'Tis the season for shopping insanity. From the day after Thanksgiving (“Black Friday”) through Christmas and New Years, the malls teem with long lines and crying babies and the credit card companies cha-ching-ing their way to a fat and happy holiday. But what is wrong with this picture? How twisted is it that the sacred holiday we know as Christmas has been commandeered by our unquenchable obsession with acquiring things?
For one “preacher” and his “church,” something can and must be done. Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping are taking matters into their own hands—preaching against consumerism all over the country, calling out in the wilderness of bling for an urgent exorcism of credit-obsession and a preemptive strike against the evil empires bringing about the “shopocalypse.” Yes, this is for real.
In the new Morgan Spurlock-produced documentary, What Would Jesus Buy? (releasing this week in select cities), these questions are given some comically serious consideration. The film follows Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir during their cross-country bus tour in the Christmas season of 2005, performing cleverly subversive protest “gospel” songs in churches, malls, Wal-Marts and Abercrombie & Fitch stores (among others).
I should probably clarify: Reverend Billy is not an ordained minister and doesn’t even call himself a Christian. The preacher persona (modeled after a sweaty, over-the-top televangelist) is simply a stage name for Bill Talen, an actor-turned-activist from New York City (via San Francisco) who grew up Christian but left the faith as a teenager. He adopted the “Reverend” title in 1997 as a way to creatively protest America’s increasingly excessive consumerism and corporate homogeneity (with Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and Disney being his version of the “axis of evil”). What began as his solitary street “preaching” in Times Square (the “Stonehenge of billboards”) soon became a “ministry” of sorts—the Church of Stop Shopping.
The “church” is essentially a volunteer performance art/activist group, comprised of 50 singers and an eight-piece band. Though several members of the “gospel” choir are preachers’ kids, the group does not claim Christian orthodoxy. The songs they sing may sound like Jesus jams (complete with robes, swaying and hand raising), but the lyrics are more about slamming Starbucks than praising God.
Indeed, the most provocative (and potentially offensive) thing about this film is the way it blurs the lines between sacred and secular, using the forms/traditions of Christianity to proclaim its message (anti-consumerism) that is more or less secular. Is it OK that Rev. Billy and the “church” of Stop Shopping poke fun at certain brands of Christianity as a means to get their message noticed? How should Christians feel about this? Are their methods—however subversive—worth the good ends toward which they fight?
These are all questions I discussed with Morgan Spurlock in an interview last week. A very gracious and affable man, Spurlock (best known for his film Super Size Me) understood and shared some of my concerns about how Christian audiences might react to the film. Spurlock agreed that Billy has a tendency to alienate audiences, but noted that, “Reverend Billy may turn off some people, but the strength of the film is not in the man but the message.”
When I asked him what exactly that message was, Spurlock responded, “Billy’s message is similar to the message of Christianity that we’ve lost sight of … Jesus was a radical guy,” he said. “He drove the moneychangers out of the temple. Billy is acting within the tradition of Christ by using theater as a means of reform and activism.”
For Spurlock, the over-the-top theatricality and subversive comedy in the film serve a larger purpose. “It’s a movie that reminds you what is important in your life,” he said. “The question of ‘what would Jesus do?’ forces people to consider their own actions and priorities.”
Spurlock hopes the extreme exhortations of Rev. Billy (“Stop shopping! Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist!”) will not turn people off but rather get them thinking about consumerism as a serious problem. “Stop shopping is a way to open a door,” he said. “No one is going to stop shopping completely, but we have to ask questions about the products we buy. Where is it made? Is the money going back into the local economy? We don’t think about these questions enough.”
“I think we can be conscious consumers, where we don’t just buy blindly,” notes Spurlock, who believes that Christians should especially resonate with the message of the film—since they of all people can understand how far we’ve strayed from the true message of Christmas.
Even so, I can’t help but question the extent to which the “Christianity” invoked in this film mirrors the actual gospel that Jesus espoused. It seems to me that Spurlock and Rev. Billy’s group see Christ mostly as a great moral leader whose “message” could be summed up in words like peace, justice, equality and universal goodwill. But while this is all true of Christ’s message, isn’t there more to it?At one point near the end of the film, Rev. Jim Wallis is interviewed and remarks that what Christmas represents—the birth of Christ—is the only thing that will ultimately fill the dissatisfaction that drives people to consume. But while What Would Jesus Buy? is good at pointing out the dissatisfaction that leads us to over-consumption, it stops short of Wallis’ claim that the answers lie in the person of Jesus Christ. Revered Billy says near the end of the film that “Christmas is about a child that will grow up to show the world peace … and you don’t have to be a Christian to believe that’s true.” Yes, that’s right, but “showing the world peace” is not all that Christmas represents. We can (and should) decry consumerism, the commercialization of Christmas, and the commodification of Christianity, but the ultimate call should be for a re-cast consumerism: one that is consumed with Christ and His commandments rather than cars and cappuccinos.
Author: Brett McCracken
To hear our interview with Morgan Spurlock, be sure to download this week's RELEVANT Podcast.
Brett is a grad student at UCLA's Film School and has recently started a blog at stillsearching.wordpress.com.