The dizzying throng bursts into Wal-Mart, tramping one another like a stampede of desperate, hungry animals. Their ire is raised at each aisle as the throng bursts forth, pouring through the rows and lanes of the box store with desperation and glazed-over pupils. Focused entirely on Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii, the throng reaches the apex of their journey and collides in a violent heap, pulling and pushing one another and forcing elderly women to the ground for a better vantage point. The fray reaches its climax when one of the blue-vested villains shouts, “We’re all out.” And that’s when all hell breaks loose…
It’s just another Christmas. The obsession over getting the perfect gift has reached a fever pitch and people are willing to do just about anything to be the Holiday Hero, even if it means acting like a complete fool.
Enter Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping. This crew of exuberant performance artists and activists has formed around the enigmatic figure of Reverend Billy (Bill Talen) and is practicing their brand of fighting the commercialism of the holidays. Using the form of revival meeting and exuberant preaching, Billy and his supporters congregate in box stores, chain stores, and on sidewalks to preach the message of “Stop shopping!”
What Would Jesus Buy? is a 2007 documentary that follows the exploits of Reverend Billy and his church as they journey to the “Promised Land” on Christmas Day. The Promised Land in this case is, of course, Disneyland. Directed by Rob VanAlkemade and produced by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), this film is wildly funny and thought-provoking, shedding light on the enigmatic character of Reverend Billy and showing the real face of Bill Talen at the same time.
The format is that of a basic documentary, as small sound-byte organized interview segments fill the gaps between the footage of Reverend Billy and his church on their journey to Disneyland. Along the way, there is a bus accident and a few incidents that bring Billy close to being arrested. He preaches outside of a Target, for instance, and “baptizes” a baby in the spirit of anti-consumerism. Billy’s church actually has nothing to do with religion, though, and his followers simply congregate to fight the “evils” of commercialism and corporate greed using the lexicon of religious language and dogma.
The use of this religious context leads to some hilarious moments, such as when Billy “exorcises” the demons in credit cards or when he tries to pull the evil forces out of a Wal-Mart sign. His theatrics are pulled right from the sensationalized preachers of old-time evangelism and he plays the role perfectly. The church behind him is generally comprised of ordinary folk dressed in choir uniforms, all of them fully behind The Good Reverend in his quest to stop the “Shopocalypse.”
What Would Jesus Buy? centers around the idea of returning meaning to Christmas, adding quickly that any “meaning” from the holiday does not need to be centered around a religious belief but rather around a belief in the possibility of peace. After featuring footage of the dizzying spectacle of holiday shopping and highlighting stories of individuals obsessed with it (like the disturbing display of a young woman with an entire closet filled with clothing and accessories for her dog or the story of a store employee spit on and cursed out by an elderly woman for not having the right game system in stock), the documentary attempts to show that there is another way to celebrate the holidays.
“You don’t have to buy a gift to give a gift,” Reverend Billy opines outside of a shopping mall.
In this day and age of obsession over consumption and of Christmas spending reaching thousands of dollars a person, Reverend Billy’s simple message is needed more than ever.
North America is spiralling into debt, with literally trillions of credit card debt hovering over us like a dark cloud. Perhaps the only thing that can save us from the Shopocalypse is a credit card exorcism and a little simplicity. In that regard, What Would Jesus Buy? gets things just about right. Besides, who can argue with the ridiculously funny visual of Mickey Mouse on a cross?