What Would Jesus Buy?
Repent sinners, for the Shopocalypse is at hand! So proclaims Rev. Billy, the head of the so-called “Church of Stop Shopping in What Would Jesus Buy?, a new documentary which is almost guaranteed to make you cringe for any number of reasons.
When I first saw the documentary short Preacher with an Unknown God a few years ago, it was like a sudden splash of ice water to the face. Rev. Billy, clad in ecclesiastical garb and topped with a tower of peroxide-golden hair set like an impenetrable helmet, stormed a Starbucks like a Marine securing a beachhead and proceeded to decry the coffee giant’s role in America’s ever-escalating consumerism. He ranted and railed like an evangelical televangelist, condemning Western materialism and calling for a cessation of greed. He was like something feral, a man feeding directly off of an open electrical current, exaggerated and hysterical, an Old Testament prophet recast as a hyper-caffeinated parody of a modern stereotype.
Bill Talen (aka Rev. Billy), who says he adopted the persona of street preachers he would always see on the street-corners of Manhattan, is like Michael Moore, in that he practices a sort of civic disobedience toward corporations, employing guerilla shock tactics to provoke both his victims and his audience. What Would Jesus Buy?, produced by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), follows Talen, his girlfriend, and their 20-person gospel choir as they countdown to Christmas by traveling the country. Rev. Billy preaches in churches and Wal-Mart parking lots about the destructive affects of our consumer-driven culture, culminating in a visit to the home of the Anti-Christ himself, Mickey Mouse’s Disneyland.
Rev. Billy demands we begin thinking about where the things we buy come from and how our purchases affect the world around us. He pleads, through mock tears and charismatic tongues, that we consider the effects of staggering debt, third-world labor conditions, compulsive shopping addiction, the environmental impact of our SUVs, a marketing juggernaut that has blurred the line between advertising and entertainment, and the commercialization of Christmas.
What Would Jesus Buy? subscribes to the Mary Poppins school of sermonizing — a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Rev. Billy has something exceedingly serious to say but he knows you just might listen better if he couches it in comedy. God knows it’s something we need to hear. But, in creating so embellished a vehicle for his message, Talen runs the risk of losing his purpose amidst his own performance. Moreover, What Would Jesus Buy lacks cohesion. While its message is unified, the film is not, coming off more like monotonous, episodic sound bites than a single, unified diatribe building toward an inevitable climax.
What made the original documentary short work is that we were never allowed to see behind the curtain. We never saw Rev. Billy out of character; never knew if he even had an “out of character.” And while the new feature about his life’s mission fascinates by letting us get to know the passionately zealous and completely sincere actor behind the façade, the effect is only temporary. Like the old adage about not wanting to see how sausage is made, Talen’s potency comes mainly from his alter ego’s larger-than-life persona — once that is compromised, so too is much of what makes it hard to take your eyes off him. His public persona is so dominant and supercharged that we can’t help but distrust the authenticity of the private moments when he settles into normal.
For all that, it may be important to remember that in the plays of Shakespeare, the fool often makes more sense than any other character. Truth is truth even when it comes out of the mouth of a clown.