Instead of the Ten Commandments

Instead of the Ten Commandments

In my home state of Kentucky, basketball is our religion. We all know it and we all agree upon it, at least implicitly. Our catechism begins, “Fight, fight, blue and white.” Granted, it’s no Song of David, but the steady time signature can keep huge crowds plowing along on the same note.

So last fall, when a grassroots movement began in Corbin, Kentucky to introduce before the state legislature a bill that would require the Ten Commandments to be posted in public buildings, I took it as testament to the fact that basketball season hadn’t begun. But all through the winter, the Ten Commandments kept popping up on classroom and courtroom walls in Pulaski, McCreary, and Harlan counties.

The Kentucky General Assembly passed the same bill into law back in 1978, only to have it struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later. But twenty years have passed, and last December a sizable religious contingent took to the steps of the State Capital, rallying again for the public display of the Mosaic Law. When I turned on the news one night, I saw teenagers, wearing what looked like sandwich boards, each embossed with one of the commandments. The young woman who stood closest to the camera held a placard that read, THOU SHALL NOT WORSHIP ANY GRAVEN IMAGES. I wondered what graven images she meant. The stone Buddhas that sit inconspicuously beneath the rhododendron in a few of the gardens around my neighborhood? Surely not. I began to wonder about the word “graven”; it seemed ludicrously archaic. As any critic with an M.A. in cultural studies will tell you, the most persistent graven images in our culture are not graven at all; they are fluorescent and multicolored. They say Tommy Jeans, Abercrombie & Fitch, The Gap—all manufacturers of the clothes that many of the teenagers were certainly wearing beneath their sandwich boards.

The mall is the real American church, the place where we enact our most important cultural rituals. If you don’t believe me, consider the experience of a college friend of mine who runs focus groups and crunches numbers for a prominent advertising agency. His employer has given him two years to discover the Process—an archetypal mapping of the consumer psyche that will explain our most elemental impulses to buy, which can subsequently be transposed into an advertising template for any business, no matter what the product. To help with his research, my friend hired a full-time ethnographer to hang out in malls and study the rituals of consumers as they move from store to store, observing their own secular stations of the cross. And really, think how closely the layout of malls resembles the most famous Gothic cathedrals, with their long naves and double transepts. Was this a conscious decision or is the design of malls driven by something more primal? Either way, we arrive at the same conclusion: Consumerism is our religion. We put on its vestments and we pledge our allegian...

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