Americans spend a half trillion dollars on Christmas. 60% of them carry more than $13,000 in credit card debt. Friday I went to the Seattle opening of What Would Jesus Buy? – a documentary movie by Morgan Spurlock that follows Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on a month-long road trip to spread the message that this behavior is insane.
Bill Talen is an actor who noticed that the people who get away with standing in public spaces complaining loudly about the state of the world are preachers. He already owned a white caterer’s jacket because he worked at a restaurant, so he bought a collar and the character Reverend Billy was born. The movie follows him through a series of visits to such hallowed consumer shrines as the Mall of America, Walmart headquarters, and Disneyland, preaching the message that we should consider taking back the season and shopping less – instead giving gifts like spending time with our families. The choir rocks down with some really great gospel tunes, adapting the lyrics of many familiar Christmas carols.
The movie raises some important questions about determinism and free will, like whose idea is all of this shopping, really? In one scene a teenager explains with great sincerity how important it is to wear the right labels so people will think you’re a better person. Then she goes on to tell the interviewer that advertising doesn’t have any effect on her because, “I already want that stuff.”
In another scene, a young mother tells us how she maxes out credit cards as soon as offers arrive in the mail and hides the debt from her husband so her kids can have all of the stuff they could ever want for Christmas – something she was never able to have.
Billy and the choir are repeatedly escorted out of stores, malls and theme parks by private security guards who are in the employ of one corporation or another. While it’s certainly the right of private property owners to disallow behavior they find harmful, the movie makes the excellent point that in many places these privately controlled commercial spaces have become our commons. People either spend their time at individual residences or go to shopping malls and other commercially owned space. Therefore it means that free speech is often no longer allowed in our public gathering places.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing this movie and was expecting it to be funny, outrageous and probably informative. I didn’t necessarily expect to find it as inspirational as I did. The creativity and passion that this group of actors and musicians brings to the problem of consumerism reminded me why I write this blog.
As I’ve explained before, the fact that attracting prey is normal behavior in most ecosystems doesn’t do any good for the prey! I see our time and attention increasingly interrupted, fragmented, and colonized by predators who are determined to skew our behavior toward their own objectives. The latest issue of Adbusters (No. 75) claims that we see 5,000 ads a day. 5,000 times that my attention is interrupted and drawn to someone else’s persuasive message!! I think that’s a problem. I think it at least distracts us from our implementing own priorities as effectively as we could. More likely, it changes those priorities – sometimes profoundly.
Reverend Billy and I have chosen really different ways to go about delivering it but our core message is very similar – Take Back Your Brain!, and with it, your life and your holiday!