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Consumption Orgy

As a self-described cross between a late-night Trinity Broadcasting Network minister and an Elvis impersonator, the Rev. Billy is blazing a cinematic trail across America to help change the face of Christmas.

With his big, blond hair, white suit and minister's collar, Bill Talen transforms into the Rev. Billy and looks the part of a television evangelist. He speaks passionately about his mission to save us from the consumerism that permeates our lives, especially at Christmas.

Talen stars as the Rev. Billy in the documentary, What Would Jesus Buy?, co-produced by Morgan Spurlock. In 2004, Spurlock co-produced the film Super Size Me, which took a look at the commercial food industry.

What Would Jesus Buy? highlights the Rev. Billy's crusade across the country in late 2005. He travels with the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir to malls, Starbucks and Wal-Marts to encourage others to stop shopping. They sing about the "shopocalypse," evil Big Boxes and saying "no" to overconsumption.

While the film has hilarious moments (especially at the Wal-Mart home office), the message behind the humor is a serious one. A narrator provides some startling statistics: Three-quarters of us view Christmas with more dread than anticipation, yet we will spend a half-trillion dollars on Christmas this year. And for the first time since the Depression, our household personal savings rate is below zero.

Shoppers on the street are interviewed and display the rampant greed and shopaholic mentality that pervades the season. One woman says she doesn't want to celebrate Christmas without a gift. A retail clerk recounts how she was spit on by a 60-year-old woman who was upset because the store was out of PlayStation 3 consoles. And a dog lover shows off the closet of clothes for her spoiled pooch, Lola.

But central to the film is the footage of the Rev. Billy and his choir. The Rev. Billy is a captivating figure with a passionate message for us to "stop shopping!" He challenges us to slow down our consumption and cries out for change, or as he calls it, a "change-allujah!"

Talen created the persona of the Rev. Billy about 10 years ago when he was living in Times Square. Upset that the Big Boxes were invading his neighborhood, he looked around and asked, "Who is shouting here?" He noticed the street preachers were getting the most attention. So he donned the white suit and joined the sidewalk preachers to fight against the corporations that were taking over his home.

"This buy, buy, buy mentality is not working. ... Many people around the world are recognizing the need to slow down their consumption. We believe Christmas is a way for us to talk about the commercialism that has engulfed us. Christmas is our consumption orgy," he says.

For those who might be scratching their heads about how to celebrate Christmas without running up a huge credit card bill, Talen offers thoughts on a new type of holiday celebration.

"We can make our own Christmas by standing in our own front door. You don't need to buy a gift to give a gift. You can make a commitment to work in the community. My gift to you is 100 hours at the food pantry. My gift is cash to the victims of Hurricane Stan in Guatemala. Find a gift you can walk to. It might be in your closet. ... We need to stop shopping and start giving."

Talen has received e-mails from people describing new ways they celebrate the holiday. Some spend only $10 for gifts. Others pick straws and buy for one person. Talen says What Would Jesus Buy? is not only a movie, but a movement as well. Believers write supportive e-mails and even comment at the "blog-allujah!" at revbilly.com.

Central to the movement of slowing down consumption is the importance of where products are made and purchased. In a scene from What Would Jesus Buy?, three teenage girls research where their clothes came from. They read clothing tags, search on the Internet and even call local stores to determine the origins of their garments. The realization that the clothes on your back may have been made by a severely overworked and underpaid child in a Third World country is sobering.

Talen and his wife, Savitri Durkee, take great pains to shop for products made in the United States and support local economies. In a touching and sad moment in the film, Talen purchases a sweater from a local merchant in small-town Iowa. The shopkeeper laments, "Wal-Mart is killing small town America."

As shoppers fight the lines at local malls and Big Box stores, Talen will continue to fight to get his message heard. Arrested numerous times and banned from Starbucks in California, he calls for us to be "fellow citizens and not consumers" this holiday season. He'll continue to sing and protest around the country, all the while preaching: "Don't buy your Christmas. Create it!"

What Would Jesus Buy? opens Friday, Dec. 7, at the Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway Blvd., showing at 2:30 and 6:45 p.m. Visit the Loft Web site or call 795-7777 for additional show times. Visit the film Web site for more information about the film.

More by Irene Messina

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