On the “Flash Mob Phenomenon”

There’s some discussion taking place in the blogosphere about the theological appropriateness of the so-called “Hallelujah flash mob” videos that are making their rounds these days. (See others here, here, and here…I’m sure there are lots more).

James K. A. Smith expresses his concern that all that may be accomplished through the Hallelujah flash mob is to reduce Jesus to a commodity of the mall. Perhaps. But let’s not forget that the Church has done this quite well long before the mall ever appeared. At least part of the history of the Church is how it has so often made the Gospel of Jesus a commodity that it disperses as it pleases. So I hardly think that somehow the Hallelujah flash mob will make it any worse than it already is. Whatever the case, Smith concludes, “If the liturgies of the mall are going to be countered, it will take the plodding, faithful presence of the Spirit in practices that will never be exciting enough to go viral on YouTube.” I’m not sure how he knows that in advance. Somehow I think if they would have had phone cams on the day of Pentecost, we would have seen some pretty exciting footage. Indeed, when people heard of the exciting things Jesus was doing in his ministry, people flocked to see the exciting action.

My friend Jon Coutts over at “this side of sunday” is also a bit suspicious of the phenomenon,  even if they do make him (and probably Chesterton) smile. His concern is whether these Hallelujah flash mobs are performed so out of context that they are meaningless to those hearing them. But this is not convincing to me because the argument implies that there is a “right and proper” context in which this song ought to be sung. And what context is that? The concert hall? Is that not also a place where many idols hang out? Are highly cultured, wealthy attendees at a benefit concert (the context in which Messiah was often performed originally in Handel’s day) better able to hear the message being sung? Or perhaps the only right context is the Church building? Problem is, the last I noticed, there are probably a one or two consumers making the rounds there, too. C’mon, guys! It is not as if the spirit of consumerism lurking in the mall is somehow a qualitatively different spirit of consumerism from the one that is also at work in the concert halls, universities, and indeed, churches (whether high, low, or non-liturgical!).

I, for one, am less suspicious about the flash mob phenomenon, if for no other reason than I reject the idea that there are more or less appropriate contexts for proclamation of the kingship of Jesus. The implicit assumption, I think, that these critics make is that there are appropriate “sacred” places to sing the liturgies of the King, but that in other “secular” (or more specifically, “consumerist”) contexts, this proclamation ought to be reserved. I humbly disagree.

If there is a place that needs to be invaded with the Gospel, is it not the mall? And let’s not forget that the MAJORITY of people who see these flash mobs are doing so on the internet, not in the mall itself. And are not the mall and internet  places where the Lordship of Christ so desperately needs to be proclaimed? Given that the Scriptures declare that the “world is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psa 24:1), I’m not convinced that there is anywhere where public declaration that “He shall reign forever and ever” is out of context. Again,  I think of the Psalm 96:3 which says, “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.”

Of course, the Psalmist had never heard of a North American mall or the internet, but why should such declaration be ruled out of court as nothing more than a commodification of Jesus? Or think of Paul’s declarations in Athens or Ephesus (Acts 17 & 19). He brought the declaration of Jesus to the marketplace, the “mall,” as it were, of the first-century.

Of course, there is the critique that most of these particular Hallelujah flash mobs were used  a marketing ploy. Maybe organizers of Hallelujah flash mobs are for the most part doing this for profit. That may well be. Here I think of Paul’s statement that there are indeed some who preach Christ out of false motives (whether for selfish ambition or envy). But Paul does go on to say, “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.” (Phil. 1:18)

A line of Karl Barth’s that is often quoted goes like this:

God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does. (CD I/1, 55).

To be sure, Barth goes on in the same passage to say that this does not give us an excuse to make flute concertos or, for that matter, Hallelujah flash  mobs, a replacement for the work of the church to proclaim the Gospel. But I, for one, am apt to reserve judgment about whether or not God could well break through to a 21st century mall shopper (or Youtube viewer) to remind her or him that the King of Kings shall reign forever and ever. And while perhaps for many, the proclamation of the Hallelujah chorus may come across as amusing but empty words, it does not change the truth of that which it proclaims. Yes, some (maybe even most?) ears will not hear. But is it our place to say that God could not cause some to hear precisely what they need to hear in this season? For those who have ears to hear,  let them hear the Christmas declaration:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6)

14 thoughts on “On the “Flash Mob Phenomenon”

  1. Hey David,

    I appreciate this a great deal. I’m far more sympathetic to Coutts than to JKAS, but you point out important correctives to their reflections. For my money, I’m perfectly happy to maintain that these phenomena are perhaps ambiguous. But, at the end of the day, I’m prepared to support whatever means available to bringing the Christmas message (the Gospel) to the attention of any and as many people as possible. Further, I’m prepared to support doing so in means that excite and energize those participating in that witness.

    Christianity has become again what it was in the early centuries CE – just one more option on the theological buffet of Western culture, even if the term “theological” would mystify most individuals in that culture as a descriptor for the way in which they structure their identities. The early fathers had no qualms about doing what they could to get their culture’s attention. Of course, we can’t use the same methods today as they did then, precisely because our culture is different. But get the word out we must, any and every way possible.

  2. Perhaps we ought to look not so much at the phenomenon as proclamation, but as doxology. Is this worship that honours God? Does everything we do as Christian people or as a church have to bring effect upon on ourselves or our neighbours? Can’t some things be just for God? Of course the question may be asked: Are these displays meant to be just for God or are they more a statement of some kind?

  3. hmm… I must admit my level of attachment to this particular cultural critique is not high, but still I feel the need to clarify my distaste (for myself if no one else).

    You are right that my main concern is that these are “so out of context that they are meaningless to those hearing them.” I think part of that is the mall issue, but part of it might be the “post-Christian” issue too. I doubt this song makes sense to many people besides Christians. I know there are some decent words there, but I think we overstate it if we call this gospel-proclamation.

    I’m not saying that Handel’s Messiah only belongs in a church. I don’t know if Handel’s concert hall was a better context or not, but I do think the shopping mall food court taints the message that comes through moreso than a concert hall or the internet does.

    For me it isn’t about sacred context vs. secular context, but the content that carries in those contexts. Paul was happy so long as the gospel was preached, but he also seemed concerned about context-aware preaching. And sure, God can speak through a dead dog (and I fully realize that God speaks through flash mobs), but that doesn’t mean that all proclamations are created equal.

    My guess would be that these videos make the rounds mainly via Christians, for Christians. Perhaps roguemonk is right that this is better thought of as doxology. But it does have the air of “statement”, and since I feel like the message is more often unclear or even tainted, it all just ends up feeling kind of self-congratulatory to me.

    By this I’m not trying to say that all is ruined. Like I said on my blog, I don’t mean to condemn it full stop. I am sure there are good motives and good results. I just don’t think it is all that great, and has more downside than I feel like the trend seems to realize.

  4. Hi David,

    This is a great piece (by which I mean, I agree with you)! I’ve read a few criticisms of that flash mob along the lines of what Smith wrote and one of the underlying assumptions appears to be that malls are too much of a godforsaken space for anything good to be done there. It appears that nothing good can happen in a mall… the context is bound to corrupt everything — abandon hope all ye who enter here!

    However, if Christ can descend into hell to bring liberation to the captives, then surely there can be beautiful moments when the veil thins between heaven and earth that can happen even in a, gasp, shopping mall.

    Sometimes the theological folks get so bogged down in their smarts and clever lines of criticism that they end up in a space where they wouldn’t recognize a Gospel-bearing Event, even if it knocked them off their horse(s).

    As for this line from Smith, “If the liturgies of the mall are going to be countered, it will take the plodding, faithful presence of the Spirit in practices that will never be exciting enough to go viral on YouTube,” well, I reckon the overcoming of those liturgies might look a little more like this:


    or (even more directly connected to Christmas shopping) this:

    And that does go viral.

  5. Thanks for the input, everyone. Excellent conversation!

    WTM: Your allusion to the “theological buffet” of early Christian is certainly helpful. In many respects, we still want to be taken seriously as the “dominant” religion. And so we refuse to play in the sandbox with all the others (to mix the metaphor). Beyond that, if we are really that convinced that the mall is the Temple of a false god and beyond redemption, we had better avoid appearing there all together. But as it is, I continue to be there as a consumer myself, but then smugly criticize those who make a little attempt to demonstrate something “different” in its midst.

    RogueMonk: Really helpful questions. I suppose my only point would be that (at least from a patristic perspective) proclamation is doxology (and vice versa). But your clarification is helpful.

    Dan: Thanks for dropping by! You do hit upon the heart of my concern–that we sometimes act and speak as if there are some places that are simply beyond penetration by the Gospel. I’m not convinced. On the contrary, Christ is Victor!

    Jon: I do realize that your criticism wasn’t “hard and fast” and I receive it as such. I was surprised that you speak of Chesterton here, who, I suspect would rather enjoy the “planned spontaneity” of the Flash Mob! Nevertheless, I actually agree that such attempts are, as you say, not all that great. But then again, what really does the qualifier “great” mean when it comes to our feeble attempts to proclaim and worship? Are not all our words and actions “faltering”?

    As for the link to the Salvation Army bell outside the mall–let’s just think about that. How often do you think consumers put their coins (or even their bills) into these only to assuage their consciences? They just spent a couple hundred bucks on “stuff” and throw in a coin or a bill to “feel good” about helping those less fortunate. Again, I’m not criticizing the work of the SA in this regard at all, but is this “little thing” not at least a little potential reminder in the midst of the consumerist frenzy that there are things more important than the latest “stuff”? I guess in the end of all this, I still want to believe that God will take our little attempts, however inadequate, and use them as the mustard seeds that they are. (Interesting here that in CD IV.3.2 Barth makes repeated use of the qualifier “little” in speaking about the Christian life. We have our “little passion” and our “little sufferings” and the like. But they are all truly “little” in comparison to the “great” things that God has done.)

  6. John,

    I’m also not sure about “bombing shopping malls” either but nobody was actually doing that inn any of the links I provided. That’s just a poor reading of the texts (and one that warps what others end up thinking of them).

    That said, I’m not saying I condone the actions taken in those videos, I’m just saying that the increasing economic collapse of liberal democracies, coupled with the increasing rage of the young and of the working classes (far more powerfully demonstrated across Europe than in North America) is much more likely disrupt the liturgies of consumerism (in good or bad ways) than anything Smith seems to be talking about (including the SA stuff which is actually a form of charity that has a very comfortable relationship with the liturgies of the mall [cf., for example, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex).

  7. Dan: Right on, no one ever apologizes for that! Thanks for clarifying those links you’d given. I was a bit confused about what was being recommended and with your clarifications I am fully on board with your point. Thanks for that great point about charities, too. I must say I am really curious about that book you’ve mentioned.

    I am pretty ambivalent about the SA bell ringers, my only real point was to suggest that these were the “little things” Smith probably wanted to point to, in contrast to the “grandstanding” of the flash mob (admittedly a debatable adjective for it. I digress).

    David: I hope it is clear that I wholeheartedly agree with your point about the “little things”. Probably my biggest issue is the flash mob pretending to be great. I think in discussions like this my choice of the word “great” is less helpful than something like “appropriate”.

    My argument doesn’t have much life left in it, I gotta admit, because I feel like I can concede the points made and still hold out a little bit of my objection. I suppose I feel the same way about flash mobs as I felt about Chesterton’s Manalive. It was at the same time really refreshing and revitalizing to the common things, but also always on the brink of overboard silliness. I love Chesterton, but am not his disciple! ; )

    I suppose one last thing I’d like to say is that I do not think it necessarily “smug” to have a strong critique of the very systems of exchange and polis within which we operate, nor to criticize those attempts to do something ‘different’ based on whether they are indeed different enough. I do think the shopping mall operates for many as the Temple of a false god”, but by no means should that (or my argument at any point) be taken to imply that I think it “beyond redemption.”

    Thanks for the pushback and further food for thought. Have a good Christmas.

    (By the way, a mall in California was evacuated recently because of a Hallelujah flash mob. Google it. I have no theological point to make, I just thought it was funny.)

  8. Hi David,
    Thanks for the piece–I too am not so suspicious of the flash mob, but might offer a word about the context of the Hallelujah chorus.

    Strictly speaking (in terms of the actual oratorio), the Hallelujah Chorus is *not* appropriate for this time of year. If you’re familiar with the Messiah, it comes not during the Christmas part but at the end of part 2, declaring the victory of the Lamb (from Rev). Liturgically then, it is more appropriate for Easter-time.

    Though certainly we can declare Christ’s lordship any time of the year, context is important; not so much where we sing it, but when we sing it. The general populace is clueless about subtle nuances of the liturgical calendar (and certainly even more so about Baroque music!), but I wonder if this sort of evangelism just misses the mark when it’s not sensitive to the church’s time table.

    There’s a related post to this at here: http://www.michaeljgorman.net/2010/12/22/good-bye-away-in-a-manger-and-the-hallelujah-chorus-the-latter-at-least-at-christmas/


  9. I assume our discussion here is nearly done. Fine and well. Thanks for the comments.

    However, I would like to point out Halden’s fantastic post over at Inhabitio Dei entitled, “The Impotence of the Liturgy.” I think he deals with some of the indirect issues beneath the surface, particularly Smith’s insistence that consistent practice of the liturgy will somehow effectively confront the false gods of a consumerist society.

    See http://www.inhabitatiodei.com/2010/12/22/the-impotence-of-the-liturgical-year/

  10. This comment is very late, I know…
    I was struck by 2 things when I watched the Hallelujah Flash Mob.
    1. At the end they raised their hands. I took this to illustrate giving the glory to God rather than taking the praise to themselves. I liked that.
    2. These were very ordinary people, just having their lunch in a mall. I took this as an illustration of what we Christians should be. We’re just ordinary people, having our lunch (or going to work, or tidying up or whatever) but right in the middle of that our lives should be singing out praise to God and people around should see it.
    So I felt blessed by watching it and being reminded of these 2 important things.
    In reply to some comments above….
    1. Why is it a bad thing if something is filmed and blesses another person, further down the line? Is it a problem to record and replay a sermon? Or is the fact that there was money involved somewhere that makes the recording part distasteful to some?
    2. Why is it a bad thing if the main group that appreciate something is Christians? I suppose if the flash mob was meant primarily as an evangelical thing then it could be criticised for shortfalls in achieving that aim, but as a Christian I appreciated it.
    3. I know loads of people watching and hearing it wouldn’t understand all the words, but repeated again and again is ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’. I think some people (Christians and non-Christians) hearing that would be reminded of a power higher than themselves and who knows where that train of thought leads….

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