Reverend Billy Preaches The Gospel of The Church of Stop-Shopping
The holiday shopping frenzy is upon us, but before you race to the mall to claim your new PlayStation 3, iPod or giant flat-panel TV, you might want to heed the words of the Rev. Billy, a.k.a. performance artist Bill Talen.
Talen, 47, a longtime Bay Area actor and playwright who moved to New York in the early 1990s, has since become a well-known street performer in Manhattan as the Rev. Billy, an over-the-top, fire-and-brimstone preacher with a platinum blond pompadour and clerical collar who rails against the ills of consumerism and warns of a coming "shopocalypse" if humans fail to change to their materialistic ways. He and the members of the Stop Shopping Choir, a group of 40 red-robed singers who accompany him on trips to Wal-Mart, Starbucks and other temples of consumerism where he attempts to spread his message, whether people want to hear it or not, are featured in a new documentary film called "What Would Jesus Buy?" Produced by Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me"), the movie follows the group on a cross-country anti-shopping crusade.
Talen, who lives with his wife and collaborator, Savitri Durkee, in Brooklyn, spoke with me last week about the origins of the Rev. Billy, what Christians think of his act, and whether he's just preaching to the converted.
How long have you been doing the Rev. Billy character?
It's been 10 years since it really hit its stride.
What gave you the idea in the first place?
At the time I started doing it, New York City was sort of hushed. There was a way in which the public space was filling with sirens and the screaming brakes of mafia garbage trucks (laughs), but things were very depoliticized. Rudy Giuliani was overrunning things, and his police were highly militarized. I lived near Times Square and they were arresting practically anybody that didn't have a credit card. I'm not exaggerating ... They were turning Time Square into a super mall -- like a suburban mall, except vertical in its shape.
They had to privatize the sidewalks and streets, and get anybody who would ruin a sale, get them out of the picture. That included all of the interesting people and the less powerful -- the vendors and the small shops and the unhurried, profane conversations on the stoop. In other words, a healthy neighborhood became illegal at that time. And so I decided to defend my neighborhood. And when enough people joined me, we started singing together. And it became the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir.
Needless to say, you were unable to stop the progression of commercialization in Times Square. What makes you think you can convince people to resist the holiday shopping impulse?
People around the world are sending us their confessions and pledges to change. A lot of people are realizing that we just have too much stuff. Our closets are bulging from last year's Christmas, and we can't remember what it was all for. I think the climate crisis has a lot to do with it. People are connecting consequences to their shopping. And so they are making gifts, and they're finding gifts on the shelves of mom and pop stores, farmers markets, artisans and on Craigslist.
In "What Would Jesus Buy?" you make the point that people are conditioned to associate material goods with love. It's as if we believe that we're more worthy if we have more things. What can you really do about that?
If you bring the gift-giving back home -- and you don't have to buy a gift to give a gift -- then you readjust back to a kind of non-commodified love. That love may take the form of time, caresses, storytelling. Then life becomes a lot more complex and a lot more fun than if you're just going out and getting your average, vacuum-packed product from a shelf and giving it to somebody.
You've called for a "slow gift movement." What is that all about?
So often, we've discovered that the reason why people end up in what they know is a "mall from hell" is because we're in a hurry. I say "we" because I'm a sinner, too. We are all sinners in this church. We're thinking, "I've got to knock off 30 gifts here. Boom! Boom! Boom! Go up and down the aisle -- well, that'll be good for Sam! That will be good for Beth! Okay, good! Boom! Boom!" That's what we have to stop doing.
The greatest creature of all, the Earth, the life systems of which we are a part, is telling us we have to stop doing this. It's a matter of survival. We are shopping ourselves to death.
Your character, the Rev. Billy, is a parody of an evangelical preacher, the kind you might see on Sunday morning television shows. Has that put you at odds with Christians who see your act -- maybe some of the very same people you are trying to reach?
Oddly enough, evangelicals are major supporters of this film, and major supporters of our church. It would be easy for them to say, "Wait a minute! You're a hypocrite! You put goop in your hair! You aren't really ordained," but it turns out that so many people understand that the thing we call the "shopocalypse" is so real that they are reaching out to us. They are reaching past their fear.
Does that surprise you?
I was surprised at first. It's not like I always thought that Christians would be a part of this thing. Of course, we have Christians in our choir, and we have Sufis and Jews and Catholics and Buddhists. A lot of us are preacher's kids, "PKs" as they are called, and children of PKs. We like to think we are ecumenical and hope that we are not offending anybody so much that they don't get our message.
You grew up in a Christian family. What was Christmas like in your house?
I remember some wonderful Christmases. It was a beautiful thing for a while. But I left the Christian church at a very young age, and that shifted my feelings about Christmas, certainly.
Now I think of what happens in late December as a time when darkness recedes and light expands, and the promise of spring is the promise of change. I like what Rev. (Jim) Wallis says at the end of our film: "Christmas was supposed to be the arrival of one who would set us straight. Shake things up!"
Do you consider yourself a religious or spiritual person now?
I've just kind of moved beyond calling myself labels. I think a part of resisting consumerism and giving people the example of resisting consumerism is to stop imitating products. That's why we don't get any money from foundations. Are we political? Are we religious? Are we artistic? Those are three labels that would come to us from the foundation world. Well, the political foundations think we are clowns. And the artistic foundations think we are political. And the religious foundations think we are atheists. So the thing that makes us powerful to people is also the thing that makes it hard to define.
How do you make a living? Guerrilla theater doesn't seem like it would pay much.
Savitri and I live fairly modest lives. We lecture at festivals and conferences and universities. Our paydays are enough to pay the rent. We have a two-bedroom apartment and drive an '89 Saab that's getting a little rough around the edges. All the hood ornaments have fallen off.
Are you actively performing as the Rev. Billy in theaters or are you mainly doing him out in the street?
We have concert performances and then we are out on the streets. Our pattern is to tour for three weeks and then come back home. This Saturday I'm blessing 600 Santa Clauses -- the Santacon -- in Times Square. We were wondering, should we have a Santa mosh pit? Should we just let them toss and roll around? But, you know, they get drunk. They are drunk Santas, and we just thought they would probably drop me. So we pulled back from the idea.
You've done a lot of demonstrations in big box stores, including faux exorcisms of cash registers.
One reason we go into the big boxes to exorcise the cash registers is simply that the big boxes destroy our main streets. They destroy the economy of our neighborhoods with their slave labor prices. But they simulate public space inside the big box. So we say: No! If you are going to do that, if you are going to kill our Main Street but reconstitute our Main Street inside your stores, well, we are going to go in there, and we are going to still have our First Amendment rights. Arrest us if you must!
How many times have you been arrested?
About 40 or 50 times.
What was the best Christmas gift you have ever received?
I got a wonderful gift one year from Savitri. She took me on the subway to Coney Island, and we walked along -- not a white sand, but a white snow beach. These old Russian guys were playing chess in the freezing cold with their bare fingers on the chess pieces. The whole scene had a beautiful, spare beauty about it, and we could just be alone.
What was the worst gift you ever got?
I was with a friend in Manhattan, and he got really drunk -- this is many years ago. I remember I just had to baby-sit him all Christmas because I thought he was going to die, or something awful was going to happen. We ended up in Bellevue, as I recall.
Any Christmas wishes you'd like to send out this year?
Yes. I would just like to ask a blessing on these readers: May the wacky impresario that created this mysterious thing called life help us find a way to give each other the gift that shouldn't cost anything. It's the gift we need so badly right now -- the gift of peace!
For more information about Rev. Billy, visit www.revbilly.com.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle