[lit-ideas] Re: Christmas isn't over yet

  • From: eternitytime1@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 03 Jan 2008 17:47:54 -0500

 Or, gaining the ire of the Church of Stop Shopping
-----Original Message-----
Why not just make the entire year a Christmas shopping season?

Maybe because they would meet Rev. Billy?

Marlena (not shopping in Missouri)

What Would Jesus Buy?

Rev. Billy and his "Church of Stop Shopping" preach the gospel of love, 
anti-consumerism, and radical neighborliness.
by Walter Brueggemann

Before there was Reverend Billy, there was Bill Talen, born and raised in 
Minnesota, in the midst of conservative Dutch Calvinism, a faith he rejected as 
a teenager. He became a playwright, performer, and producer, working for years 
in San Francisco before he moved to New York City in the mid-1990s. “Rev. 
Billy,” Talen’s alter ego, was created in 1997, when Talen/Billy began 
street-corner preaching near the new Disney Store in Times Square, using the 
cadences and mannerisms of a TV evangelist to decry the chain-store commercial 
excesses of gentrification. 

Rev. Billy began to take his preaching into the Disney Store, and later into 
Starbucks, often joined by supporters who would help him stage “shopping 
interventions,” during which he might, for example, perform an “exorcism” of 
the cash register. In the process, the Church of Stop Shopping was born, a 
performance activism nonprofit staffed almost entirely by volunteers, including 
many professional musicians, singers, and actors who turn up as they’re able at 
actions and rallies promoting free speech, local communities, and 
anti-consumerism; tour with Rev. Billy as the Stop Shopping Choir; and help 
lead periodic “revival” productions. 

Talen uses elements of parody in Rev. Billy. But the persona reflects much more 
than over-the-top mannerisms and rapid-fire wordplay. Rev. Billy seems to have 
grown out of Talen’s genuine soul-searching and his delving into the writings 
and work of activists, theologians, and radical performers. This preacher and 
his church that is not a church has a distinct philosophical—some might even 
say theological—basis. Talen, it should be clear, professes not to be a 
Christian and distances himself from all organized religion. But much of the 
political and spiritual truth in Billy’s “sermons” will seem familiar to 
followers of Jesus with ears to hear, and believers of other traditions as 
well. And as he struggles, sometimes awkwardly, to express something both 
incarnate and transcendent without using any known religion’s terms, one can 
see the fire of a devotion that mere political rhetoric could not contain. 
Agree with him or not, Rev. Billy’s call to seek “the god that is not a 
product” seems to be a mission statement, not a joke. 

Given that there is a long tradition of prophetic theater and theatrical 
prophets, we asked eminent biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann to examine 
whether and how Rev. Billy might relate to the prophets of the Bible. —The 


That day Starbucks was busy but quiet. People were relaxed and talking, sipping 
$6 venti lattes. Then there was a phone conversation, readily heard by the 
sippers, about being in the wrong Starbucks and missing each other. There was 
another cell phone call, this one raising the question of buying all the 
“extras” sold by Starbucks. Soon two more calls occurred over the same 
issue—then a dozen calls, enough to disrupt the entitled relaxation. Finally 
there was a disturbing hubbub and the phone-callers shrieked with joy and 
celebratively removed themselves from the shop, to the great relief of 

It was a prophetic disruption by the Church of Stop Shopping, a fairly typical 
enactment of “guerrilla theater” by the folks around Rev. Billy, a dramatic 
performer of prophetic faith. 

R everend Billy, also known as Bill Talen, has gotten the strange idea that the 
Big Corporations, notably Disney, Starbucks, Nike, and Wal-Mart—and their 
shameless commitment to profit at the expense of human 
infrastructure—constitute a destructive force in our society. He has, moreover, 
reached the critical judgment that such a negative ideological force in our 
society must be resisted, and can best be resisted from a self-aware 
theological perspective that operates with parody and irony. The purpose of 
such parody and irony is to expose what seems like an economic operation as an 
ideological force of totalizing scope in our society. This force seeks to 
situate U.S. consumers in an uncritical way in the “life world” of consumer 

The specific discipline that is expected and required by this corporate “life 
world” is endless shopping without reflecting on the needs of or obligations to 
the community that might curb patronage at such shops. That is, Rev. Billy 
takes these organizations (and many others like them) as agents of consumerism 
that has become a “consuming” ideology in our society. In the end that 
consuming ideology distorts not only social resources but eventually 
neighborhoods, practices of neighborliness, and social vision as well. 

Thus the Church of Stop Shopping, Rev. Billy’s congregation, dispatches its 
members in protest against the Church of Shopping and engages in deliberate, 
sustained resistance to shopping as a way of participating in an alternative 
covenantal life. 


AFTER HEARING HIS disc of preaching and music and reading his two books—What 
Should I Do If Rev. Billy Is in My Store? (The New Press, 2003) and What Would 
Jesus Buy? Fabulous Prayers in the Face of the Shopocalypse (Public Affairs, 
2006)—I have no doubt that Rev. Billy is a faithful prophetic figure who stands 
in direct continuity with ancient prophets in Israel and in continuity with the 
great prophetic figures of U.S. history who have incessantly called our society 
back to its core human passions of justice and compassion. 

In thinking about Rev. Billy, I have had recourse to an old article by my 
friend and Hebrew Testament scholar Sibley Towner, “On Calling People 
‘Prophets’ in 1970.” I take from Towner four marks of a prophet that are easily 
identified in the talk and walk of Rev. Billy. 

First, prophetic practice has a style that gives dramatic form to what is said 
and done. That is, prophets are “performers.” That style, characteristically, 
is one of enormous, passionate conviction. One would not situate one’s self in 
a risky challenge to such great corporations, as Rev. Billy does, were there 
not deep conviction that is grounded in thoughtful social theory that, as in 
the ancient prophets, is kept mostly hidden in more-popular modes of discourse. 
That social theory in ancient Israel focused on the concentration of wealth 
among the urban elites in Jerusalem that would bring destruction because the 
poor were not honored or taken seriously. Rev. Billy’s conviction concerns the 
super-corporations (and their uncriticized ideology) that serve the insatiable 
monopoly of the urban-suburban elites. That style of the prophetic, moreover, 
consists in parody that teases and makes fun of both corporate seductions and 
the long list of consumers who sign on for lattes and much else. 

It is the power of parody to call attention to the unstated but powerful 
intentions that are mostly kept hidden in advertising and public presentation. 
The parody of the prophetic regularly slides over into irony, in which things 
are renamed and re-identified so that their truth cannot go unnoticed. 

Second, prophetic practice has a rhetoric. While Bill Talen in fact is not a 
“reverend,” he is closely enough allied with the church that he can easily and 
readily appropriate church lingo and terminology. His “sermons” reflect all of 
the passion and rhetorical force of an evangelistic preacher accompanied by 
devoted listeners who respond with engaging verbal support, affirming what he 
says and urging him on. 

The rhetoric of this preacher is saturated with religious terminology that 
talks about “change” (repentance), “real love,” and “freedom.” In an important 
riff, Billy says he must be “surreal” if he is to talk about reality; he is in 
need of being “exorcised” if he is to escape the demonic power of consumer 
ideology; and he must be “impossible” if he is to be understood. That triad of 
“surreal, exorcised, and impossible” shows the prophet seeking a mode of 
discourse that is not contained in and domesticated by market ideology. That 
is, the consumer ideology is so totalizing that anything outside of it must, 
perforce, sound outrageous. We are able to see ancient prophets practicing 
daring, scandalous rhetoric (and conduct) in an attempt to make sense outside 
the dominant ideology of their time. Billy is an echo of their work. 

THIRD, PROPHETIC PRACTICE is located institutionally in society and appeals to 
a particular constituency. In ancient Israel the prophets were variously 
situated amid the temple and the central institution of monarchy (thus Isaiah 
could speak of a “messianic king”), or among the peasants who regularly faced 
economic emergency brought on by the exploitation of the urban elites. Their 
work is always context-specific. Billy is, for sure, a voice “crying in the 
wilderness,” located in a risky environment outside the ordered domain of 
Pharaoh but well short of any new place of prosperous well-being. Billy is 
indeed swimming “upstream” against enormous odds. 

But he is not alone. In his practice, he is the voice of a “church”—albeit a 
curious church—but one rooted in the visible historic church. His practice 
would not be possible without “church” in that he has disciples, a choir, and a 
congregation which responds to his preaching. This institutional form, partly 
serious and partly parody, lends a certain kind of authority and gravitas that 
provide standing ground for his testimony. 

Beyond that, it is clear that Rev. Billy is identified with and has wide 
support among the company of believers (religious and secular) who know that 
our current market ideology is a path to death. As always with prophets, 
Billy’s vocation is to be a presence visibly at work in concrete acts of 
protest, resistance, and alternative possibility. Thus the talk he offers is 
rhetorical insistence of a most concrete kind that has a chance to impinge upon 
settled authority and unquestioned social assumptions. 

Fourth, what counts in prophetic practice is the message of a truth rooted in 
God and enacted in concrete society. Billy quite explicitly situates himself in 
the tradition of Gandhi, César Chávez, and Rosa Parks, three he names. Without 
being reductionist, it is fair to say that prophetic utterance 
characteristically concerns divine judgment and divine hope. 

The divine judgment Rev. Billy pronounces concerns a condemnation of religion 
that has been “hijacked” by the right wing, the resignation that we have 
“nothing to love but fear itself,” and the self-deceptive illusion that 
commodities can make us safe and happy. The shopping he assaults is seen to be 
an ideological practice whereby we keep “the demons in the zoo.” All of that 
will come to a sorry end for which he uses the term “shopocalypse,” a play on 
“apocalypse,” that imagined end of the world in a divine judgment as a great 
conflagration. Like every good poet, Billy has no interest in when or how that 
may happen, but only a conviction that this ideology that drives our society 
can only end in failure and raw disappointment. 

But prophetic practice is not finally about judgment. It is about hope. Hope 
for Rev. Billy is the deep conviction that there is a viable, choosable 
alternative to shopping that will make possible a human community of 
neighborliness, peace, and justice. At one point he even uses the phrase 
“eternal life,” but he would not want that phrase misconstrued, as if it 
referred to enduring life as “pie in the sky.” I understand his usage to mean a 
possible human neighborhood. And as with every prophet, that hope requires 
committed embrace. Billy urges his congregation to “use your bodies for your 
freedom”—that is, to vote against the slippery consumer ideology with your 
feet, even to use your bodies in the practice of corporate “interruptions” as a 
way of testimony to an alternative. He also urges active remembering that is an 
act of radical neighborliness, a difficult act of specificity against great 
corporations that want to encourage timeless amnesia. 

The discipline of Stop Shopping by itself is only a negation. But Billy intends 
for that discipline to help us redeploy our energy and attention toward the 
neighbor. Like all prophetic figures, Billy’s aim is not to entertain but to 
recruit. It is now clear, given the current betrayal of our constitutional 
rights, the erosion of an independent judiciary, and the stifling of an 
independent media, that the human crisis in our society is deep. Billy’s 
stratagem is a way to think and to act appropriately. 

Amos Wilder, the wise New Testament scholar of the last generation, observed 
that the parables of Jesus are a form of “guerilla theater,” action against 
settled conviction and an invitation to listeners to come “on stage” into the 
action. Before Jesus, this same guerilla theater was the enterprise of the 
ancient prophets. That theater continues with Rev. Billy. We are surely apt 
candidates for the Church of Stop Shopping. With enough new recruits for the 
action, perhaps we need not be subjected to the Shopocalypse.

Walter Brueggemann was professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in 
Decatur, Georgia, when this article appeared. 

What Would Jesus Buy? by Walter Brueggemann. Sojourners Magazine, November 2007 
(Vol. 36, No. 10, pp. 8-15). Cover. 

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