The film, which focuses on the activist performance group known as Reverend Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping, is also available on Netflix and other outlets and is especially timely, given the fact that we have in this country become so immersed in the commercialization of Christmas and all those dollars we simply have to spend in our shopping malls.
The first thing that strikes you about Reverend Billy, with his bleached, Elvis-like mane and white suit and trackpants, is that he leads a wacky band of misfits, and probably some reject choir members he found somewhere along the way, and also the beat-up bus that carries them around the country, eager to sing their message and work on the bundled up masses that have just parked their cars in the mall lots.Initially you may think this guy is just another lunatic, and the filmmaker certainly gets a lot of humor from the Reverend and his pontifications, let alone the red-cheeked housewives and ordinary folk that seem a little surprised by their appearance.
You also think this sure is some country that allows peaceful (relatively) demonstrations to take place in public places, with police close by, all because the Reverend has a message he wants all of us to hear. Plainly it is this: we are a nation of excessive shoppers, a mass who furiously lives beyond its means, a country that spends more than five hours a week on average shopping compared to a little more than an hour at church. This country used to be one of producers and savers and now we have gone beneath a negative savings rate. The fact that we have gone through this miserable recession, a housing crisis, record home foreclosures and bank meltdowns is no coincidence. Rev. Billy might even say this is something that was meant to happen.
But there are some sobering images and truths behind all the funny moments in this film. The statistics just mentioned are bad enough, and it’s a fact that we have become a debtor country, consumed by being consumers. We may laugh at the young girl, probably 5 or 6, who has a room full of toys, as she lights up when she opens up her gigantic Barbie playhouse for Christmas because that’s what she saw on TV and pleaded with her parents to get, or the down-on-her luck woman in Times Square declare that “I don’t care if I go broke. I have to have these toys for my kids”. The point of our useless and excessive consumption, evidenced by the multitude of jump-cut ads and news reports in the film, is rather clear. And I am sure there are far more important causes in the world besides excessive consumption for the good Reverend to be worried about about: hunger and poverty for one —er, two.
But the real point, I think, is that we have also let these indulgences and mindless spending get the best of us. A lot of attention is paid to the fact that we expect these things, that we grow up and never truly learn from what we are doing and we are loathe to upset people we love by telling them that we don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on big ticket items, like the skinny homeboy who decides he has to “floss” with expensive tire rims.
I do think there is some truth in this kind of institutionalization of thinking. It’s simply in our culture to spend more than we make, and this season seems to bring out the worst in us. All Reverend wants is to make his point heard, and he has been on CNN, Fox News and he has been able to get the publicity that is yet another hallmark of our voyeuristic culture. He comes off as a crackpot but if you peel back a bit, then look at the contents of your shopping bag or remains of your bank account, you’d see that he is really trying anything to drive home his point.
Why, for example, do we not think about what we buy or how much we spend on this, the most important of all holidays, the most commercial of them all? We also need to look at the corporations like Wal Mart that feed these materialistic habits into us, at the very same time that they are profiting so much from underpaying their non-union workers but not caring about the 13 cents an hour it takes a worker in Bangladesh to produce one of their pieces of clothing. See, it’s all related. It’s not just us that consume, but we then become part of a desperate cycle that envelops everyone into spending more (us), paying less (the company), and in the reckless whirlpool of all this, the evil corporations profit more than we can ever imagine. And we condone this by heading to these shopping malls.
The most sickening sight in “What Would Jesus Buy” is to see what money really can buy: another Reverend, Andrew Young, former Ambassador to the UN, now shilling as an advocacy group called “Working Families for WalMart”, actually do the very opposite of what the other Reverend is doing –equating WalMart with Jesus. He states, “Jesus said, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick. There are more people being fed by WalMart than any government in the world.:
This is the mindlessness that the film gets right. At the same time that it points to a merry band of slightly-off people with legitimate concerns about how we are slaves to consumerism, we have the voice of idiots who are eager to protect the image of what a megacorporation like Wal Mart does for the world, and thus preserve our image of what it means to buy, buy and buy. We are the problem and so is WalMart, and so is Disney, whose Disneyland in Anaheim forms the climax of this film. (This is after they have descended on the Bentonsville, AR headquarters of WalMart, befuddling a portly security guard).
So as we await the arrival of Santa Claus tonight, and contemplate all the waste from the torn wrapping paper tomorrow morning at Grandma’s house, and the countless toys and gadgets that we may or may not need, it’s worth noting that we can still go through this most sacred of holidays and not be all that concerned with what spending really means. This doesn’t necessarily make us lesser or more unacceptable people. What this film reminds us is that humor can at the very least get our attention and make us aware of those inequalities that still linger in our society: the end of small-town America and concomitant explosion of big-box stores; the lives that have been affected by unemployment and recession and the jobs that have been sent overseas.
Yes, this does have a link to the Barbie dollhouse, and the apparent need for the little spoiled girl to have it this Christmas. We are all, at some point, this little girl. And unless we take a moment to appreciate what we have and not forget the proverb, “There but for the grace of God go I”, we may one day find ourselves asking some very tough questions about our lives.
And what about Reverend Billy and his choir? They are still traipsing around the country, taking their gospel to a shopping mall or big box store near you. (Go to www.revbilly.com for more information. In the meantime, catch “What Would Jesus Buy?” especially during this mad rush of shopping, or, well, you know, you all probably have a little extra spare time this time of year.
Finally, from all of us at SMASHgods, we want to wish you and yours a most wonderful –and not necessarily all that consumptive—holiday, in the company of your family and friends!