Yesterday was one of the biggest shopping extravaganzas of the year. Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on a Thursday, and most of them take the Friday off work, too. En masse, they head to the shopping malls to begin buying, getting, consuming: spending themselves into massive debt to commemorate the birth of the baby Jesus.
Rev. Billy doesn’t like it. Not one little bit!
We’re trying to get people to back away from the Walmart; back away from the Target; back away from the Home Depot! … Backing away from the product, slowing down your consumption is a spiritual act. … Stop shopping, children! Amen!
Rev. Billy is a persona created by performance artist and activist Bill Talen. He is featured in a movie, What Would Jesus Buy?, which is produced by Morgan Spurlock (who scored big with Super Size Me).
What Would Jesus Buy? is built around a 2005 documentary of Rev. Billy’s activist hi-jinks. The original documentary was made by Rob VanAlkemade, the director of What Would Jesus Buy?. Footage from the original documentary alternates with interviews and commentaries from experts and everyday consumers.
According to SignOnSanDiego, the movie’s message makes it a tough sell to potential distributors:
“Major distributors have backed away because Wal-Mart pushes half of their DVDs,” VanAlkemade said after a sold-out screening of the movie Sunday at the Silverdocs documentary festival near Washington.
Starbucks — a frequent target of Rev. Billy which got a court order to keep him out of its California stores — pulled out as a sponsor of Silverdocs. The festival is presented by the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel.
Festival spokeswoman Jody Arlington said Starbucks expressed discomfort with the movie and raised security issues, but it let Silverdocs keep the sponsorship money even as it withdrew its logo. Starbucks Mid-Atlantic manager Carter Bentzel denied the decision was linked to the movie.
This is a good illustration of the potential negative impact when enormous, multinational stores like Walmart control the lion’s share of a particular market. So much for supply and demand as the sole regulatory principle of a free market! If Walmart doesn’t like your movie, they can pretty much turn the lights out on you.
Rev. Billy comments, “The multinational corporations have got as much control over us as the Roman Catholic Church in the 1300s.” Then again, there’s always the democratic power of the World Wide Web:
VanAlkemade pledged that the movie will find its way to audiences despite the marketing challenges. … “Maybe someone shot this screening today and we’ll see it on YouTube tonight. It’s worldwide distribution. It’s instantaneous.”
How will Christians respond to the movie? I haven’t seen it; but as I watched the Youtube clip, I alternated between laughter, cringing, and shouts of “Hallelujah! God bless Rev. Billy!” Christianity Today offers a generally positive take on the movie:
Aside from a few more serious, melancholy scenes, WWJB is more or less a comedy. It’s hard not to laugh at the confused faces of holiday shoppers as a robed choir marches through Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret stores, singing about the impending shopocalypse as hovering security guards call for reinforcements. It’s classic agit-prop theater — using humor and stagy gimmicks to shake things up, entertain, and provoke. It’s a creative brand of protest, certainly, and according to the choir director (and Rev. Billy’s wife) Savitri D, it’s a protest grounded in Christian tradition: “Jesus was preaching within a tradition of theater as activism.”
… Some critics have noted that the film’s playfully sacrilege use of Christian forms and traditions may alienate some audiences. Rev. Billy’s character is clearly modeled after a sweaty, breathy, over-the-top southern televangelist (Billy name drops Jimmy Swaggart) who prances around in polyester suits and occasionally “speaks in tongues” or is “slain by the Spirit.” Catholics might also take offense at some of Rev. Billy’s antics, whether he’s in a makeshift confession booth on a city sidewalk (taking “confessions of shopping sins”) or “baptizing” a baby outside of a Staples.
Yes, it’s condescending. Yes, it cheapens Christianity. But the whole argument of the film is that our commodity culture has already cheapened Christianity.
Aint that the truth! Amen! Amen!
But would it be appropriate if I bought copies of the DVD for everyone I know, as Christmas presents?