3 Stars – Thought Provoking
Addressing the materialism in Western culture is not easy. It is not just that people have strong denial when confronted with incongruent behavior, but our rampant consumption out of all proportion to our actual need is also a fact about which many Americans and Europeans already feel guilty. Breaking through the denial and giving a solution to the guilt requires a new approach. Reverend Billy (Billy Talen) and his “Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir” is an attempt at such redemption. Recording this effort is Rob VanAlkemade in his intriguing documentary “What Would Jesus Buy?”
Focused on the campaign of Reverend Billy and interspersing compelling cameo appearances by such persons as Sojourner’s Jim Wallis, the documentary is effective, but in a quirky kind of way. Reverend Billy is both the genius and the liability of the film. Not a pastor in the traditional sense of the word, the “Reverend” is a caricature of a charismatic evangelist. Playing the role in a comedic style, Reverend Billy uses melodramatic sermons and gospel-style music to call everyone to “stop shopping.” It is his message that we are all headed for a “shopapocalypse” if we do not stop. But the real Billy Talen often crosses the line and is not only personally offensive in his words and comments but also is arrested repeatedly throughout the crusade as he confronts such retailers as Wal-Mart.
But there are truths in his confrontation. Wal-Mart has been a detrimental force in many communities, and has caused many small businesses to close. The film walks with three young teenage girls through the discovery that their clothing is made in sweatshops where adults and children live in economic slavery, and we all need to know the truth behind our economic system.
One of the weaknesses of Reverend Billy’s crusade is that it is not clear whether it is just a comedy show using the style of charismatic preaching and gospel singing as props, or whether he actually sees himself as a minister within the church. This confusion is played out at a mall where the choir is escorted out by security, as they are nearly everywhere they go, and yet a young couple asks the “Reverend” to bless their child. It is obviously meaningful to Billy when he does so even though he is actually a comic crusader and not a real minister. Yet it is also true that saving Christmas from the retailers is a major theme within his “stop shopping” message.
As the crusade travels all the across the country, one of their buses is hit by an eighteen-wheeler, but after some delay they continue and reach their final destination: Disneyland. Having declared that Mickey Mouse is the Anti-Christ, Reverend Billy and his choir serendipitously parade down Main Street before Disney’s own parade and he declares that this idyllic reproduction of Main Street is necessary because Disney and the other major retailers destroyed small-town America long ago.
Like most modern documentaries, “What Would Jesus Buy?” has a definite purpose and tells only one side of the retail and consumer story. It is not an attempt to be an unbiased study of the benefits and dangers of capitalism, but it is a rather quirky confrontation of materialistic American life.
- When you first saw Reverend Billy in the film what was your first reaction?
- The position expressed throughout the film is that we have turned our shopping into a “religion.” Do you agree or disagree?
- Throughout the nation, various television news shows were willing to give air time to Reverend Billy and his choir. Do you believe this is appropriate? Why or why not?
- Would you join Billy’s “Church of Stop Shopping?” Why or why not?