The opening montage of What Would Jesus Buy? — a documentary based on evangelizing performance artist Reverend Billy — is of shrieking shoppers jockeying for place at the doors of strip malls, and sprinting with reckless abandon towards aisles of product. Over the increasingly sinister sound track of Carol of the Bells a voiceover reels off statistics: the average American spends one hour a week in church and five hours shopping; this country spends $12 billion a year marketing products to the under-12s; its stores could fit all the people of North and South America and Europe inside them at one time.
Enter Reverend Billy, in his white suit, dog collar and dyed-blonde Elvis Presley-style pompadour, shouting hopelessly through a cardboard bullhorn into the throng to “Stop shopping!”
Reverend Billy, leader of the church of Stop Shopping, also known as Bill Talon, founded an avant-garde theatre in San Francisco where he lived until moving to New York in the mid 1990s when funding for the theatre dried up. Living in an apartment near Times Square, he watched advertising and retail outlets taking over the theatre district and evangelists who preached to the shoppers in the square. One day he walked down to a Disney Store outlet wearing a toy priest collar and a white suit from a catering job and, holding a stuffed toy, announced to shoppers that Mickey Mouse was the Antichrist. He was removed and arrested and the Church of Stop Shopping was born.
He began to hold mock church services in Brooklyn with a Baptist choir singing songs with comic anti-retail messages, and staging interventions.
Preacher With an Unknown God, a 2005 short film, documents one of his trademark interventions on Starbucks outlets. Information sheets titled What Should I Do If Reverend Billy Is In My Store? were distributed to New York outlets of Starbucks. According to his Web site, the Reverend is now banned from Starbucks worldwide.
What Would Jesus Buy? was produced by Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) and received a theatrical release late last year.
The Reverend is scheduled to appear next Tuesday at a screening of this documentary in the Tabernacle, in the Oak Bluffs Camp Grounds. This week he is on a writer’s retreat at the Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks in Northern New York, where incoming calls and cell phones are discouraged. However he managed to take a break from his “on-purpose isolation” to leave some thoughts, in character, on a message service.
“This is an interesting time,” he said, “When [the film] was made [during 2004-2007] there didn’t seem there would ever be a break in the rise of consumerism. The fortune telling is very mixed. What does our future hold?”
The film follows Reverend Billy and the choir on a mock pilgrimage touring the strip malls of American Midwest over Christmas. It would no doubt be difficult to find someone to argue happily against the documentary’s message, that Christmas has become more about rampant commercialism than a Christian message of togetherness.
However on the tour of malls in the lead up to Christmas director Rob Van Alkemad finds plenty of people who might disagree.
“What would Jesus buy?” A deadly-serious electronics store assistant ponders the question at one point, deciding: “Probably a Wii, or a Playstation 3 if a Wii was not available.”
On Christmas Day the team infiltrate Disneyland, shedding their leisure suit disguises to reveal their robes, and break into song:
“Will we survive the fire? The Shopocalypse.
Will we feel the Hell in this shopping list?
The neighbors fade into the supermall.
The ocean rise but I — I MUST BUY IT ALL¦”
The reverend is promptly arrested and the choir is warned that they too will be taken to jail if they refuse to stop singing. Footage of the Reverend once again being released from prison is followed by a final party scene with the cast, but the gloomy message of the film appears to be that the church’s cross-country mission has failed to put a dent in America’s retail obsession.
Fast forward to today: the economy is in the tank and Reverend Billy couldn’t be happier.
“The big boxes are going bankrupt, Starbucks is shrinking, shipping routes are reducing because of the cost of fossil fuel. Independent shops are coming back, dead main streets reclaiming themselves. The rise of neighborhood economies. Green market, sweat free and fair food economies. There’s lots of robust energy out there in the world right now.
“Americans are abandoning big corporations — as they should — and finding ways to create their own trading systems and be of service to one another. This is happening fairly quickly. Some people think it’s more symbolic but I’m — well, we have our faith, don’t we, in the Church of Stop Shopping. We have our faith, we really believe. As we say, Changellujah!”
Reverend Billy and his partner Savitri D will attend a screening of What would Jesus Buy on Tuesday, August 12, at 8 p.m. at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.