What Would Jesus Buy?
Directed by Rob VanAlkemade, produced by Morgan Spurlock
Sat. Dec. 6, 3 and 8 p.m.
South of Broadway Theatre
1080 E. Montague Ave.
Early in the new documentary What Would Jesus Buy?, New York City staple Reverend Billy holds up a stuffed Disney character and declares, "Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist!" to a very bemused department store crowd.
Preachers love to parse the curious nature of sin, but few pundits have honed a unique and broadly appealing stance of the caliber put forth by the heated founder of New York's Chuch of Stop Shopping.
With a spirited choir echoing his rants, the Rev. Billy (a.k.a. Bill Talen) rallies against the misguided cultural marriage of religion and economic consumption. It's hardly your average fire-and-brimstone rant: Neatly embedded in the reverend's strident enunciations of unholy behavior lies the clear-cut delivery of brilliant performance art.
The Church of Stop Shopping offers all-inclusive condescension. Everyone is guilty of compulsive buying, argues Rev. Billy, and needs to be continually reminded that desire for material wealth shouldn't encroach on a spiritual value system. Simple enough, but Rev. Billy's radical method of heading to the streets (and the suburbs) to offer his unsolicited pontifications brings the concept to a level of immediacy that's startlingly distinct.
He's been arrested many times over (and banned from every Starbucks in California). His ability to raise the ire of authorities illustrates the nature of his brazen cause, but it also shows how his actions are often misconstrued as deleterious or harmful to the public. Ironically enough, the Church of Stop Shopping is mostly nondenominational and apolitical, but unequivocally on-message.
Rob VanAlkemade, the director of the documentary, alternates between deconstructing the conceits behind Rev. Billy's wild-eyed demeanor and exploring the Church's message in a linear fashion. As a result, the movie offers both intriguing portraiture and probing cultural analysis. Through a chapter-based structure, various historians and more conventional religious leaders provide a sober backdrop to Reverend Billy's antics. We learn, for example, that Santa Claus is a late 18th century invention, primarily used to commercialize the holiday after its near extinction in the aftermath of the American Revolution.
These mannered observations lay the groundwork for Reverend Billy's unruly act, fleshing out the context of the lyrics in the Church's satiric tunes. ("Pack the malls with folks with money ... 'Tis the season to be dummies.") His tactics are zanily provocative, elegantly masking fiscal responsibility in a vigorous Bible-thumping mold. This creative approach to instigating social change explains why the documentary interested producer Morgan Spurlock, the man famous for ingesting 30 days' worth of McDonald's food in Super Size Me.
But while Spurlock used his perceived blue-collar charm to dissect America's obesity problem, comprehending the sanity behind the reverend's wild-eyed mentality requires a heftier examination. The man knows how to work a crowd, but so did Jim Jones. The real feat of What Would Jesus Buy? comes from its convincing argument that the Reverend isn't utterly insane. His movements are always quite calculated to instigate reflection.
"Don't go to the performance," his wife coaches him, "let the performance emerge from a real situation."
Mixing pop mentality with a homegrown communal vibe, Rev. Billy is one of the few contemporary radicals whose abrasiveness correlates with his message. When the choir invades Disneyland during a key sequence in the film, they're not out to offend, only to remind.
"Behind so many layers of billboards and supermodels looking down at us in their Christmas lingerie," shouts the reverend, "they're beating each other up at the cash register and the supermall."
In this war on Christmas, followers of the season's other holidays count as much as everyone else.