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Monday, January 07, 2008

Reverend Billy

In the rush to head out of town just before Christmas, I didn't post about a cool event I went to: a screening of Reverend Billy's new documentary, What Would Jesus Buy? The film, produced by Morgan Spurlock (of Supersize Me fame), chronicles the efforts of anti-consumerism advocate Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir to push back against the frenzy of Christmas-season shopping.

Reverend Billy, if you've not heard of him, is a performance artist who is not technically a reverend, but does a pretty good job of pretending to be one (of the televangelist variety). Here he is on a talking head cable news program:

It's pretty hilarious stuff, much of the time. There's also a pretty serious message that is much broader than the attention-getting plea to stop shopping, including a critique of our economic system and a belief that how we relate to each other and the world has been perverted by consumerism. You can laugh at the method of delivery, but it's entertaining, and something this far on the fringes of popular discourse can't worm its way into the discussion without being a bit over the top.

Reverend Billy and his wife were present for a Q&A after the free screening sponsored by Sojourners (note, actual Christian group holding event based around a mock preacher!) Although I thought the movie was good (not quite excellent, but good), I particularly enjoyed hearing what they had to say. There's no doubt that they really believe in what they're doing, and they spoke very passionately about their message (Rev. Billy was mostly out of character, but slipped into it at a few moments). I don't buy into (heh) their entire message -- for instance, my own views on globalization are significantly more nuanced than theirs. But they were very effective in making an overarching, coherent argument about the things that make me uneasy about consumerism. I do think that, to some extent, our economic system has cultivated in each of us an unhealthy worldview that is just as all-encompassing as a religion, and that it has done so on such a basic, subconscious level that we don't even realize it. My own personal bugaboo has long been marketing, which often explicitly sets out to create a worldview centered around products (and, perniciously, convincing you that your life is not complete, that you won't be accepted by the group, etc. if you don't participate). And given that the industries making and marketing products have thousands (millions?) of people who work full time to figure out how to most effectively influence us, and we experience all these messages without possibly having the time to think critically about all of them, it's really asymmetric psychological warfare. (For evidence, see this terrifying blog, which basically boils down to a catalog of scientific efforts to find out how to exploit the way our brains work in order to affect our decisions very reliably, on a level we won't even be aware of consciously. I can't imagine it's hard raising grant money for this sort of research!)

Better stop before I start sounding like a crazy street preacher myself. Anyway, thank God for Reverend Billy preaching against the Shopocalypse!

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