Preaching to the Buyer

After 10 years of skewering conspicuous consumption, Reverend Billy (aka Bill Talen) and his Church of Stop Shopping are branching out. The Stop Shopping flock still mounts its trademark absurdist performances in chain stores and shopping malls, but the Reverend Billy ministry is acquiring new dimensions. A self-titled CD of sermons and gospel numbers was released last May—and banned from all Wal-Mart stores. A documentary short, Preacher With an Unknown God, screened at Sundance in January. And Start Your Stop Shopping Church, a how-to book co-authored with Talen’s partner and Church Director Savitri Durkee, is due out from Soft Skull later this year. Heeb spoke with the good reverend as he was recuperating from a month-long tour across America with the Stop Shopping Choir.Â
Why did you decide to take your message to the heartland on this latest tour?

This year was a sort of tipping point—the hurricanes, the war. We felt we’ve got to go out into America and into the teeth of the shopping frenzy and do what we can, sing and preach in the big-box parking lots, confront people and try to get local media to discuss it. One of the really encouraging things was the questioning that went on, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Des Moines Register and so on, of this system of privatizing everything. Consumerism is a distinct way of life that persuades its participants—its consumers—that it’s completely normal.

One could argue that it’s limiting to locate political rebellion in personal, individual lifestyle choices. Do you think there’s a ceiling on what can be accomplished by urging people to change their own habits?

We’re often working not with individuals but with community defense groups. Some of these little groups defending themselves against Starbucks or Wal-Mart or some supermall, they get isolated. They get really tired. It’s good to go and sing for them and parade up and down their streets a little bit.

How did you come to take on the persona of a Christian cleric? Being a theater person, I was going around Times Square asking myself, ‘Where’s the theater here? Where’s the voice coming into public space, arguing on behalf of an idea in a dramatic way?’ So I came up with the idea of the street preacher. Now I’ve read the writing of other people about Reverend Billy who have pointed out the history of appropriating the enemy’s iconography. Transnational corporations are far more fundamentalist than Jerry Falwell. They have power like the Roman Catholic Church had during the Holy Roman Empire, when you had to purchase heaven. Now heaven is some sort of product life that a happy celebrity is demonstrating for you, with gleaming teeth and sexual success and prestige and wealth; you’re supposed to go to that utopia by way of paying…. The fundamentalism of the big multinationals is based on postmodern mimicry. They mimic democracy. Starbucks successfully mimics avant-garde bohemian rebellion.

So many Americans are fundamentalists because the rituals and symbols are powerful, and your project recognizes that.

You’re absolutely right. And that’s the surprise. The mimicry of the right-wing figure, that’s sort of a joke that we share, but we break the frame of that joke within seconds at the beginning of our fabulous worship. Then we’re onto something that’s still funny, but there’s a serious in the funny. At the last St. Mark’s Church Fun-Worship before tour, we baptized nine babies, wishing for them the power to live unmediated lives. We had 400 people there…. No matter how hip I am, no matter how educated and post-religious-culture I am, I’ve got this question: This amazing life, what is it? I have no idea. This is another way in which the consumerized life is fundamentalist. It pretends that it’s answering that question. You buy this product, you’re taken care of. Life and death are unexplained to those of us who are not fundamentalists. I think we should keep it that way. But that question—what a gift that is.

What do you think?

About The Author

Josh became an editor-at-large after accruing exorbitant legal fees as the publisher of Heeb in his efforts to trademark the word "irreverent." Follow him on Twitter @joshuaneuman.

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