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Do I Hear a Changelujah?: Reverand Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping
Of all the ways to re-imagine progressive politics in our age of fantasy, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping is far and away my favorite.

Billy, the leader of a New York-based anti-mall, anti-big-box congregation is on a mission to save souls from the Shopocalypse by preaching a small-is-beautiful sermon inside real life retail environments. Times Square, Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, America’s Mall, Starbucks and even Disneyland, rat hole to the culture of consumption’s anti-Christ, Mickey Mouse, have all experienced this Church's presence firsthand. Since 1999, the good reverend activist has used the spectacular vernacular of TBN evangelists to deliver a message usually reserved for the sober writings of Thorstein Veblen and Benjamin Barber.

Changelujah! Amen.

Spreading the word of radical economic reform, Reverend Billy has sermonized his way from the subways and streets of New York onto the big screen in a new documentary, What Would Jesus Buy? Produced by Morgan Spurlock and directed by Rob VanAlkemade, the film follows Billy on a cross-country mission “to save Christmas from over-consumption and the fires of eternal debt.”

What is this Shopocalypse the right reverend speaks of? “Shopping plus Apocalypse,” Savitri D, Billy’s wife and the Director of the Church of Stop Shopping tells me. “You can just look out your window, wherever you are, and see it all around.”

Outside my window, the malls of Orange County, California are adorned for a retail feeding-frenzy in hopes that Saint Nicholas’ followers' credit line will soon be there. Bentleys, Beamers, and Acuras tied with three-foot wide bows line the glittering brand-filled promenades, like north stars of sinful spending.

Billy sees through this happy holiday crap. “You don’t need to buy a gift to give a gift,” he says. Amen to that.

Believers in the Stop Shopping School of Divinity know that the current American consumer economy will eventually kill us all, if not literally, than spiritually. Our sweatshop driven, clear-cutting, globally warmed, toxically wasted, monolithic big box manufacturer of needs Version 10.0 destroys lives, souls and imaginations.

Halfway through What Would Jesus Buy? Billy and the choir in the midst of hallelujahs and shouts for joy are approached by security in a Walmart parking lot. They are asked to leave. “We’re in church here,” Billy says.

The security guard looks mystified. Church? Where? What is this? Who are you? A reverend? An organizer? A performance artist? A new wave progressive? What just happened here?

Reverend Billy is the embodiment of NYU Gallatin School Professor Stephen Duncombe's prescient book, Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy. Duncombe proposes that popular fantasy — corporate theme parks, ad campaigns, video games, celebrity culture, Las Vegas — can help progressives define and make possible a new political future.

Billy’s fantasy captures the public imagination — a marked change from what Duncombe took part in for 15 years in the 1980s and early 90s.

“We were organizing political demonstrations or organizations that we ourselves were not too enthusiastic about,” Duncombe tells me. “We’d follow a model for a protest that went something like this: You tell people where to show up. You negotiate with the police where you’re going to march. You march there. Then you get to a place at the end and you stand around and listen to some people tell you what you already know. And then you go home or maybe you go to a preordained arrest area and get arrested. I had done this for fifteen years and I couldn’t do it anymore.”

To remedy these antiquated protests, Duncombe calls for progressives to “build a politic that embraces the dreams of people and fashion spectacles that give those dreams form."

Billy's dream is built on the foundation of mainstream America’s most curious religious act of flamboyance: the born again televangelist. But while traditional preachers aim fire and brimstone at human differences, Billy targets the sins of overconsumption.

In the late 1990s, Bill Talen hitchhiked to New York City only to discover, to his great disenchantment, that Times Square had became a Disney shopping mall. Inspired by sidewalk preachers, he bought a collar, bleached his hair and became the Reverend of the Church of Stop Shopping.

Savitri D remembers the first time she saw Billy deliver a sermon from a portable pulpit he carried with him.

“I felt there was something really nervy about it,” she says “What I liked about it is that it’s sort of unstable. You can’t quite figure out what it is. I still have that feeling about it. I think he created that character out of a lot of impulse and intuition.”

“Preaching is an incredible instrument,” Savitri continues, “We call it the crack between singing and talking. It’s finding the nuance of message delivery. Ultimately when you’re making a political statement, you have to deliver meaning. The instrument can overwhelm the meaning. We ride a line between irony and sincerity. We’re making a joke all the time about right wing preachers. But we take it all very seriously and, in a sense, we have created a faith. All these people in the choir, they mean it. It’s not like were just acting like we mean it. We mean it.”

Changelujah, children!

Rob VanAlkemade, the director of “What Would Jesus Buy?” was working on a short documentary about the 2004 Republican Convention when he first saw Billy. “I would consistently bump into the Church of Stop Shopping doing cash register exorcisms, or singing in a sound-byte march down the street, or officiating illegal weddings in Central Park and it became a spiritual renewal when I’d come across them. Eventually we felt drawn together and I ended up being invited on a ten-day tour across California — the Stop Big Boxes Tour of 2004.”

The footage VanAlkemade shot on that tour became Preacher with an Unknown God, a short documentary that went on to win Honorable Mention at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. By that time VanAlkemade was already working with producer Morgan Spurlock, of Super Size Mefame, on a new project that would become What Would Jesus Buy?

How are the results of this new wave progressive approach different from the old school results? Isn’t this new documentary and the new wave progressive activism it represents just preaching to the choir? Apparently not.

“It’s very surprising to us how well the film has been received across the political and religious spectrum,” VanAlkemade says. “American Families Association President Tim Wildmon loved the film.”

This is the same Tim Wildmon who reported on his conservative radio show in 2005 that liberals “don't have the kind of family responsibilities that most people have, and certainly not church responsibilities.”

Since then Wildmon has seen the light, at least on the silver screen. Alkemade has shown Preacher with an Unknown God and What Would Jesus Buy? at Christian festivals to receptive audiences. “We found common ground with folks that it’s not always easy to find common ground with,” Alkemade says. “It’s very encouraging that we’re not going to be preaching to the choir.”

“We’re trying to reach across the divide in this country, Savitri chimes in. “There’s been a tremendous amount of polarity the last 10 years. It’s keeping us from changing. It’s keeping us from making real progress in our culture.”

In What Would Jesus Buy? — right before the climactic scene in which the good Reverend and the Church Choir slip stealthily into Disneyland’s Mainstreet USA parade — Billy is asked to baptize an infant in a retail center parking lot.

“We ask the fabulous creator, the mother-father god that is not a product, to come into the soul of this blessed baby," Billy says looking to the heavens as the choir croons “amen." "Give this child and give its parents the loving power not to be lost to the mindlessness of consumerism.”

The Choir sings the baby’s name. “Roxanne Elisabeth. Roxanne Elisabeth. Bless this child.”

“The manager wants you to leave,” security says.

“We just baptized a baby. Did you see that?”

Yes we did. Billy has hit a nerve. The timing is right. Mainstream America has grown weary of leaders who tell us it’s time to shop.

It’s time to stop. It's time for us to find a place in Reverend Billy’s politics of redemption, love, joy, hope, release and ecstasy.

What would Jesus buy?

Not much. We’re in church, here.

— Nathan Callahan, November 16, 2007


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