and downtrodden who turn to him for hope.

The lie underneath Westfield’s ‘worship’ agenda is that finite things can satisfy the hunger for the infinite that only Christmas can. That Westfield so overtly harnesses and bastardises Christmas for its ends is truly shocking. If worship is, as Wallace puts it, trying to answer that gnawing sense of losing the infinite, Christmas is about us finding what was lost; or rather, it’s about the infinite making himself finite and knowable.

I walked through Westfield and felt empty and hopeless, hopefully people coming to church tomorrow to hear about God with us; who’ll be urged towards this new sort of worship; will walk in and out feeling filled with hope and pushed to love others because our gnawing sense of having lost touch with the infinite is answered when we look to the face of the baby in a manger; the infinite becoming finite as an act of sacrifice for us.

The Christmas story points us to true worship, and true worship is exemplified by those shepherds and later the wise guys from the East who recognised that Jesus really is ‘God With Us’… the real Christmas story stands in stark contrast Westfield’s Christmas; it overthrows Westfield-as-temple, and it points us to a sort of worship-driven ‘good life’ found in following the Christmas king. It makes us givers, not consumers; and involves God giving us life, rather than our false gods consuming us. This is perhaps one of the earliest Christmas Carols (after Mary’s at the birth of Jesus), from Paul in Philippians 2.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2. 

 

 

 

 

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