Before you head out to the mall to do your Christmas shopping, you might want to see What Would Jesus Buy? first. Directed by Rob VanAlkemade and produced by Morgan Spurlock, the documentary opens today in New York before expanding to selected locations nationwide. It follows Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Choir on a trek across America as they endeavor to deliver their anti-shopping, anti-materialism, pro-Christmas message, bolstered by most of the trappings of fundamentalist religion. The intent and purpose of Reverend Billy and his followers is not immediately apparent -- I kept wondering, "Are these guys for real?" -- but everyone enjoys the gospel music and the high-spirited show, except security guards, police officers and corporations.
Much of the first hour of the approximately 90-minute film is spent showing Reverend Billy and the choir in action, preaching that a "Shopacalypse" is approaching and that people should stop their mindless shopping. The man who became Reverend Billy arrived in Times Square just before the turn of the century, only to discover that it had been turned into a mecca for shoppers. Observing the street corner preachers who remained in the area, he was inspired to buy a white collar, bleach his hair and start a new church. He adapted the methods of the street preachers and formed a choir of enthusiastic and talented singers. Reverend Billy goes to where the people are, walking into the middle of retail shops and malls and encouraging shoppers to stop what they're doing. His secular gospel appears to be simple: Shopping is evil; stop it.
Director Rob VanAlkemade alternates footage of Reverend Billy and his bus tour with narrated factoids and brief interviews with secular and religious experts, talking about the huge amounts of money that are spent during the holidays, the huge amount of credit card debt that is incurred by consumers, and the powerful addiction to shopping that some people appear to have. There's also a plethora of snippets of children and adults gushing about the presents they want to receive for Christmas, no matter the huge number of toys they already possess. Is any of this news to anybody? None of this information was eye-opening to me, but perhaps I'm in the minority. (Full disclosure: I'm deeply in debt too, though not because of holiday shopping.) I agree with what someone in the film says: "Christmas has become a season that many people dread instead of anticipate." Even if you don't celebrate the holiday, or shop within your means, or keep material things in their place, holiday shopping tends to create nightmares at the mall and, really, at any retail location between now and December 25.
Personally I was tiring of the simple ("Stop shopping!") message ("Stop shopping!") repeated ("Stop shopping!") ad nauseam. Mercifully, the film then delves a bit more into Reverend Billy's personal life and background. We see his philosophy put into action when he actually shops (!) for a sweater in a small town in Iowa. That quiet interlude with a beleaguered merchant, surrounded by Wal-Marts on either side of town, was extremely effective in showing the consequences of shopping without thinking. ("Do you want low prices or high wages?") Reverend Billy explains his desire to buy only what's made in America; his devoted wife ("I fell in love with Bill before there was a Reverend Billy") subsequently explains in a phone interview with a reporter that, while it's not easy, they try to buy local products that will feed back into the local economy. Unfortunately, the rest of the call is cut off, and that's as much of Reverend Billy's own personal shopping philosophy we see in the film.
We're also told some of the consequences for foreign workers, subjected to horrible working conditions and working for pennies an hour, because Americans in general are too lazy to care about where their goods are made. As a side point, I wonder if the current concern about Chinese-made toys will make consumers any more conscious of this problem in general?
Director VanAlkemade previously made Preacher with an Unknown God, a short film about Reverend Billy, and he obviously has great empathy for the cause against rampant consumerism. (He was one of the people hospitalized due to the serious traffic accident.) Reverend Billy's followers, as a group, appear to be genuinely interested in spreading the word, and back up their words (and songs) with actions. When their bus is involved in a highway accident and several are hospitalized, the group can't wait to get back on the road and continue their tour. Reverend Billy has reportedly been arrested dozens of times yet displays no hesitation about charging forth, even as his wife questions the effectiveness of his methods. When he's hopped up and excited, he looks a bit crazy-eyed, but in his quieter moments, he comes across as sincere, gentle and kind.
The film does a delicate dance around the religious aspects of Christmas. Reverend Billy never opens a Bible or refers to any specific religious teachings in the film; instead, he encourages parents to think about how they can gift their children with their time and similar homilies. Other interviewees, however, express their view that Christmas has become a secular holiday whose god is Visa (or MasterCard or Discover or American Express). Christmas is the holiday that provokes the greatest amount of spending, so I suppose that's why it becomes the focus of the film. That, and the fact that Reverend Billy's tour starts in New York as the Christmas shopping season begins in earnest and ends in Disneyland on Christmas. The basic "slow down and think about your shopping" message applies year-round, though.
As a documentary, I wish the scatter-shot approach had been more focused. As it is, What Would Jesus Buy? is entertaining, but there's plenty of room where more informative material and constructive suggestions could have been slipped into place rather than simply demonizing consumerism and all shopping. After all, it's not all shopping, it's too much or the wrong kind of shopping that creates problems, isn't it?
Still, my sympathies lie entirely with Reverend Billy. His secular gospel, dressed as it is in religious garb, might cause offense to some, but I think many will recognize themselves among the interview subjects. With "Black Friday" looming and the entire advertising world shouting "Spend! Spend! Spend!", a few choruses of "What Would Jesus Buy?" couldn't be more timely.