A prophetic documentary preaches a message that should be coming from the church.
Last winter Pastor Dave Swanson was Out or Ur’s man on the street at the Sundance Film Festival. His reports sparked an excellent discussion about the impact of films on culture and theology. Swanson is back with a review of a new documentary about the evils of consumerism, and he wonders—why isn’t the church preaching about this?
The film raises important questions, but first a bit of context. Bill Talen was born into a Dutch Calvinist family in the Midwest. After moving to the west coast to pursue acting, Talen developed the Reverend Billy character before relocating to New York City where the character would reach maturity. While other street preachers were condemning the sex shops in Times Square, the Reverend Billy was using his pulpit to preach against consumerism.
Eventually his combination of street performance, activism, and evangelistic zeal attracted enough of a following to loosely form the Church of Stop Shopping complete with an energetic gospel choir. This is where the film picks up the story.
Director Rob VanAlkemade follows the Church of Stop Shopping as they pile into two buses for a cross-country tour of music, protest, and their unique and often hilarious stop-shopping gospel. Because the tour takes place in the frantic days leading up to Christmas, the tour’s message takes on greater poignancy.
To be clear, Reverend Billy’s “church” does not believe everyone in America should completely stop shopping. Rather, their hope is that the songs and lively message will cause shoppers to question the quantity and necessity of their purchases. Other important themes for the tour are rising consumer debt, the slow demise of small towns, the affect of our consumption on the developing world, and America’s “death by consumption.”
As a film, What Would Jesus Buy? is very well done. VanAlkemade is excellent at pulling together a compelling story from what must have been an unconventional filming experience. Halfway through the documentary, Reverend Billy’s wife collapses on a hotel bed and wonders aloud whether they are making a difference. Has even one person scaled back his purchasing because of the Church of Stop Shopping? It’s a tender moment, and one that every minister can relate to. By contrasting scenes like these with news footage of frenzied shoppers maxing out their credit cards, VanAlkemade effectively draws us into his story.
Beyond providing a great viewing experience, What Would Jesus Buy? raises a number of questions that are still rattling around in my head.
How is it that the Reverend Billy, who places himself outside the Christian faith, is one of the most intriguing and possibly prophetic voices regarding the affects of rampant consumerism in our culture today? Shouldn’t the church in America be the one proclaiming this reality?
I also wondered about the title of the film given that it seldom refers to Christ. Over dinner after the film one friend suggested that the title was a shrewd marketing tool. I wonder if the producers are tapping into a cultural sentiment regarding the disconnect between the person of Christ and the often disappointing behavior of his church. It was not accidental that this documentary was filmed and released in the weeks prior to Christmas, a time we imagine to be about hope and expectation but which is often characterized by stress and consumer remorse.
Finally, could the occasionally abrasive, often humorous, sometimes profane, and generally earnest Reverend Billy have something to teach those of us who lead within our churches? There is much that his “church” proclaims that many us of would agree with, much they preach against that we too find appalling about our consumer culture. We are followers of Jesus, the one who taught, “Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes… Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out” (Luke 12). Have we traded this aspect of discipleship for comfort and cultural esteem? If so, perhaps our first response to the colorful Reverend Billy is to thank God that someone has the courage to speak prophetically to a society desperately in need of an alternative way of living.David Swanson is the associate pastor of Parkview Community Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.