Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Mall and Academic Conferences

A funny thing happened today. I went to the mall.
Now you may be wondering why that is funny or strange. My family would likely tell you that just my being at the mall is unusual. You see, shopping is not on my top ten list of things to do in my free time. I see it as more of a necessary evil than a recreational activity.

No the reason being at the mall today was strange is because for the past five days I have been at an academic conference for folks like me who are involved in studying theology and the Bible.

As I headed into Macy’s today, the juxtaposition of these two events gave me pause.

In the first place, the mall just seemed much more down to earth. It is full of the trappings of Christmas and all of the mundane things that try, as one old hymn puts it, to charm us most. It doesn’t take much thought to walk into the mall, or even to buy something. A few simple questions will do: Does it fit? Do I like it? Do I need it? Do I want it anyway? Is the price-point within my budget?

That about does it. My feet may get tired but my brain does not.

The academic conference, by contrast, takes quite a bit of thought. It’s hardly mundane although at times the questions being asked are fairly ridiculous, at least at first glance. And the answers, well, suffice it to say that several of the theses being proposed needed to be read several times to get at the core of what they were asserting.

But lest I leave you thinking that these two events are entirely unrelated, I should point out some similarities.

Both the mall and the conference feed on folks who are trying to be noticed, albeit for different reasons. People go to the mall to keep up with the latest trends and buy the latest products, be that shoes, some popular brand-name coat, or some other item vying for attention. Ultimately, this is about making sure that you – or your kids – are not wearing WalMart while everyone else is wearing North Face, unless of course WalMart is the in thing. It’s about pride and identity.

Likewise the conference is about keeping up with the latest trends in research and scholarship (clearly not fashion). It’s about vying for the attention of publishers and institutions in order to make sure that your ideas get noticed and therefore, you get noticed. It’s about pride and identity.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that both of these activities are more complex than these brief descriptions suggest. In fact, in some sense, both activities are about identifying with some particular community that one values. And the problem with both is that sometimes in the midst of the mundane or the not so mundane, our identity with our Ultimate Love gets lost.

One of the best parts of the conference was the Sunday worship service. It was a mid-course correction of sorts, reminding the Christians who participated that the danger of pride is always at our doorstep in the academe, that we are called not to be academic stars, but to serve.

I’m not sure what the mall equivalent might be – maybe a flash mob singing the Hallelujah Chorus?? – but somehow, somewhere, maybe on a Sunday morning, I hope we are all reminded that our identities do not lie in  the brand names we plaster on, but in how we use our resources to serve those around us, regardless of what those resources are.