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Is brainless consumerism killing our culture?

Reverend Billy thinks so. He writes more on this in 'What Would Jesus Buy?' — the companion book to the forthcoming feature-length documentary produced by Morgan Spurlock, creator of "Super Size Me!" Here's an excerpt.

It's not unusual for religious leaders to find themselves at the center of controversy, after all, matters of faith are deeply felt. But the TODAY show's Natalie Morales recently met one very unusual pastor, who has managed to make a lot of waves, even without ever preaching about God. Reverend Billy (the creation of actor and activist Bill Talen) is the ringleader of the "Church of Stop Shopping." And his revival tour across America is the subject of the upcoming Morgan Spurlock film "What Would Jesus Buy?," his first movie since the national hit "Super Size Me!" Here's an excerpt of the companion book to the movie, "What Would Jesus Buy?":

Retail interventions
The first job of a church is to save souls. And pulling out of the advertising/debt/waste cycle of consumerism is our idea of deliverance. Much of our soul-saving mission work consists of dramatic rituals and plays inside retail environments. Our missionaries are sometimes disguised as consumers — “invisible” to management’s eye. At other times our Nonviolent Disobedient Performances inside the retail environment, the chaos and broad strokes — the Inappropriate Behavior! Amen! — carries our message best. The interventions that follow, developed over the last ten years, are some of our favorites.

As your new church prepares to Stop the Shopping of the citizenry, as you become a Sacred Spy of the Shopocalypse, it is worth asking yourself a few questions.

Who’s your Devil? Whether it’s a big box or chain store, or a nuke plant on a fault line: This is your “charged stage.” The consumers are the souls that must be saved. (But never forget: WE ARE ALL SINNERS.) When the consumers come into view, browsing or walking up the street, they will see your church performing inside, or Oddly near, the Devil’s logo. We must not be naïve about how powerful the multinationals are in the ordinary matter of BUY THIS. The consumers, upon seeing the imagery of the product or corporation, often immediately have memories, fantasies, anticipations.

This is Product Sex, and it is sinning of a very well-defended kind. It is our job to know what the existing props (the logo, celebrity spokesperson, corporate history, recent news items) are doing to the openness of those witnesses.

What are they thinking? Could they be open to asking a new question or two about the product before them?

Big Boxes and BoutiquesOur local chapter of the Church of Stop Shopping performs in any public setting where we can sing and preach — piers and docks, church rooftops, parks and boulevards. But there will also be “contested” space: the privatized spaces that wish to appear to be public space, but curb our Freedom of Speech.

There are two types, the big box and the chain store. These two have their contrasting seductions: the forces behind the fluorescing behemoth big box hope that the stores will glow and call to you with the promise of infinite products; while the chain stores, built to a more human scale, often try to blend in with the neighborhood, sometimes even imitating the local independent shops that they killed.

Retail Interventions in either of these environments can be intimate. We can whisper facts about labor slavery, the history of the company, the CEO’s stock options. But when a symbolic pageantry or public drama is staged for visual effect, then the two stages are very different. Big Box stores throw everything into the middle distance quickly. Your observers will generally be in cars or behind carts. In the “boutiques,” our church activists can sometimes withdraw to the sidewalk or street outside and continue to perform, with the curious customers following us out.

Victoria’s Secret and Starbucks are boutiques. Both have managed to depoliticize the public’s responses, and remain separate from the phrase “chain store.” Victoria’s Secret is still not associated in the public mind with clear-cutting virgin forests. Their million catalogs a day are mostly made of virgin timber. Starbucks still insists it has nothing to do with employing seven-year-olds. Starbucks routinely lies about the condition of its coffee worker families. Both companies have more exposure from their famous ads than from the damning research that watchdog groups post on websites. So with these smaller venues, direct education becomes more important. Whatever shocking bit of theater catches our audience’s interest, we still must prove our case in a more traditional way with clear and clean information sheets.

This is where a long retreat from a supermall can be an advantage. Once you give a shopper a sheet, security cannot intercede — they don’t pull the paper from the customer’s hands. So if we are escorted to the door and start walking across the parking lot, we might hand out information to a hundred people walking in from their cars. (It is fascinating to have later email conversations with people you encounter in the malls, and it helps spread the Word. Always make it easy for the shoppers to contact you.)

Where to BeginCase the joint thoroughly. In the days before your Action, as you walk through the target store, slow yourself down and . . . slow the products down, too. See through them. Watch how the branding works. A Nike store is covered with the flying sweating limbs of the famous. A McDonald’s is so bright the air has an ice-like quality, but smells like fries. A Starbucks is dedicated to uniformity but with items that suggest originality, such as mismatching beatnik-like furniture.

These Evil nonplaces each dare us to answer with the perfect violation, the introduction of an internal opposition that explodes the picture. We hope that you find an Action wonderfully suited to cave in the propaganda of your Devil store. We hope these sketches of Actions free your own imagination in these imagination-killing settings.

From the Mouths of Babes to the Blog of the ChurchAt many Art Attacks there are three types of witnesses: the people, the press, and the police. The latter two are media — they send the message out by way of theirtheater and so they are important. And you should know who will be there and what to do if a badge or microphones are suddenly thrust in your face.


But the first witness is the people. They are often there shopping and we are hoping to interrupt them in an entertaining way. We want to help them create a folk story from their experience. It is always a pleasure to overhear one of them weeks after an Action, “I saw this terrible marriage spat. It was in the middle of the mall. The wife was describing a sweatshop factory and the husband was on his knees. He was absolutely wretched. He was begging her not to leave him because he bought a Tickle-Me-Elmo that was made in Sri Lanka or somewhere. I mean, he was groveling . . . it was incredible!” Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is just light comedy. This is the heart of the matter. This is NEW. To us this is the birthing of new anti-Shopocalyptic language.

A key to change is found in the talk of interrupted shoppers. Communicate. Try to hear what is being said on the grapevine, on blogs, find out what others are doing with their impressions. Post it all on your website, send it all to ours!! OH PRAISE! WHEN THE SHOPPING STOPS!

Role PlayersEvery Art Attack should have an Action Manager (AM). Most of the thirteen Actions described below have steps in them and the manager can signal when to stand up and sing, to go to the climax of the piece, or to suddenly go mute if the police happen by. Oftentimes the AM stands near the front door or window, to see both into the store and out into the surrounding cityscape.

It helps to also have a Physical Educator. This is someone who can really lead warm-ups in the church basement, a church members’ yard, or a public park. Breaking through the strict choreography of products and retail environments takes body-and-soul readiness. When you Disturb The Customers, you are doing hard work. Usually we’re basking in the pleasurable release of it for hours afterward, but we’re sore the next morning. Breathing and stretching beforehand helps.

Arrange for your Fair Witness. You’ll want to get a later critique from someone not involved in the Action itself, someone who sits on the very edge of the whole play and can see all the elements. This person is not holding a spy cam or watching for police. His or her only job is to see it all.

And always be polite to the workers and customers. Most of these Actions are comedies with a social conscience. But comedy is very close to anger, and excites all kinds of stuff in onlookers… know that border. Don’t be angry at anyone who is angry with you. They may be dealing with the breaking apart of Living Through Products, a fundamentalist faith, oppressive and hard to leave behind.

Stay soft, cunning, loving.

Sponsored LoverTwo leads (Jamie and Lucy) and two supporting parishioners (the shills) are needed. If possible each shill has a couple of supporting shills coming in from across the Starbucks to join the debate. This Action is designed to spread. If it’s working, a whole Town Hall meeting develops inside our host chain store, discussing the issue of corporate appropriation of human emotions.

Jamie and Lucy are the two lovers. You two enter the store and sit, staring into each others’ eyes. Hold hands in the center of the table. You are transfixed, and just a bit loud. Your shills sit nearby with the AM in sight. The AM sizes up the progress of the play and signals all the shills to turn toward the lovers and openly watch, encouraging voyeuristic interest from throughout the coffee shop.

Jamie: “I love you.”

Lucy: “Oh, I love you.”

Jamie: “I love you.”

Lucy: “Yes darling, I love you so much.”

Jamie: “I want to elope, marry, everything.”

Lucy: “I want to plunge into a new life.”

Jamie: “I love you.”

Lucy: “I love you, too.”

Jamie gets on one knee beside the table.

Jamie: “Will you marry me?, brought to you by Subway—Eat Fresh!”

Lucy: “Oh sweetheart . . . but . . . What did you say?”

Jamie: “What I’ve been saying all along. I love you, brought to you by Fig Newtons, The Taste Treat from Nabisco.”

Lucy: “I love you. Just say ‘I love you.’”

Jamie: “I just love you, Lucy, brought to you by Waste Management Systems, WM, Relax —We’ll Clean Up!”

Lucy: “Honey, what IS this?”

Jamie: “This is my undying devotion to you, that’s all sweetheart, don’t be concerned, sponsored by Zocor. It’s Your Future. Be There.”

Lucy: “Have you, have you . . . SOLD OUR LOVE?!”

Jamie: “Honey, brought to you by your local Coca-Cola bottler, I love you as much as ever! Believe me! by Polo Deckwear.”

Lucy: “Oh my god . . . this is a nightmare . . .”

It unravels from there. This little comedy can branch out in several directions. We would like to hear what you come up with — or see your videotape. It’s very important for the shills to come over to the lovers and spread the discussion throughout the Starbucks. Be loud enough. Don’t be afraid of entering the zone of Exalted Embarrassment.

“Excuse me. I couldn’t help but overhear that you found a corporate sponsor for your marriage proposal. That’s a fascinating profit center. Very creative, almost artistic. Who do you talk to for that kind of arrangement . . . do you have an agent?”

A second shill approaches in a state of shocked (and loud) disbelief. “Saying ‘I love you’ with corporate sponsorship? Are you, are you SERIOUS? I just want to say that this is incredible. Has it come to this? What is this culture coming to? ARE YOU INSANE?”

Another shill marches up. “Look, dude, this is the twentyfirst century, so get on board or get out of the way. You’re either with us or against us. How do you think people make a living today? I’ve sold ad space on my grandma’s forehead!”

The notion that you can sell intimate emotions to corporations is debated by the shills, while the lovers sit in the center of it all. Maybe you’ll be lucky and a Joni Mitchell love song will come over the Starbucks sound system…

Once we had a little old man speak up. He was the kind of nondescript fellow who might haunt the back pages of a Carson McCullers southern diner, that person who is always quietly there in the back with his newspaper and careful napkin and fork. I noticed him and I thought we must be annoying him. Suddenly he put his paper down and called out—

“Did you read the one about the desperate couple who offered to name their child Wal-Mart Lowest Prices Always Johnson? They were demanding a million dollars. Imagine that—growing up with that name. ‘Hello who are you?’ ‘Oh my name is Wal-Mart Lowest Prices Always Johnson!’ I mean, what would you call such a child at home? ‘Wally’? Yes that’s probably what they had in mind. Drop the advertisement in the middle and just stick with Wally but meanwhile get out of town with that Wal-Mart money. Yes, I’m sure of it, that’s what they were thinking, that young couple. Oh well, his name is probably Harold now, something like that. Probably Harold Higby Johnson, after some deceased Uncle Harold Higby or some such. Oh well.”

He brought down the house.

Copyright 2007 by PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Excerpted from "What Would Jesus Buy: Fabulous Prayers in the Face of the Shopocalypse," by Reverend Billy.  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from PublicAffairs. To learn more about the book, you can visit: or