During my first year of grad school I shared an office with a group of Indian students, and when Thanksgiving break rolled around we got to talking about it, and to my upmost pleasure I learned that they thought Thanksgiving was actually an American celebration of Black Friday – where people get off work and eat a big meal to prepare for all the shopping they’ll do. From their two-ish year perspective they had made a completely logical conclusion from all the data they had received – completely logical but one many Americans might refute. I loved the thought of them skyping home to tell their families in hushed voices about this brave new world of consumption and corporatocracy – where the people have a feast to celebrate and prepare for days of hedonistic spending. I of course tried to set the record straight, “Oh no, Thanksgiving is really a holiday about – actually no you’re right.” It’s in this spirit of an outsider’s totally not false perception, in honor of Black Friday, that I continue our indie recommendations by asking: Have you seen What Would Jesus Buy?
What Would Jesus Buy? is a documentary that follows the exploits of a larger than life activist/performance artist named Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping. His message is not one of a usual fundamentalist leaning, instead he preaches against consumerism, materialism, shady corporate business practices, debt, and, my favorite, warns of the impending Shopocalypse. So a message far more Christian that the fundamentalist slant after all, Zing! Throughout the film Billy and his choir travel around the country singing, preaching, and causing all sorts of mischief in the name of anti-materialism. It’s a whole lot of fun, and the scene where he is forcibly removed from a Starbucks for trying to exorcize it is worth the price of admission alone. Billy is an endearing character (Do keep in mind that Bill Talen is actually playing a role here, like Stephen Colbert does every night), and his mission is one that’s easy to get swept up in, and you really start to root for the guy – provided you’re an anti-corporate anti-materialistic hippy like myself.
And hey, if you aren’t an anti-corporate anti-materialistic hippy then What Would Jesus Buy? might just turn you into one. Much like Super Size Me, Billy’s exploits are intercut with straight documentary segments, which turn an investigative eye towards topics like over-consumption, corporate business practices, and the amount of debt and waste accrued each year during the season between Black Friday and Christmas. The facts here are shocking, and the cold truths about how our country has devolved into a mass of mindless consumers can be hard to watch. But watch it you should, if only to scare you from credit card debt, or shy you away from falling prey to corporate traps. In using Billy’s reverend gimmick the message of the film is clear: the religion of America is commercialism, and the heretics are people like Reverend Billy. And throughout I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the New Testament where Jesus goes apeshit on the commercial money changers and kicks their asses out of the temple.
To bring us full circle, in grad school I taught a Financial Math class to college sophomores, and on the credit card day I would spend it ranting about the dangers of debt, the stupidity of paying only your minimum charges, and the staggering math behind credit card interest. What struck me the most about this experience is that many of them looked like they had never heard any of this before, that somehow they had gone 19-20 years missing this information. I say this because at the end of that class I would always recommend What Would Jesus Buy? because it’s an entertaining way to get even more harrowing facts about America’s debt culture. The recommendation always got a laugh, I think mainly because the title is so damn clever, yes it’s a goofy movie about a man who tries to exorcise a Starbucks. At the same time it tackles very serious topics of our unsustainable culture, and perhaps by the end of it they (And you since I’m recommending it to you too) took the time to ask themselves that title question: What would Jesus buy?
Side note: as I wrote this article I had misspelled “commercialism” and upon right-clicking it to get suggestions the only word to pop up was “Americanism,” I shit you not.