As of this writing, we are in the midst of another holiday shopping season. A dizzying, unrelenting, orgy of consumer buying run amok. All of us of course feel compelled to buy gifts for the people who continually intersect our lives at right angles. And every year we're scared and taunted into buying even more by the doomsayers in the media and government. They warn us that this great country is in grave peril if we don't do our part and spend this economy into an acceptable growth rate. Unfortunately, it seems the mark of a great country is not its ideals or the manner in which it treats its citizens but the amount it consumes. In that regard we still rule the world. Three percent of the world's population consuming twenty five percent of its resources. But as much as we consume, it never seems to be enough to satisfy the corporate bottom line. Black Friday, (the day after Thanksgiving) is emblematic of the problem. Consumers line up as early as midnite to fight and punch each other out for the right to obtain a one of a kind bargain or special. We are literally and figuratively killing each other in frantic attempts to obtain the latest Playstation and Cuisinart that slices, dices, and cauterizes.
The collective heads of overwhelmed mall Santas everywhere must be spinning from ever increasing requests for high dollar, high tech "toys" produced in some Asian or South American country under dreadful working conditions. It's enough to make Santa reach for a bottle of holiday cheer. And whether it's coffee or cocaine, our unquenchable demand for these commodities continues to ensure wide spread ecological, political, and socioeconomic destruction across the developing world. Perhaps noted linguist and political thinker Noam Chomsky says it best, "There is nothing great about being able to sit in a traffic jam in New York in your Hummer. It's not the peak of existence".
There have been a few with obviously too much time on their hands who have tried to remove "In God We Trust" off of our legal tender. Those folks shouldn't worry too much as it is not God we trust but the all mighty dollar itself and what it represents. One can argue persuasively that this consumer culture has led to a spiritual void and we fill this vacuum with more and more stuff. Holidays are not a time for reflection and celebration anymore but just another excuse to go shopping. Hence we have The President's Day Sale, Labor Day Sale, Memorial Day Sale, etc.
So what does any of this wanton consumerism have to do with the price of a cup of coffee at Starbucks? Or better yet, what does any of this have to do with the question at hand? What does any of this have to do with art? Well, into this maelstrom of elevated shopping and consuming swaggers Reverend Billy (performance artist and social activist Bill Talen) and his group of devoted rabble rousers called The Church of Stop Shopping. In the voice and cadence of a southern evangelical preacher, the Rev. Billy exhorts us all to well...stop shopping.
His often hilarious antics include crashing a Starbucks or a Disney store in midtown Manhatton (epicenter of this binge consumerism) with nothing more than a bullhorn and his brand of guerilla theater. But make no mistake about it, like all good art and sermons, Brother Billy's theatrical performance will leave you feeling a bit uncomfortable. Uncomfortable at what we have become - locusts devouring everything in sight. He warns that the "shopocalypse" is upon us. Of course the powers that be are not at all comfortable with Rev. Billy's sermons. The boys in blue are often called in to carry the good reverend away. The unflappable Mr. Talen believes that social change begins with the willingness to be arrested.
The progressive Christian magazine Sojourners has gone as far to herald him as a prophet in an Old Testament kind of way. The prophet as performer is not a new idea, but so few live up to such a high calling. Poet, teacher, pastor, and theologian Amos Wilder concluded that the teachings of Jesus are a "form of guerilla theater - action against settled conviction"; beckoning us all to take part in the ongoing drama. And while not a Christain himself, the Reverend Billy has much to teach folks not only of the Christian faith but folks of all religious persuasion. And while this prophet speaks to the masses, don't look for the masses to embrace him. History has shown time after time that when confronted with a choice, the crowd will always choose Barabbas.
Country crooners Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson sang that "the only two things in life that make it worth living are guitars tuned good and firm feeling women" in their 70's hit Luckenbach, Texas. Once on a low budget trek through Ireland I was forced to find work on a farm. After all, I did need to eat. When I wasn't shoveling horse shit, I was forced to listen to the philosophical ruminations of my host who expanded a little on on the Luckenbach, Texas theme in a more politically correct fashion. He said that all he had was his faith, family, farm, and beloved Celtic music. He seemed a little sad at that admission. At that time rural idyllic Ireland was untouched by the rapid economic expansion that was soon to come and all the consumerism attached to that growth. I can only hope that my Irish farmer host has learned that the things that he mentioned are all that you need (plus a shot of Old Paddy's Irish whiskey every now and then). I'm sure Reverend Billy would be in agreement. Somebody give me an amen...and a broken halleluah. You can catch Reverend Billy in the new documentary What Would Jesus Buy?