Get on Your Knees and Say "No" to Shopping?
As the Reverend Billy, performance artist Bill Talen of Brooklyn, N.Y., holds wild revival meetings to preach an anti-consumerist, pro-environment theology.
Is being a consumer so bad? In America, consumerism has become like a fundamentalist religion. It controls our behavior.
How did that happen? The key, I believe, is that products are sold to us as agents of change. "Buy me," the advertising implies, "and we'll change for the better together." You think you're changing by buying, but you're just spending money.
How do you alter that thinking? At a service of the Church of Earthalujah, we make fun of how focused we are on buying. And we have a great gospel group, the Church of Stop Shopping Choir. The lyrics of one song go like this: "Back away from the Wal-Mart, back away."
So to attack consumerism you use satire? We thought we were a satirical performance-art group in the 1990s. Then we found after 9/11 that a large number of people were interested in singing and praying with us. We found we were trusted.
You're no longer a parody? That's correct. We've discovered that large numbers of people have joined us in an actual spiritual quest to resist this consumerist god. The best way to break the spell is to have a spiritual counter to it.
What is that counter? We counsel people to establish more personal connections and to enjoy being physical -- staying in good shape and enjoying the simple things that bring happiness.
How did the recession affect people's attitudes toward buying? We often get testimonials from people who say that they were really in a panic because they had lost more than half their monthly income. But as a family they asked, "What can we give up?" They downscaled, and as a result they are spending more time together and are happier.
How do you support the cause? We're scavengers. Sources of revenue include contributions to our not-for-profit theater company, money from grants and fees from performing at festivals. And a Dutch theater company paid us to use our songs, our sermons and my Reverend Billy image in a musical they titled Crazy Shopping.