The High and Holy Day of Black Friday

Each religion has its high and holy days. Islam has Eid al-Adha, Judaism has Yom Kippur, and Christianity has Easter. These aren’t just days where the religious sit around and think. They aren’t holy brain days. They are full of action, where the whole body is involved. There are rituals, prayers, sermons. Kneeling, standing, processing. Religious stuff embodied. And this sacred stuff communicates the meaning and importance of the day.

In America, we boast another high and holy day: Black Friday. We like to think this is a secular holiday. But let’s not kid ourselves. Black Friday is drunk with religion. It’s a sacred day—sacred, at least, in the faith which it embodies and inculcates: the religion called Consumerism.

The rituals begin as the Thanksgiving turkey is still digesting. We line up in droves before the temple of Best Buy, the church of Target, the synagogue of the mall. As we process inside with the assembled congregation, we are greeted by hymns and psalms that cater to our consuming souls. The incense of perfume ads and Cinnabons wafts through the air. Flashy icons of ads beckon us to prayerful consideration.

The architecture guides us from the narthex to the sanctuary and finally to the altar. And at the altar, behind which stands an attractive smiling priest, we encounter the sacrament of Holy Consumerism:
“Take, buy, the iPhone, made for you.
Take, purchase, the shoes, crafted for you.”
The sacred transaction complete, the benediction of gratitude pronounced, we walk away from the altar with the promise of happiness, wholeness, contentment—all wrapped up in a vestment of plastic.

@@Black Friday is an amazingly effective religious holiday.@@ Because like other holy days, it involves the whole body: we walk the aisles, we browse through transepts, we handle the merchandise, we smell the sacred odors, we hum the buy-here hymns, we adore the iconic bodies of Victoria’s scantily vested saints.

In other words, this religion is embodied. It has the Nike and Abercrombie creeds, but also the baptismal fountains, the lord’s supper court, even the ritual play area for the younger religious devotees who are being catechized about the joys of worshiping in this happy, happy temple.

The Sacrament of Diminishing returns

Consumerism, like most religions, is after one thing: the heart. Specifically, it goes for the heart’s love. This god desires not only that we love things, but that in those things our love finds completion.
--“If only I buy this car, this computer, this phone, this thing, then I’ll be happy.
--“I’ll be better than those who don’t have these things—or the latest model of them.”
--“I’ll feel good about myself. I’ll have a better self-image. I’ll be a better me.”

But the theology of consumerism is tricky: it promises all that, but, in the same breath, it takes it all away. @@The euphoria of the sacrament of buying is ephemeral.@@ We’ll soon need something else. Something newer, fancier, shinier. So we return to the temple. Another pilgrimage, another liturgy, another sacrament of diminishing returns in a religion built on a cancerous love.

The Empty Space in Our Hearts

By this time you probably think I’m just an old fart who sits stewing in the mall parking lot while I wait for my wife to return laden with plastic bags. But here’s the truth: I do like it. I don’t like the crowds. I don’t like the parking. But I like the consumption. I like having things—nice things, new things, fancy things. Don’t we all?

But I also realize, every time I go to the mall, that I’m stepping inside the temple of a foreign god. I’m not in Zion anymore. I’m in Babel. And there are a thousand languages all around me chanting one hymn:

Now thank we all our god,
With cash and cards and purses,
Who wondrous things has done,
In whom this mall rejoices….

If you want to shop this Black Friday—or Small Business Saturday or Cyber Monday or any other day—then go right ahead. You are free to do so. We all need clothing to wear, food to eat, and—it seems—phones to stare at.

But as we do, let’s remember this:

1. The goal of the temples where we shop is simple: to habituate our hearts into a love that sees its fulfillment in consumption. $alvation by shopping. Be aware of your religious surrounding. A liturgy is happening all around you. There’s nothing secular about the mall.

2. No matter how many bags you leave the mall with, you always leave with an empty heart. @@Love and contentment and fulfillment cannot be purchased with Visa.@@ Buy what you need. Buy gifts. But know that you cannot buy human flourishing, hope, faith, and identity. Don’t believe the lies of Victoria’s icons.

3. The empty space in our hearts that we try to fill with stuff is filled only by the Maker of all things. An iPhone won’t fill that gap. Only a crucified and resurrected God fits in there. Only Jesus. And he fits so perfectly that there is space for nothing else. He is our identity, our hope, our fulfillment. And his liturgy of self-giving is a gift that will never go out of style.

*I am deeply indebted to James K. A. Smith for his insights in Desiring the Kingdom and his other books in the three-volume set on the theology of culture.