Taking on Christmas Consumerism

One "reverend" and filmmaker wonders if holiday consumerism has gone too far.

January 5, 2009, 6:37 PM

Dec. 4, 2007 — -- Feeling the stress of Christmas shopping yet? Made your list and checked it twice?

Despite predictions of a downturn in the economy, Americans are expected to spend about $475 billion on Christmas this year, and be half way to next Christmas before they've paid it off. For example, take Minnesota's mammoth Mall of America. Millions are expected to visit this shopping mecca during the holidays, all searching for the perfect gift.

But one man who won't be hitting the malls is Bill Talen. He's on a mission to put an end to what he says are the excesses of Christmas consumerism.

Talen is part activist, part performance artist, but this time of year, he takes on the full-time persona of his alter-ego: the Rev. Billy -- leader of the fictional Church of Stop Shopping. For the last 10 years, he's spent his holidays railing against the evils of consumerism. Despite his contrarian views, he insists he is not the Grinch.

"I think the commercial Christmas has become the Grinch," Talen said. "Polls indicate that most Americans now think of Christmas with dread rather than happy anticipation, and that is sad."

In a new movie provocatively titled "What Would Jesus Buy?" Talen, his wife, Savitra D, and the members of the Stop Shopping Choir travel cross-country to lead shoppers out of the "evils" of the mall and into the promised land of decreased consumerism.

"We decided to go out there for a month and just go into those traffic jams and preach to people," Talen said. "We call that traffic jamming, amen."

Talen's message and his acolytes are not exactly welcome everywhere credit cards are accepted. In the documentary, Talen gets kicked out of a Starbucks, performs an "exorcism" at Wal-Mart headquarters in Arkansas and gets arrested at a Disney store in Times Square. Talen estimates that his antics have gotten him arrested 40 to 50 times.

The film's producer, Morgan Spurlock -- who also produced (and ate his way through) the 2004 Oscar nominated film "Supersize Me" -- said Talen uses humor to make people think twice about their holiday shopping. "He uses the character of Rev. Billy to make us laugh and make us look at really important things," Spurlock said, adding that "if you can make somebody laugh, you can make somebody listen."

Talen is not a real preacher, and the members of his "choir" are volunteers with full-time day jobs. Talen said he created Rev. Billy and his colorful vocabulary when Times Square, his neighborhood at the time, was transformed from a seedy dive to a corporate wonderland. Times Square was always the "stonehenge" of product logos, he said. But the transformation a decade ago marked the beginning of what he describes rather dramatically as a type of apocalypse.

"The shop-apocalypse is when you run your life through products," Talen said. "It is when the voice in your ear is not your loved one, it is not your neighbor, it is product advertising to you to buy it."

Talen doesn't judge people for being wrapped up in consumerism. "We are all sinners in this church," he said, but believes it to be a "sickness" in society. "We are pummeled by advertisers right now; we are more consumers now than we are citizens," Talen said.

Taking corporate America to task doesn't make it easy to get your message out. Spurlock ran into trouble finding a distributor for the film.

"Distributors got scared because the movie talks about Disney, the movie talks about Wal-Mart," Spurlock said, adding that "Wal-Mart is 50 percent of the DVD market in the United States today."

Spurlock eventually raised money himself to distribute the movie and get it into theaters. Still, Spurlock said they're not trying to make people feel guilty about their Christmas shopping either.

"I mean, I think a lot of people feel…immense pressure," Spurlock said. "They're overwhelmed by the holidays…You know, 'I gotta find the perfect gift,' 'What do I get Mom,' 'Oh my gosh, my kids -- how am I gonna make them happy? They need so much stuff, they want so many things, what am I gonna do?'"

Ultimately, their message is not so much to stop shopping as it is to shop consciously, and locally. Talen admits that people do have to shop and want to give gifts. He said he just hopes that consumers will consider shopping at "mom and pop" stores, farmers' markets, on Craigslist, or maybe even making the gifts they give. Or something even simpler.

"We might have the very best gift that we could give a loved one just inside of ourselves," said Talen. "It might be a song, it might be time that we commit to spending with a loved one, especially a child."

So, thinking about the title of the movie, we asked Talen what he thinks Jesus would buy?

"We think he would -- if he were confronted by what we're confronted with, Christmas 2007 -- we think he would buy less and he would give more. Amen."

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