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An examination of the commercialization of Christmas in America while following Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on a cross-country mission to save Christmas from the Shopocalypse (the end of humankind from consumerism, over-consumption and the fires of eternal debt.) The film also delves into issues such as the role sweatshops play in America's mass consumerism and Big-Box Culture. From the humble beginnings of preaching at his portable pulpit on New York City subways, to having a congregation of thousands - Bill Talen (aka Rev. Billy) has become the leader of not just a church, but a national movement. Written by
Warrior Poets Releasing
What would Jesus buy? Having written to my local preacher at the tender age of 16 (to renounce formally any connection with a faith that I find repugnant), my answer would probably be, "I couldn't give a monkey's." But lest you be put off this rather entertaining documentary, let me reassure you it is not really about religion. Reverend Billy, its key protagonist, is not really a Reverend. And the Jesus catchline is simply to question your unserving faith to the more mundane god of cash-registers.
Think Michael Moore, Ali G, Aaron Barschak, or Super Size Me. Reverend Billy is a character created by actor-comedian Bill Talen, often accompanied by his accomplished artist-wife Savitri Durkee (Director of the 'Church of Stop Shopping'). Then there's the acoustically accomplished 'Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir'. Think protests in Starbucks, Walmart, Times Square and Disneyland. Rage against globalisation. Consumerism. The ever-increasing debt. Use the feelgood singalong style of modern Jesus-music-churches. Find a tagline line such as 'the true meaning of Christmas.' Get taken seriously faster than you can say, "thanks for the donation" (Billy's organisation is tax-deductible yes, really).
Reverend Billy has even started to believe in himself. But is the message any good? Before we answer that question, let's ask if it is entertaining. The answer has to be, yes. Bill Talen is no Aaron Barschak, causing public disruption for the sake of it or begging for recognition. Firstly, he's actually funny. An accomplished entertainer, his puns and loaded lines are devilishly perfected. Visually, he looks like a slightly scary caricature of Elvis, shock of blonde hair balancing precariously on a less than angelical face. Wife Savitri coaches him before delivering the gospel: "Keep your eyes open really wide as you say that . . ." Secondly, he can persuade people he loves them before tearing them to shreds. A sort of Ali G on coke. Let us sing to the Lord, he exhorts on people's doorstep at Yuletide. He hands them a carol sheet. After a traditional start, they realise the lyrics they are singing have been altered. Firstly to damn with praise, then to excoriate. Big businesses, and the shopping sprees that support them, cast into hell. His tour bus meets local churchmen who think he's a holy crusader. Disneyworld-goers think he's part of the entertainment
till he gets arrested. Billy has been arrested many, many times.
Thirdly (just like the many churches, sceptics might argue), he pulls people in with enough factoids to convince them he knows what he's talking about. Slave labour in China. The horrors of globalisation. Families facing life-ruining debt brought on by merciless advertising. "Give something that costs nothing!" he exhorts. The highly simplified arguments are enough to arouse the emotions of the Outraged Campaigner in any of us. Enough to grab the brain as it hesitates precariously between thinking and laughter.
Billy walks into a shop and does a 'Laying of Hands' on the cash register. In confessional, he tells a girl she did the right thing for taking a pair of scissors to a dress she was trying on in a store ("It didn't fit"). He 'exorcises' a local Walmart from the nearby graveyard. It's very funny to watch . . . but let's face it, we're laughing at other people's expense. People who are mostly too polite to be as rude as he is to them. Do you want someone disrupting your hard-earned day out at Disneyland? When you're shopping for your kids' Christmas presents, presents you might be lucky enough to afford, do you want a preacher-lookalike telling you it's evil? There is a deep synergy between the Church, Christmas, and the commercialism that mutually reinforces that date in the calendar.
But to more serious issues for a moment. Reverend Billy (or Billy Talen) has his heart in the right place, but this stuff about boycotting goods from sweatshops abroad . . . It has been extensively proved, by trial error sadly, to do more harm than good. It tends to close the sweatshop and drive employees into begging and prostitution. Answers, sadly, are more complex than this juvenile barrage of love-and-peace would have us believe. They involve economic and ethical strategies, not a simple cutting-off of offending parties. Debt reduction is not about preaching the real meaning of Christmas (which Talen, as a strictly lapsed believer, is less than convincing about), but more about education and counselling. His point on 'giving something that you have created, or a song,' maybe gets close. Putting more love than just cash into presents. But his roadshow may be too commercial to sway most film-goers' hearts.
I would hate to be one to judge the Reverend Billy. He might do a Bono and or really make a difference. Or he might just be the lever that lets an ever bigger business concern reinvent itself. That concern, of course, being one of the most powerful financial conglomerates in the USA and the world today: Jesus' church itself.
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