Activist Asks, 'What Would Jesus Buy?'

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Author Bill Talen, aka "The Rev. Billy," heads the Church of Stop Shopping — a gospel performance group trying to help "save" Americans from what he considers destructive materialism. Tallen and his group are featured in a new documentary called What Would Jesus Buy?

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

So do you really need that latte? What about that extra pair of shoes you just both? America is a nation of consumers. Author and activist Bill Talen, aka the Reverend Billy, thinks he knows what to do about that. He heads the Church of Stop Shopping. It's actually a gospel performance group trying to save Americans from what he considers a destructive materialism. He and the group are featured in a new documentary called "What Would Jesus Buy?" which follows their trip across the country to Disneyland. It was produced by Morgan Spurlock. Bill Talen joined us now in our studio along with Savitri Durkee, director of the Church of Stop Shopping. Thanks for being here.

Mr. BILL TALEN (Author): Amen.

Ms. SAVITRI DURKEE (Director, Church of Stop Shopping): Thanks for having us.

Mr. TALEN: Thanks for having us here, Sister Michel.

MARTIN: Okay, Bill Talen. Let's clear this up, Bill, You're not an ordained minister.

Mr. TALEN: Well, we have a service and we have a congregation. I'm trying to be of service to the people who come to the service.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. TALEN: Amen. I'll change - alleluia.

Ms. DURKEE: In the United States, we have a long tradition of self-proclaimed ministers in America, as I'm sure you know.

MARTIN: Okay. But are you licensed to perform marriages?

Mr. TALEN: We do weddings, baptisms, and funerals.

Ms. DURKEE: And in the city of New York, Bill Talen is officially a registrant of the city. He can perform marriages and sign marriage licenses there.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, that's interesting. All right. So what made you want to do this film?

Mr. TALEN: I asked myself - both Savitri and I are from the theater world and asked myself, well, who is shouting about the destruction of this neighborhood, who is raising their voice, and turned around and found that theater was not. My home art from had been turned into these converted Hollywood movies that could be staged and merchandised, "Footloose," "The Lion King," and so forth. I noticed the sidewalk preachers. They were raising their voices, and I might not have liked what they were saying, you're going to go to hell. But, boy, I started listening to how they were saying it, the instrument, which is an old, you know, American verbal instrument. The talking, singing of preaching. It's right there with gospel blues. It's a way of lifting the voice. And fell in love with it, basically. I wasn't at that time and am not now an active doctrinaire Christian, but I really got over my own defenses and started going to many kinds of church services.

MARTIN: Savitri, was the choir your idea?

Ms. DURKEE: The choir…

MARTIN: You actually have a very complete choir, which is actually very well choreographed.

Ms. DURKEE: We have a 35-voice choir and a seven-piece band. And I joined, I guess, around 2000 as a director.

MARTIN: So your message is both (unintelligible) - you go out and deliver the message to people who don't necessarily want to hear it and you also have shows or performances to which you invite people. What's your core message?

Mr. TALEN: Stop shopping. Slow down your consumption and there's some sort of reward for you. Save your neighborhood against bad development, against super malls.

Ms. DURKEE: We want people to reexamine their relationship to purchasing things. We want people to stop and think while they're shopping. We want to say, where do those things come from? Who made them? What is the story and the life of that product? What is the narrative included there? And how do you relate to it and what does it mean about you if you're going spend your money on a sweatshop product?

MARTIN: Every issue has two sides, like every coin has two sides.

Mr. TALEN: Amen.

MARTIN: And there are two sides to the issue of consumerism. On the one hand, many people, you know, argue that Americans have the highest standard of living in the world, in part because of the consumer culture, because you can get a lot of products at very low cost in ways that people around the world dream about. Okay. So how do you decide that what you're railing against is really the enemy?

Mr. TALEN: We find in the last couple of years, especially since the hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, we find that lots of Americans, lots of people certainly in our audiences, are shifting, asking themselves what is prosperity, what is being well-off because it seems as if there's been a trade off in which we destroy our environments. We're sitting in traffic jams with iPods in our orifices talking to the dashboard waiting to get to a big box to buy something that's like a buck cheaper than something that was sold back in our neighborhood by mom and pop store. We have traded off.

MARTIN: But some of these mom and pop stores were employing kids who could have been in school, not paying them particularly well, keeping them, you know, home from playing basketball and they would rather be doing something else. Now they are offering health insurance to their employees so…

Ms. DURKEE: Well, I think that an economy needs to be diverse. I mean, let's face that. Just like everything else, just like any ecosystem, it needs to be diverse. You can't just have transnational capital in the neighborhood. You need to have all kinds of stores there.

MARTIN: I'm talking to Reverend Billy and Savitri Durkee, director of the Church of Stop Shopping, here in the studio. The film focuses a lot about the effects of consumerism on individuals. Let's play a clip.

(Soundbite of documentary "What Would Jesus Buy?")

Unidentified Child #1: For Christmas, I want a disposable cell phone.

Unidentified Child #2: Xbox 360, (unintelligible).

Unidentified Child #3: A Nintendo DS for Christmas. And all the kids, I've talked to them about, and this year I want so much.

MARTIN: Why is this anything bigger than parents saying no? Kids can want whatever they want, I mean, you know, I want to be queen of France but at some point it's just no.

Ms. DURKEE: I don't know why it's such a dilemma for people to say no. I think, you know, there's a woman who talks in the film about how she grew up and how she wants her kids to have name-brand things, and there's a whole really complex sort of class striving and also that goes on in product life, you know. What it means to have a Gap clothing or - and, you know, those again are personal choices and hard for people to break through or understand how we shop is not necessarily (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Well, hold on here. Hold on here. There's a list of question that I have here. Is there a part - I mean, this film looks very joyous in a lot of ways. It's got a lot exuberance.

Mr. TALEN: Amen.

MARTIN: People are very - look at how the people are very, you know, they're doing - that you're letting them talk. You're letting them say what they want to say.

Mr. TALEN: (Unintelligible)

MARTIN: But is there a piece this that's a little holier than thou, like you two have figured that out and everybody else should just do what you want?

Mr. TALEN: Oh, that's the end of…

Ms. DURKEE: No.

Mr. TALEN: …our kind of activism. In our church, we're all sinners. We're all struggling with shopping and we all forgive everyone ahead of time.

MARTIN: Bill Talen, aka the Reverend Billy. Savitri Durkee, director of the Church of Stop Shopping. Thank you so much for joining us here in the studio today.

Ms. DURKEE: Thank you.

Mr. TALEN: Thank you, sister Michel.

MARTIN: And you can learn more about Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping by visiting our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore. His new book and the new documentary are both called "What Would Jesus Buy?"

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