Rev. Billy wants to exorcise the demon of consumerism from the Christmas season, one of the rare socio-theological intersections where lefty progressives and devout churchgoers can agree.
Now all he has to do is convince the remaining several hundred million Americans. To that end, he has taken to invading the temples of commerce, choir in tow, exhorting shoppers to stop spending and begin giving gifts of personal attention, acts of charity and love.
As you might guess, he gets arrested a lot.
In the documentary "What Would Jesus Buy?" Rev. Billy (the alias of Minnesota-born, New York-based performance artist Bill Talen) slips on a clerical collar, teases his peroxide-bright pompadour to celestial heights, and takes his act on the road. From Times Square to the Mall of America to Disneyland, he and his crimson-robed acolytes preach the gospel of the Church of Stop Shopping and warn of the coming Shopocalypse.
While anyone familiar with impulse purchases, overspending and buyer's remorse will find much of his anti-materialist message familiar, Talen's knack for street-corner theatrics gives the point an entertaining bounce. The film, produced by Morgan Spurlock ("Supersize Me") and directed by Rob VanAlkemade, ventures briefly into serious territory. It introduces us to shopaholics who have filled their houses and emptied their bank accounts, and reminds us that the average American's personal savings rate is negative, the worst household financial condition since the Great Depression.
Most of the film is upbeat, however, as Rev. Billy and his pranksters spread the epiphany that love is not expressed best by buying material goods. He's upbeat and energetic, as far from a Grinch or a Scrooge as a man could be. And yet he's still ejected from Disneyland ("The Happiest Place on Earth"), the Mall of America and Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. (There's also a restraining order prohibiting him from entering any Starbucks in California.)
While Rev. Billy's act parodies the rites and forms of organized religion (he sets up a street-corner "confessional" where shopping addicts can repent their sins), he ends up honoring its spirit. When he takes his singers a-caroling in a mansion district, the homeowners are delighted by the reminder that the holidays used to be holy days. In a mock baptism of an infant at a strip mall, Talen appears to be almost tearfully moved by the child's innocence, and the parents welcome his blessing.
His initial message is about consumerism and debt, but in the end he's just as concerned about spiritual bankruptcy. Fake collar or not, he makes a pretty good preacher. *