Jesus Not Lining Up for Holiday Sales

A new documentary, What Would Jesus Buy?, charts the American compulsion to buy, buy, buy — and the countercultural movement to stop it.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

So today is traditionally known as Black Friday, a day of frenzied sale hunting to kick off the holiday shopping season. But for others, it's buying-nothing day, a call to put the credit cards down. It's a gospel promoted in a new documentary featuring Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir.

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

Mr. BILL TALEN (Actor): (As Reverend Billy) We are here today 28 days before Christmas…

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. TALEN: …that's behind so many layers of billboards and supermodels looking down at us in their Christmas lingerie, billboards covered with fake Dickensian gingerbread lattes. They're beating each other up at the cash register in the supermalls. I think I know what they're doing. I have some compassion there. Some part of me feels pretty violent right now about Christmas.

PESCA: Rob Alkemade is the director of the docu-comedy "What Would Jesus Buy?" about that guy, Reverend Billy. It's put out by some of the same folks who brought you "Supersize Me." Hi, Rob. How are you?

Mr. ROB VAN ALKEMADE (Director, "What Would Jesus Buy?"): Good morning. I'm great. How are you doing?

PESCA: I'm good. Who is Reverend Billy?

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: Who is Reverend Billy? Wouldn't we all love to understand who Reverend Billy is. He…

MARTIN: Well, he's, you know…

PESCA: What do we - well, I didn't write - I didn't do two documentaries about him, so that's why I'm asking that.

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: I hear you. Well, we'll try to figure it out, I got to tell you, but Bill Talen is a actor-turned-activist-turned-preacher, and, many people would argue, a genuine preacher with a real church and a real calling. And he's in New York City, if you want to catch up with him today, he'll be at 59th and 5th at high noon.

PESCA: So Bill Talen plays this character Reverend Billy. Does he ever break character?

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: He does, indeed, break character. It's not always up to him whether he wants to or not. Sometimes he will become the preacher and sometimes the preacher will become Bill.

PESCA: And what's his motivation?

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: Well, like his sister says in an interview in the film, the message really did come before the character and now the character really has to defer to the message, and so what motivates Bill is his belief in what he's preaching.

PESCA: But, I mean, did he grow up with too much stuff? Is there that, you know, time in his life where a - he had lead paint on a toy and got sick. What was it?

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: He did grow up with - he gets fairly haunted by the father logo. He calls it the Mickey Mouse - the omnipresent Mickey Mouse, which would - sometimes it was his father's stern face, sometimes it was George Washington's face on the dollar bill. Yeah, so…

PESCA: Now, his message - are they a joke or do they think that - does he think this is the best way to confront people?

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: Well, it's the best way for him, and it is highly effective to a lot of folks. Of course, it's off-putting and confusing occasionally to people, and we certainly don't win over everybody with the film, although we seem to be making a tremendous amount of progress. And it is a highly effective and motivating and inspiring outfit for a lot of people.

PESCA: And we should mention that Reverend Billy has a bunch of books. "What Should I Do If Reverend Billy is in My Store?" available at Barnes & Noble.com. Reverend - that book also available on Amazon. "Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping" available on Tower.com. "What Should I do if Reverend Billy is in My Store," as I said, available on, oh, it looks like overstock.com. Hey, wait a minute, this brings to mind something.

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: (Unintelligible).

PESCA: He's selling a lot of his products.

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: Sure. If you go to RevBilly.com, I believe they urge you not to buy the book anywhere but eBay or, yeah, if you can buy it used, if you can get it at a local independent bookstore, for example. Yeah, that is seemingly hypocritical to have products out there. I guess, the lesser of two evils is what they go for. If they - if you have to make a product to get your message of buying less products out there and you make that product as carefully as you can; that's one of the ways to try to fight overconsumption.

PESCA: I do know that on Barnes & Noble.com, people who bought "What Should I Do If Reverend Billy is in My Store?" also bought "Chicken Soup for the Preaching Soul." Good to know.

What should you do if Reverend Billy is in your store? What did Starbucks do? What did Disney do?

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: Well, Starbucks banned Billy from every Starbucks in the state of California. He has a restrict - a ban from coming, I believe, within 200 feet of any Starbucks, which, I think, technically prohibits him from landing in Los Angeles.

PESCA: Well, what has he done - yeah, what does he done to Starbucks besides yelling at him and having his congregation chants, sings and singing things?

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: Well, the latest work on Starbucks was over there in Astroplace place when he was just actually arrested for trying to approach a Starbucks, and that was having to do with some beans in Ethiopia that Starbucks wasn't agreeing to allow a copyright on.

PESCA: Oh, the problem of two people and a multinational corporation don't amount to a hell of Ethiopian beans.

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: Mm. There you go.

PESCA: Is Billy saying stop shopping because he really just wants us to think about it or does he really want us to stop shopping?

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: Oh, yeah, like we say in the film, certainly no one can actually stop shopping, but what they hope for is that you simply ask a few questions about your next purchase. Do I need this thing? Do I actually really want it? Where did it come from? What's the story behind the product? Where are the labor rights and human rights behind that product? That's why Disney comes up in the film. What's going to happen to this product when I'm through with it?

PESCA: And in fact that the - if people literally listen to him, the fact that the economy would basically collapse and plunge people into unemployment, Billy would say, well, it's not going to happen, and they're not literally going to do it. Would that be his defense?

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: Well, you know, it's not just a Reverend Billy documentary. We spoke to a whole lot of specialists about a lot of these topics. One of the folks I talked to in our preproduction was a Nobel-winning economist who said it's crazy, actually, to rely on this incredible spike at the end of the year. Any economist would tell you, if you had a choice between a reliable, regular economy and one that's relying on a spike at the end of the year, it's much safer to go for the regular and reliable.

PESCA: All right, Rob Van Alkemade is the director of "What Would Jesus Buy?" -playing in select cities and nationwide throughout the holidays. Thank you, Rob.

Mr. VAN ALKEMADE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Stay with us. We're going to talk about lurking - Internet lurking that is.

We're also going to talk about Marvel's comics online.

This THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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