What Would Jesus Buy?

I had originally drafted a post about Rob VanAlkemade’s documentary, What Would Jesus Buy? (IMDB), about Bill “Reverend Billy” Talen, the Elvis-meets-Jimmy Swaggert evangelist for the Church of Stop Shopping, last night, but for some reason, I could never quite wrap my head around what the documentary was trying to do or what might be worth discussing about the film, and then, after reading the A.V. Club’s list of the 16 worst movies of 2007, I realized that I wasn’t alone in having a tepid response to the film.

As this 2000 New York Times profile indicates, Reverend Billy’s 1960s-style activism with its reclamation of public spaces through performances in shopping malls and chain coffeehouses (including an exorcism at Walmart’s headquarters), would seem to be out-of-place today, but after observing the consumer frenzy at several local shopping malls here in Atlanta, I’m becoming more convinced that the “Shopocalypse” is upon us and that it’s worth raising these questions about the effects of our current consumer culture. I’m especially aware of this experience after seeing my mom return home from work at a mall anchor store, often after midnight, exhausted from dealing with customers, dodging traffic, and so on (in fact, I gave up on buying a shirt or two that I actually needed relatively immediately because lines at the store were too intimidating).

And I do think that Reverend Billy’s brand of activism, which includes the promotion of buying locally, is worth thinking about, but like the folks at the A.V. Club, I’m just not convinced that VanAlkemade did anything terribly insightful with this material. VanAlkemade follows Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping choir across the country on their U.S. tour, watching as they stage events in local shopping malls and providing some perfunctory background information on Talen’s history as a performance artist. But every time the film moves towards making an insight about why we buy (ideologies of expressing affection through purchases, overly abundant credit, etc) and the effects of how we buy (destruction of the environment, massive credit card debt), it lurches in an entirely new direction, ultimately making What Would Jesus Buy? feel surprisingly superficial.

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