Issue 14 : Spring 2008






Otherzine issues

Top of page

Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show: or, Well, What WOULD Jesus Buy?

by Peggy Nelson

13 Mar 2008

"Let’s go shopping!
At the mall!
It’ll be fun, yeah!
lyrics from Girlfriend2000, Let’s Go Shopping"!, 2005

What Would Jesus Buy

What Would Jesus Buy?”   It’s more than just a clever slogan, it’s more than just a bumper sticker, and it’s more than just a film. Although it is all those things too.

What Would Jesus Buy” the movie, produced by Morgan Spurlock (whose previous film, “Super Size Me,” was also about the dangers of overconsumption), follows Reverend Billy and his wife and partner Savitri D., and their gospel choir, on a cross-country tour of malls in America (including the Mall of America), concluding with a spectacular piece of guerrilla theater where they infiltrate Disneyland on Christmas Day and stage a Stop Shopping gospel revival in the center plaza.

Maybe you’ve heard of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. Or maybe you haven’t. But the exhortation rings a chord--you do know that you’re buying too much stuff. You feel it. You see it. You know it. But--you can’t seem to stop it. Can your paycheck be saved? Can you?

Reverend Billy, the nom de guerre of artist Bill Talen, is coming to your local shopping plaza with his particular brand of performance to engage the enemy where it lives: within. Fear not! He is coming to save you.

Reverend Billy Gets Religion

Rev. Billy’s incorporation of religious memes into street theater has an interesting conception. Relocating from San Francisco to Times Square in the heart of New York, he was present for its recent makeover and “Disneyfication.” He watched as the heterogeneous and gritty yet diverse street commons was enclosed and paved over with pastel lights, each heralding a new plastic god or goddess from the advertising pantheon, 7 stories high. These jeans. Those sneakers. This animated princess, that scrappy yet adorable anthropomorphic neotonic creature. Buy tickets! Buy the T-shirt! Buy the action figure! Buy, buy, buy! Because only by buying can you hope to be as sleek and tall and beautiful and light as those you see blinking down at you.

The only elements of the former Square to escape enclosure and commodification were the street preachers, still exhorting the passers-by to accept Jesus as their personal savior, and warning that the End was near. Scrabbling around on the margins, no one wanted to turn them into video games and backpacks. So Bill Talen, a long-time performance artist with a history of political activism and a cast of characters, began to study his new role. He would become a preacher, yes--for the Church of Stop Shopping! He would save souls--from thinking they could be saved by consuming! He would herald the coming “Shopocalypse!”

Rev. Billy 1

Although--significantly--Rev. Billy is allied to no particular denomination, and not ordained--his preaching channels the more performative aspects of sects like Pentecostalism, which hold, very generally, that individuals can have a direct personal experience of God. Or, more concisely, individuals can have a direct personal experience , unmediated by advertising, currency, various authority figures, or media itself. This preaching style is flamboyant. It makes for a good show, but more importantly, it is central to Rev. Billy’s anti-consumerist message. People, do not sit and wait to be told what to do! Do not be passive sponges to advertising, politics, the status quo ! You know in your hearts what is wrong here. You can have a direct experience of the wrongness of shopping to fill a void in your life, you have been having it for years! A preacher might put you in the right frame of mind, or gather others together to witness, and create a contagious group dynamic in the immediate vicinity (what Talen calls the “high jiggly"), but the experience comes directly to you. Accessible to anyone, accessible by anyone: like democracy itself, from a structural point of view.

Inside Out

Although having worked in “traditional” avant-garde theater for years (on a stage, with a quiet darkened audience, in a building), Talen had also been doing public “interventions”, and had been becoming less and less satisfied with the traditional theatrical setting. A stage is set apart from the stream of life. You go in, watch the show, perhaps become inspired, and then go back to your real life where you basically behave exactly the same as before. That basic behavior is what street theater aims to interrupt. The surprise and immediacy of encountering guerrilla theater breaks down the invisible fourth wall by confusing the issue--are these people putting on an act, or is it real?

If it’s an act, maybe I’ll stop and watch for a bit, especially if it’s funny. Even though I may be a person who would never go to see an anti-consumerist avant-garde theater production? Especially if I may be a person who would never go to see an anticonsumerist avant-garde theater production!

And if it’s real--maybe they have a point?

Rev. Billy 2

Perhaps you were just stopping into the store to see what’s on sale, or you needed to get extra presents for Christmas because you didn’t have “enough” yet, or you are buying to lift your spirits temporarily. But now, here is Rev. Billy outside the door, or inside at the counter, exhorting you to stop shopping! Exorcising the cash register! And here is his choir, in red robes, breaking into polyphonic harmony, and the lyrics are kind of funny! And ok, it’s a little weird to encounter this at the mall, or at Starbucks, but--maybe he has a point. You do have too much stuff. Why do you keep acquiring more?

Because it is almost not about the objects at all, it is about the process. Shopping is our religion. It is a ritual we perform to connect with something larger than ourselves, to fill the void we sense in our lives. Each of the objects that you buy has two components, its material presence, and its conceptual meaning--you will be happier/better/smarter/more beautiful/finally fulfilled. Your self-conception has been colonized by advertising--you are a consumer. “Consumer”: You have heard that so often it sounds normal. But what does it mean? Are you some kind of unconscious feeding tube, remarkable only for the impression of its vertebrae in the eventual substrate our cities will become? Surely not! So you buy to stave off meaninglessness, to fill the void inside. After all, advertising promises that one more object (and another! and another!) will provide the meaning and connection you seek.

And yet it’s not working. You buy more and more stuff, and you’re still not happy, you’re still not fulfilled. Our shelves and closets and landfills are full, but our spirits are empty. And still we consume and acquire, as if More, and Faster, will fill the void before it empties again. As if quantity and speed will be the oil that keeps the water in the sieve. The system is corrupt, the concept is collapsing under the weight of its own incoherence - and yet it still stands. It is ripe for toppling.

Although the film does a great job of documenting Rev. Billy’s performance/interventions, he and his choir are not switching over to become filmmakers. It is important to do this kind of act/protest/performance in person. The street provides a much larger and more varied audience than can ever be gathered in a darkened room. Embodied theater--to venture out into the physical and social environment, to generate that ineffable yet very real connection with people with your personal presence--is the only way for performers to really reach inside someone else and hope to effect a small, and hopefully later a great, change. The context is key; it must be done in public, and in person. And they sing. Singing is one of the most purely joyful things people can do, and when a group raises its voice in song, others cannot help but vibrate a bit in kind. It is the dream of a performer that the audience would resonate with her. Through song, they do, and a bit of the message gets through that way too.

I’m Going to Make Mincemeat Out of That Mouse!

Why Disney? The film even features section titles using the Disney font. Disney was one of the main culprits in the re-imagineering of Times Square, back in the day. Talen saw that those round mouse ears hid tiny red horns (for sale, only $14.99, comes with child-friendly adhesive backing). Disney and its corporate cohorts have enclosed our imaginations as surely as their collateral has filled our shelves and screens. From manufactured stories to manufactured vacations (Disneyland) to manufactured towns (Celebration), Disney did not call it “imagineering” for nothing: to engineer the imagination. Here, we’ll give you an imaginal world, pre-built. Much better and more impressive than you could do yourself, especially at a tender age.

Rev. Billy3

And if you get them young; you keep them - those images and things you liked in childhood will always occupy a soft spot in your heart. The junk-food purveyors know it too. Eat McDonald’s food early enough, you will crave it as comfort food whenever you need a little comfort. It is the same with images. You will return to favorite childhood images again and again, they have special power because they arrived on your scene at that impressionable time. And when the power of that kind of image is used to promote consumerism, it steam-rolls all else in its path. “The Image will be as a Thing Sold, and Images shall have no other Purposes but to Sell.” How is it possible to imagine anything else in a completely enclosed conceptual environment?

Rev. Billy says, there is a way out. Stop buying in.

Fighting Fire with Fire

Bill Talen has done more overtly political characters in the past. A notable one was George, a presidential candidate in the early 1990’s, who, with a cast of spin doctors, wife, mistress, and other handlers, hosted fundraising dinners and campaigned in public space. Another more recent performance involved reading the First Amendment, which defends the right to free speech, in Union Square in New York City. Union Square has a rich history of political speechifying and activism, as might be deduced from its name. But that was then, and this is now. Talen was arrested, of course.

Rev. Billy 4

But the main problem with using politics to combat consumerism is that they’re literally speaking different languages. Shopping and acquiring is closer to a ritual than a policy report. It promises fulfillment. It compels you to obey. It does not allow you to imagine a life without it. It worms its way in below your analytical and critical faculties. It is so embedded that it needs to be opposed with more than just rationality. People will agree rationally that yes, shopping is not making them happier, and yes, they should buy less stuff, and they don’t change their behavior at all, even though they may wish to. More powerful forces are at work than logic. (As a former union activist myself, I can attest that the consumer lifestyle is stronger than any rhetoric I or my comrades were ever able to throw at it, despite our levels of sincerity, or our audiences’ levels of interest.) Religious duels need to be fought with their own choice of weapons. To combat consumerism, you must use its own tools to turn it inside out, and that includes emotion and belief, fantasy and ritual. You must reclaim its language and reveal the false prophet hiding beneath. You must show, on an emotional and instinctive level as well as an intellectual one, that this is not Paradise; no, it is a parasite, and only you can cast it out.

And maybe Rev. Billy and his congregation and choir seem tiny when opposed to our entire acquisitional way of life, with big money and big corporations, and big profits. But sometimes that’s all you need. As Nikola Tesla theorized, a small repeated force, applied at the right time in the right place, could break a world apart. And once it does, we see that the enclosure was false, that we are free, that we always were. Change- eluia!

But you have to want to change, not charge! You have to admit you’re a sinner; we are all sinners! You have to want to believe, in something other than what is sold to you! You have to say yes Lord, I am ready! I am ready to be free!

Because Jesus? He’s not buying it. And neither should you.

Peggy Nelson is a painter and writer for Otherzine.