Business: What Would Jesus Buy?

As dawn breaks this Black Friday, William Talen will again be waiting to greet the sleepy-eyed masses hoping to cash in on the biggest sales of the season. Talen's target this year: Macy's in Manhattan, just as the doors swing open at 6 a.m. Chances are, Talen—a performance artist also known as Reverend Billy—will once again be trampled by an onrush of credit-card toting consumers, his message largely unheard and unheeded.

And what, exactly, is that message? Actually, he has many, and they're detailed in "What Would Jesus Buy?," a new documentary by director Rob VanAlkemade and producer Morgan "Supersize Me" Spurlock. The new film is Reverend Billy's tour de farce—a ferociously satirical and cynical take on consumer culture, pegged to America's most sacred spending season. Dolled up in High Evangelical style (equal parts Jimmy Swaggart and Reverend Lovejoy), the blond pompadoured Reverend Billy crosses the country with his Church of Stop Shopping, from New York City to Disneyland, breathing brimstone about America's impending "shopocalypse." If the messenger is charismatic and funny, his message is deadly serious.

How serious? Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that "Rev. Billy is a faithful prophetic figure who stands in direct continuity with ancient prophets in Israel and in continuity with the great prophetic figures of U.S. history who have incessantly called our society back to its core human passions of justice and compassion." Perhaps. But you may have to take his word for it since "What Would Jesus Buy?" is struggling to find widespread theatrical release. In a recent interview with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker, Talen dropped his comic persona to discuss what he sees as the true meaning of the holiday season. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You were raised a Dutch Calvinist. Is your upbringing reflected in the persona of Reverend Billy?
William Talen:
I don't think anybody can deny that their life is inside their lifework. So many of the people in the Church of Stop Shopping you'd call postreligious—a lot of PKs (preachers' kids); folks from different fundamentalist backgrounds; we have Muslims and Hindus, Catholics and Protestants and Jews. And we all love gospel music.

What about you? Why this message?
It concerns us deeply that the heart of Christmas—the giving and receiving—be recovered from the industrial juggernaut. The seed of hope in late December that all cultures regard, is denied us in so many ways in our society. It's denied because we can't create it ourselves anymore. We have thousands of advertising exposures a day all about the hope you buy: beauty, sex, status. We're saying "create Christmas this year; don't go to the big-box store this Christmas."
 
Do you give gifts this season? What do you want for Christmas or Chanukah or Kwanza or Chritsmanukwanza or whatever?
We can give a gift of a commitment of an activity; we can give the gift of praise. What is Christmas about? The birth of a child who was supposed to grow up and teach us peace. When you give a gift you enter an intimate economy with your closest witness to the remarkable state of being alive. What's so remarkable about a PlayStation 17 wrapped and vaccu-packed in fossil fuels?

One common criticism is that you parody evangelicals, and that your traveling confession booths offend some Roman Catholics.
There's real pastoring to do here. I like being ecumenical. We call ourselves postreligious but we believe in the creative force of life. We all know that life is amazing. Every minute that we're alive we're saying, "Wow, this is incredible. What is it?" We don't know what it is, but it's remarkable. And that's what Christmas is. It's a reminder that life is incredible. But the average American family is still paying off their Christmas debt some 16 weeks into the year. Soon that will extend to when the first Christmas carols start playing again!

You've targeted Disney, Starbucks, Wal-Mart. What's the common thread here?
I would say the three of them have a problematic relationship to public space. All three are claiming they're the new commons, the new place where people go when they are not working or at home. We believe Christmas is the commons. The sidewalks and streets and libraries are commons, not Barnes & Noble. All three are attacking the commons in a way that we feel that our First Amendment rights are disappearing in this country. You can't walk in America anymore. In a lot of suburban-type places, you have to get in a car to go from point A to point B. There are no sidewalks. There are vast sections in the U.S. where you have to go to a Wal-Mart-type store just to get household necessities. Increasingly you can't walk to get the basics.

How do First Amendment rights tie into that?
We're saying if you come and shutter our neighborhood and our Main Street and you make a big-box store and you simulate my Main Street inside it, then I'm going to go inside your Main Street and exercise my First Amendment rights. I'm going to shout and sing, and you know what? The song might be about the sweatshop goods you sell.

What is the "shopocalypse" as you envision it?
If we just keep expressing ourselves to each other by making purchases, our neighbors are all going to be chain stores. Our representatives in Congress will be more corrupt, and we'll end up being just consumers and not citizens.

Is parody the most effective means for your message? I would think the guerilla-style tactics you engage in at, say, Starbucks would alienate and annoy the very $6 latte-sipping people you're trying to convert.
[Laughs.] We have such an emergency in our culture right now. So much of it comes from consumerism. We have to crack the culture and walk through that crack. We have to break up the assumption of what's polite. Let's enjoy change and not be offended. When we go into Starbucks and start our Christmas carols, I exorcise the demons from the cash registers. Some of the people join us in clapping; other people are annoyed. The response is more like an explosion. Change-aleujah!

Now that I think of it, it strikes me that Jesus practiced a type of guerrilla theater in his own way.
Of course we don't have it on YouTube. And certainly when you ask "what would Jesus buy," there's no evidence that he bought anything, but we think he would buy less and give more.

Do you have big plans for Black Friday?
Of course! This is the high holiday of our theological calendar! We will be at the front door of Macy's on "Buy Nothing Day," as we call it, just like we were last year. The door usually opens at around 6 a.m. and there's a long line down 34th Street. Last year we met people from Ireland who flew across the Atlantic Ocean to go shopping at Macy's! Morgan [Spurlock] has organized 40 elves. He has a vision of elves striking against Santa. And he's got elves striking in Portland, San Francisco, Chicago and L.A.

Even with some elf muscle, taking down the shopping establishment won't be easy. This is a pretty big fight you're up against.
You have to stop shopping at least long enough to think about what you're buying. It's why we call Black Friday Buy Nothing Day. If you pause your addiction for a while—if you have a fast—when you choose to go back to your addiction, you find a new thoughtful presence in your return.