If you’ve ever walked the crowded streets of Times Square, you’ve surely heard the calls of men wearing finely pressed suits, waving their
arms, and making calls for salvation in this era of great moral peril. Times
Square is a congregating place for street preachers, naked cowboys, and
peddlers trying to save your soul, or squeeze your pocketbook, none of it
particularly shocking, or convincing. But if you’ve walked these same streets and heard warnings of the coming Shopacalypse it
may have given you pause, and as you listened closer you may have heard odd
lyrics being sung by a robed choir following a man in a white suit shouting, “Mickey Mouse is the Anti-Christ.”
In Time Square “shocking” is packaged and sold on street corners. So, it’s truly shocking to find an original voice selling a peace of mind you can’t buy. Meet Reverend Billy, a street preaching, anti-consumerism, performance
artist bringing the sermon to the streets (Amen).
Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir have been singing
and screaming the perils of over-spending, global warming, and frivolous
globalization for over a decade. The Reverend is a persona created by Billy
Talen that is equal parts activist, community organizer, performance artist,
and comedy shtick that has graced the pages of the New York Times, the screen
of CNN, and now the big screen with the new documentary What Would Jesus Buy?,
a film that follows the Rev and his choir on a country-wide tour trying to save
This all may be very confusing. After all, the Reverend is a new kind of
activist: Utilizing a classic televangelist and channeling an Elvis persona, he
has changed the way in which activism is perceived.
On a sunny June afternoon, with the country waiting for their rebate checks to
come in the mail with the instructions from the Bush administration to spend
early and often, I had the opportunity to chat with the Reverend by phone to
discuss his new Morgan Spurlock produced film, Activism in America, and the
need for a new kind of American preacher.
InDigest: The boilerplate question seems to always be, “Where did the Reverend come from?” But I’m curious--what was it like the first time you took the Reverend persona out
into the streets?
Reverend Billy: It was kind of a lonely feeling. Lonely and scary. I went to
Times Square where the sidewalk preachers traditionally practice. There they
were, near me. I was in front of the Disney Store. I planted my pulpit there.
I did have some preparation. I did have some camaraderie. I had a teacher. An
elder named Sydney Lanier. Reverend Lanier. He had been the vicar years ago in
an Episcopal Church. When I came to New York he sort of came with me from
California. He got me a job at his old church. I don’t think we talk actively about sidewalk preaching; I think we talked about
pulpit preaching and we talked about pastoring, about different traditions. He
always argued that there needs to be a new kind of American preacher. We need
to invent a new kind of American preacher. He had been a friend of Lenny Bruce;
he had been in that world of Manhattan during the 50s and 60s. People that we
think of as being post-religious preachers, he had been a friend of theirs.
Especially Lenny Bruce, his name always came up. It was because I would say to
Sydney, “I don’t like the Christians very much; they beat me up when I was kid.” He would say, “Ah, but Jesus was not a Christian and Lenny Bruce was not a Christian. That’s not the point, being Christian is not the point. We want to turn society
upside down. We want to find a way to change people. How they perceive life and
society, and that changing of perception is something that a new kind of
American preacher could accomplish." For a long time I didn’t really believe him, gradually he pulled me into the project. I still call him
ID: What is the reaction from Christians? I imagine that in one sense they are
instantly attracted to the persona, and then sort of repulsed by it being
something other than what they expected. Do people find it offensive, or are
they able to see through the surface of a man acting as though he is a
RB: The attraction/repulsion principle? [laughs] That is one of the reactions
that all kinds of people have to the concept of a post-organized-religion
preacher, who adopts the costume of a late-night-Elvis-impersonating preacher,
but speaks directly to an issue that all the major religions speak to. There
are a lot of issues there. Savatri and I have found that Christians are buying
[What Would Jesus Buy?] in a greater amount than any other single demographic.
We’ve been invited to the Crossroads Christian film festival in Illinois, and the
City of Angels festival in LA. Savatri and Morgan Spurlock went there and they
spoke. There were some people who were upset by the iconography: Mother Mary
with sunglasses, baby Jesus with an iPhone, all that stuff. There are some
conservative Catholics who are upset. But, almost everyday we get e-mail from
someone from around the world, a Christian, who says I know you’re technically not Christians but my God is speaking through you. As the bible
says, Jesus just got upset once and that’s when he kicked the moneychangers out of the temple. And as you, Dustin, know,
I have anger issues.
ID: There are a lot of parallels with Jesus.
RB: [laughs] Lots. I use my anger issues to assault the logos. It’s complex. Number one: I think that there are people of every type who will find
reasons to become offended. Number two: Any real change, ever, always involves
offending a lot of people. You have to get used to that.
We have such an emergency right now and most of it is tied to the American
consumer. The climate crisis, the war…we just destroy the neighborhoods and communities. The domination of super malls
and automobiles, sweatshops--we have sweatshop economies across the United
States, we have stores full of sweatshop goods. We’re at a point now where Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping are just
not that wacky. I’d say that a few years ago we were pretty strange to a lot of people. We started
to feel a lot of change around the time of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. You
remember the images: the oil barracks being turned over by the storm. The fact
that the storm was a weak storm coming over Florida and then it hit the Gulf of
Mexico, which is way too warm as a result of us, our consumption. The
privatizing of the relief efforts, and on and on, the eighteen SUV-wide traffic
jam of cars trying to flee Houston. There were a lot of images there where an
American would say, "Wait a minute, my purchasing of things has a consequence.
Wait a minute, how much plastic is in this thing that I bought, how often am I
getting in a car to go a short distance to buy something?" We felt a big shift
right then. Of course, by that time, we were already making the movie. That was
2005. We were in our two bio-diesel buses just a little less than three months
after Katrina. It was very much on our minds.
ID: Maybe I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. But I’ve seen a video online of a man in a Richard Nixon mask trying to protest an
appearance of yours at a bookstore.
RB: At first I thought he might kill me. [speaking to Savatri across the room]
When I was at C-SPAN in Cambridge, there was a man in a very realistic looking
Nixon mask protesting, he was…
ID: I think he brought you a tub of ice cream.
RB: He offered me some ice cream. Anyways.
ID: If I was to interpret his POV, he’s arguing the more that Americans spend, the more we are helping ourselves and
propelling our economy, as endorsed by the administration’s recent tax stimulus. What do you say to someone who responds this way to the
RB: We have defined shopping as evil, but the evil is specific, it’s big boxes and chain stores. We defend independent shops and single-family
organic farms. We defend economies that are not globalized. I know there has to
be some trading across the ocean, and there always will be. There is some
reason to have bigger companies. It’s just that the balance is so far gone now, the corporations have taken over,
and they are so dominant. More than half of the top 100 economies in the world
are corporations, not nations. They’re so dominant at this point that our congressman are corrupted, our regulatory
agencies are corrupted. We can’t operate independent businesses, because there is no resistance to this
juggernaut. We argue, yes, spend, but find a way to consciously shop. You pay
for something in a shop where you see the money you spend come back into your
community. With Wal-Mart more than half of the money you spend is mystery
money, you don’t know where it goes. In fact, Wal-Mart, the biggest donor of the Republican
Party, is a supporter of the war.
So, yeah, we have ideas for the rebate, we have a questionnaire on the website.
We call it rebate revival.
ID: Back to the film. How did this come about, with Morgan Spurlock producing,
and a pretty wide distribution deal?
RB: A mutual friend introduced us; we met in a bar. He blew us away with his
intention to make a film about us just after Morgan had made Supersize Me. We
said, “You know what? This is lightning striking, let’s just put everything else aside,” and we did and we worked on the film for three years. We’re really glad we did. We lost some battles, but we always had our hand in the
movie. We [Billy and Savatri] were two of the four people that made the movie:
the director, Rob Vanalkemade; Morgan, the producer; and Savi and I. Savi is
the director of the company, the choir and me, and I’m the character Reverend Billy, responsible for a lot of the text.
Morgan was very loyal. He had to raise money outside of the usual channels,
because we were taking on Wal-Mart in the movie and a lot of commercial outlets
were closed to us because of how radical the film was. But Morgan, by being an
Oscar-nominee, and having a hit movie, was able to raise very good money, and
at our peak we were up to 75 theaters. And now it’s out on DVD. It got a much bigger distribution than movies with this sort of
content usually get. We were very grateful.