The Non-Fiction Section: “What Would Jesus Buy?”

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December 22, 2010 by abbyo

It’s December 22. With three days until Christmas, now’s the time that you either sit back and enjoy the knowledge that you’ve taken care of everyone on your gift list, or sit up with the sudden realization that you’ve forgotten someone (or something). The season is a time of whirlwind consumption, when we’re so driven by a need to give big and give expensively that we often forget that the holiday is, in fact, religiously-based, and not necessarily about giving gifts at all.

The documentary “What Would Jesus Buy” is an attempt to get people to re-think their approach to gift giving, or at the very least think before they buy. It tells the story of “Reverend Billy” (real name Bill Talen) and his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir as they embark on a national tour during the holidays, bringing their message of responsible consumerism to the masses. It’s a noble crusade, led by interesting characters, all dressed up in the trappings of old-time evangelical worship. The fact that the “gospel” Talen and co. preach isn’t shown to be terribly religious at all is a little troubling. The film becomes less about the holiday itself, or a set of religious convictions, and more about why we should avoid consuming. It’s an important message, to be sure, but one that’s hardly unique.

Director Rob VanAlkemade uses the story of Reverend Billy and his choir to speak to a larger message of the evils of consumerism and big corporations, ala “The Corporation” and “Super Size Me,” whose director, Morgan Spurlock, produced “What Would Jesus Buy.” VanAlkemade switches between scenes from Reverend Billy’s Shopocolypse Tour and scenes of American families buying Christmas presents and talking about their debt, as well as talking heads, including activists and one or two prominent religious leaders. The catalyst for Christmas, as much as it is for Reverend Billy’s tour, is that the holiday season is the time of year when Americans spend most, the time when the message of spending less and giving more is needed most urgently.

But where VanAlkemade misses (and misses by a mile, in my opinion), is making his documentary issues-focused instead of character-focused. Bill Talen, his wife Savitri and his choir are all really interesting people, and I wanted to know what led them to create and take part in the crusade. Savitri, in particular, seems so much more grounded than the charismatic Talen that I wanted to know more about how she felt about her husband’s work, or if the touring and demonstrating was ever a strain on their relationship. We get a few moments of insight into Talen’s home life, but not enough to really explain the man or his beliefs. He seems so curious, and his cause is so easy to get behind that it feels like surely by getting to know him and the members of the Stop Shopping Choir audiences could easily connect to the message VanAlkemade was trying to send.

The belief thing is another sticking point. As far as I can tell, Talen isn’t an ordained pastor. He refers to God as the “Fabulous Unknown.” He mentions Jesus as being the reason for Christmas only once, and even then doesn’t mention him by name. He never speaks about his actual religious beliefs, or if his work has any basis in those beliefs. His dramatic credit card “exorcisms” and blessings, therefore, would seem to be an act, done in the service of spreading his message. While I’m all for getting people’s attention, it bothered me to see things that I consider to be important to the life of the Church treated so lightly, mostly done for the amusement of the audience. That sense of direct correlation between the observance of Christmas as a religious holiday and the celebration of Christmas in its secular sense doesn’t really come up much in the non-Reverend Billy scenes, either. There is one quote, from an unseen, unnamed talking head that makes a really good point about Jesus confronting the moneychangers in the temple, but it’s fleeting. There are some interviews with a few pastors, but none of them speak much about the religious implications, either.

I understand that perhaps VanAlkemade isn’t a churchgoing man, and his aim was simply to make a documentary on ugly consumerism in America, a message for which Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir are a compelling catalyst. But there are plenty of movies out there telling people why they should be conscientious shoppers. We have “The Corporation” and the movies of Michael Moore to tell us those things, and for the most part, they preach to the choir (pun intended), folks like Talen and his fellow activists. The message that everyone (including practicing Christians) loses the meaning of Christmas amid all the shopping, and that a commitment to support local economies and fair labor is as much a part of Christianity as it is part of being a citizen of the world could have made “What Would Jesus Buy” accessible to a whole new audience, one that would likely have taken that message to heart. As it is, it’s just another cheeky, clever political documentary that means well, but ultimately doesn’t reach very far.

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