Reverend Billy's crusade against the 'shopocalypse'

by Stephen Scharper, Toronto Star

"As fall turns to winter, many millions will converge on centres of worship large and small to celebrate and give thanks to a familiar god. He tells us to buy now and pay later. He tempts us with promises of endless credit as he leads us down the path to eternal debt..."

So begins What Would Jesus Buy? a just-in-time-for-the-holidays documentary that, at times mockingly, at times movingly, excoriates the "religion of consumerism," decries Mickey Mouse as the "Antichrist," and warns of the imminent "shopocalypse," whereby all persons, things and values will be rendered mere commodities.

Think of it as a type of comedic, anti-consumerist, cinematic Christmas card, and you begin to get the vibe of this outlandish yet unexpectedly poignant film.

The energetic paladin of this message is anti-globalization activist Billy Talen, who, as Reverend Billy, replete with shock of bleached blond hair and evangelical preacher histrionics, traverses the United States with his wife and choirmaster Savita D., the Stop Shopping Choir, and the Not Buying It Band to proclaim the gospel of non-consumption.

An amalgam of Michael Moore, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Swaggart, and Borat, Reverend Billy prowls the parking lots of shopping malls and dances down church aisles exhorting Americans to repent of their mindlessly consumerist ways, "confess" their "shopping sins" (Rev. Billy actually sets up a confessional box) and wake up to a faith that doesn't come from a mall.

Interspersed throughout the odyssey are interviews with psychologists, anti-sweatshop activists, and real preachers, such as Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community in Washington D.C., who buttresses Billy's message with facts and faith-based reflections on the hijacking of Christmas as a "drive-buy" culture.

As it turns out, many of the facts the film unveils are less than merry. For example, for the first time since the Great Depression, U.S. household personal savings are below zero, and 60 per cent of American consumers are venturing out to the malls this December with at least $13,000 worth of long-term debt on high-interest credit cards. In addition, this Christmas, folks south of the border will spend half-a-trillion dollars and create 5 million tonnes of extra waste. A ho ho, no-no.

Add to that the fact that people in the U.S. – reputedly the most Christian nation in the world – now spend fewer than one hour a week in spiritual activities compared with more than five hours a week shopping, and that 15 million Americans may be clinically addicted to shopping, and you get a sense of the spiritual and psychological trappings of Billy's crusade.

The film's producer, Morgan Spurlock, producer of the 2004 documentary Supersize Me, said Talen "uses humour to make us laugh and make us look at really important things," adding that "if you can make somebody laugh, you can make somebody listen."

Rev. Billy, with his white suit and collar and red-robed choir, invades Minnesota's Mall of America, the main cathedral of U.S. consumerism.

The mall boasts its own police force, an amusement park, a wedding chapel, six kilometres of storefront, and National American University, the first university campus built inside a shopping centre. It hosts more than 42 million visitors per year, which, according to the film, exceeds the annual visitor tally to Washington DC, Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, and Disneyland combined.

As is his wont, Billy gets up close and personal with the mall police as they escort him from the premises.

With the final words of Rev. Billy, speaking of Christmas as the celebration of a child who would grow up and teach peace, the film touchingly shifts from the satirical to the spiritual.

Rev. Billy, like the heart-enhanced Grinch, realizes that Christmas does not come from a store, and that "Christmas, perhaps, is a little bit more."

It's ironic that it takes an ersatz preacher to remind a so-called Christian culture of this message.

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