Erica Robles-Anderson, a cultural historian from New York University, was visiting the Apple Store in Soho when she made an odd observation. The design of the store clearly mimicked elements common to temples and cathedrals.
The Apple Store is designed to be a sacred space.
“The oversized doors are fantastic,” she noted. “There’s no reason for them.”
Like Ghiberti’s massive bronze doors on the Florence Baptistry, the huge doors of the Apple Store communicate that the space you are about to enter is important and sanctified in purpose. Robles-Anderson pointed out the ascending staircase that dominates the space. It’s an ancient design device. “It’s used in ziggurats, even. It creates a space that emphasizes your smallness when you walk in. You look at something far away, and that makes your body feel like you’re entering somewhere sacred or holy.”
And like Solomon’s Temple, every Apple Store also has a Holy of Holies—The Genius Bar, where the high priests of the Apple cult seek to cleanse the sins committed by the people against their divine devices.
Erica Robles-Anderson’s journey through the Apple Store led her to an simple conclusion. “It’s so obviously a cult.” She is not they only one making the link between powerful consumer brands and religion, but it’s a phenomenon rarely addressed by the church. Some Christians believe the greatest threat to the church today is postmodernity. Others focus on challenge of relativism or secular humanism. Christian cultural crusaders think the threat is Islam. I suspect they are all wrong.
Apart from Scripture, I like to believe all truth is found in The Godfather movies. Vito Corleone taught his impetuous son, “Keep your friends close but your enemies even closer.” Could the greatest enemy of American Christianity be keeping us so close that we can’t recognize it as a threat? Rather than Islam, atheism, or postmodern secularism, might our greatest challenge be consumerism? I do not mean consumption. It’s not wrong to consume things. In fact, as contingent beings we’ve been designed to consume for survival.The only human that doesn’t consume is one that has reached room temperature and is now being consumed. The consumerism I’m concerned with is the sort that functions as a worldview. It forms the uncontested values that define and propel our lives. One aspect of this consumer worldview clearly evident with Apple and its cathedral-like stores is branding. Douglas Atkins, author of The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers, says, “Brands are the new religion … They supply our modern metaphysics, imbuing the world with significance … Brands function as complete meaning systems.”
Without question, one of the most potent global brands today is Apple, and research has shown that Apple has achieved the same status in our brains as a religion. Martin Lindstrom is the author of Buyology. He says:
Apple is (as we’ve proven using neuroscience) … a religion. Not only that — it is a religion based on its communities.
“Without its core communities, Apple would die — it is already facing strong pressure as the brand simply is becoming too broad (losing) its magic. What’s holding it all together is the hundreds if not thousands of communities across the world spreading the passion and creating the myths.”
Adding to the evidence that Apple is a religion, psychologist David Levine, a self-identified Mac nut, says:
“For many Mac people, I think the Mac community has a religious feeling to it. For a lot of people who are not comfortable with religion, it provides a community and a common heritage. I think Mac users have a certain common way of thinking, a way of doing things, a certain mindset. People say they are a Buddhist or a Catholic. We say we’re Mac users, and that means we have similar values.”
The identity-forming power of brands like Apple means the act of shopping has immense significance in a consumer culture. As Benjamin Barber writes, “If brand names can shape or even stand in for identity, then to figure out ‘who you are’ you must decide where (and for what) you shop.” This may explain why shopping is now the number one leisure activity for Americans. As we peruse the shopping mall or stand in line at the Apple Store, we are not simply looking for an MP3 player, a computer, or a phone — we are searching for ourselves. Shopping occupies a role in society that once belonged only to religion: the power to give meaning and construct identity. “To shop,” Pete Ward observes, “is to seek for something beyond ourselves,” and this desire “indicates a spiritual inclination in many of the everyday activities of shopping.”
One question I pose in my book, The Divine Commodity, is this: If brands have become religions, is the opposite also true? Have religions been reduced to brands? I believe the evidence suggests they have. Researchers like Barna, Gallop, and others are finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate the behaviors and values of self-identified Christians from non-Christians with one exception: what they buy. Total sales of religious goods in America is nearly $7 billion annually. That is a whole lot of bible covers and WWJD bracelets.
One church leader has linked the merchandising with our new understanding of conversion: “Conversion in the U.S. seems to mean we’ve exchanged some of our shopping at Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, and Borders for the Christian Bookstore down the street. We’ve taken our lack of purchasing control to God’s store, where we buy our office supplies in Jesus’ name.”
What does this mean? If people, including Christians, are constructing their identities and finding meaning in consumer brands, the church may be fighting the wrong battles.
If statistics are to be believed, it isn’t Islam or atheism that is competing for the hearts and minds of Christ’s people, but Apple, Nike, Disney, Tesla, and thousands of other brands promising community, identity, and meaning is just a purchase away. And perhaps more disturbing, are we unknowingly contributing to the problem by encouraging Christians to construct and express their identities by merely displaying Christ-branded merchandise rather than through lives displaying Christ’s love in words and deeds?
I’m not suggesting an easy solution, and I’m certainly not going to join the predictable parade of Christian leaders calling for a boycott of this or that corporation. Instead, I would just like to see more churches discussing the very real challenges to faith in a consumer branded culture. When more Christian leaders turn the lights on, we may discover that the church is not just close to our enemy, but we are in bed with him.
Hey Readers — I want to give 5 of you a chance to preview my new eBook, “How Churches Became Cruise Ships.” It’ll be available on Amazon for purchase in December, but you can receive an early copy by registering for a free 7-Day Trial of my devotional, With God Daily. Winners will be announced Wednesday 11/18 at 3PM on my Facebook page.