Would he shop at Walmart? Would he buy only American-made products? Would He buy anything at all?
What would He think of the rampant commercialism in modern society, particularly that connected to the holiday that celebrates His birth?
What Would Jesus Buy? is a 2007 documentary directed by Rob VanAlkemade where the question posed in the title is (unfortunately) the most interesting and provocative thing about it. Within its runtime, What Would Jesus Buy? raises some important points about Christmas and commercialism. As a whole, though, it is rambling and unfocused — running out of steam long before it ends.
WWJB? opens with a landslide of imagery that anyone who has braved the Christmas buying season will recognize – shopping, spending, and more shopping. Ostensibly, all for a good cause: Christmas is designed to be a time to focus on others’ needs and wants instead of one’s own. Christmas giving (in theory) is for developing inter-personal relationships and good will among our family, friends, and neighbors.
There’s a dark side to gift giving, of course. WWJB? notes that Americans spend half a trillion dollars every year during the Christmas season buying gifts, which leads directly to massive personal debt. (One person notes it will take him until next fall to pay off the debt from the previous year’s Christmas shopping).
The season of gift-giving also leads to a culture of entitlement for many, with kids growing up expecting more and more of that year’s “hot” items to keep up with their friends. (One woman laments that even from the adults she shops for, “if you give small things, they don’t appreciate it…”)
In the most extreme examples, we have incidents like the trampling death of a Walmart clerk by a crowd of over-anxious Christmas shoppers looking to save on hot deals before someone else grabbed them. Black Friday, indeed!
Is all this really necessary — year after year after year? Especially as a “celebration” of Christ’s birth — someone who was born in a stable and lived without many material possessions, anyway? Should we at least ask the question whether there’s a better way to celebrate the Savior’s birth, and appreciate our loved ones without the consequences of shopping and debt?
Bill Talen — aka “Reverend Billy” — is willing to ask the question. Dressed in a bright white preacher’s outfit, “Reverend Billy” travels around the country with a handful of singers and musicians, putting on shows and speeches warning citizens about the perils of commercialization. His organization, the “Church of Stop Shopping”, travels around the country with their own version of “Music and the Spoken Word”. Their message: to encourage people to say “Enough is enough!” — that no one should have to mortgage their future buying pointless items for loved ones to prove they are loved ones.
The *Church* of Stop Shopping, you ask? Yes…sort of. Rev. Billy’s “Church” is a real organization, albeit with only a tenuous connection to religion.
Reverend Billy isn’t a preacher, he’s a performance artist. Using a “Reverend” persona he developed while a struggling actor, Talen uses the framework of religion and spiritual worship to make his point — a clever idea given the center of modern commercialism is a supposed religious holiday.
He and his group perform outside large shopping centers as “spiritual protests”. He and his choir go caroling door-to-door with popular carols rewritten with funny anti-commercialism lyrics. He puts his hands on the heads of audience members (or their small children) and “exorcises” the spirit of commercialism and shopping away. He opens a confessional outside a mall for shoppers to confess their “shopping sins”. He tells his audience to remove their credit cards from their wallets and lift them up to the sky (“with the magnetic strips facing Reverend Billy”) and vow not to use them again.
If this sounds a little over-the-top, like a wild practical joke, you’re probably right. It’s clearly for entertainment value, although the message is sound.
The Church of Stop Shopping has a purely secular focus — nothing about the afterlife, for example, and all references to God are in generic phrases like “the fabulous unknown” (Rev. Billy doesn’t really consider himself even a “Christian”). Shots of the audience in various cities show that the people listening seem to understand there’s no “religion” here; this is purely for entertainment, even as the message about commercialism and personal debt hits home.
What Would Jesus Buy? starts to go off-the-rails at the 40 minute mark, after we’ve seen Reverend Billy’s performance and primary message, and the bulk of the material about Christmas consumerism and personal debt has been shared. There’s still an hour left — what else does the documentary have to show us?
Not much, unfortunately… We follow the Church of Stop Shopping choir on tour across the US for a while, without any new messages to share. Then, the documentary takes a left turn and becomes a screed against Walmart and other “big box” retailers. Rev. Billy and his wife (the choir directory) talk about “buying American” to support local stores, and discuss the ethics of those bigger stores selling foreign-made products, mostly from China and other Asian countries produced by workers making 14 to 17 cents an hour. (Rev. Billy’s wife laments the import of cheap goods made by foreign workers simply “to allow US consumers to buy socks at $.50, instead of $2″)
The message here is muddled and contradictory: we’re asked to be sympathetic to the workers in foreign countries who make pennies a day, but then we’re supposed to stop shopping at companies who buy the products they produce…as if this will make their working conditions better?
Billy and his wife never explain this contradiction: that we should support American workers by buying more American products, and support foreign workers by buying…fewer foreign made products? Are we supposed to believe that if Walmart and all other stores stopped importing products from overseas tomorrow, sweat-shop wages in China or Sri Lanka would go *up*, rather than down? (Who in the world would be paying them that extra money?)
The documentary (without sharing specific facts) laments how Walmart treats its employees (who make, on average, twice the US minimum wage and — wait for it — over 80 times as much as those foreign workers the film has produced as targets of sympathy) without mentioning how Walmart customers are generally low-income families (around $30,000 annual income) who save between $800 and $2000 a year from their meager incomes by shopping at Walmart. Indeed, why *should* those customers pay $2 for socks, instead of $.50, just to support American sock makers rather than Chinese sock makers? What happens to the Chinese sock makers, then?
The fact that documentary repeatedly refers to overseas workers within this narrative could be considered offensive, considering the philosophy and course of action advocated by the documentary would seem to actively make their lives worse. One person in the documentary does note that “globalization does not mean America loses…” — which is entirely correct, but it does push global wages towards a common mean. Since US wages are much higher than world average, globalization will necessarily push US wages down. If you care primarily about foreign workers, that’s a good thing.
If this section sounds like we’ve gotten away from the primary thesis of the documentary — Christmas commercialism, and what Jesus would buy — you’re correct. The documentary seems ill-prepared to really debate the Walmart issue, expressing rhetoric without facts to back it up. Walmart is not even the last stop nor primary target on the “Stop Shopping” tour — that would be Disneyland, Rev. Billy’s primary target for US consumerism.
“Mickey Mouse is the Anti-Christ” he proclaims, seemingly on purely a symbolic level — the documentary doesn’t share any statistics to show that Disney merchandise contributes more significantly to US commercialism compared to any other big brand name like Barbie or Transformers. This does not stop Rev. Billy from protesting on Disneyland Main Street on Christmas Day and getting himself arrested — one wonders if they are still an entertaining music group at this point, or just another liberal activist group?
Commercialism does not have to be a liberal / conservative issue. Personal debt is a problem all over the country, and it’s easy to argue that society is too concerned with material possessions. However there is no easy solution. Many US small businesses depend on the Christmas shopping season for the majority of their yearly sales — Americans suddenly closing their pocketbooks and sharing “love” rather than “presents” with their families would cause any number of economic tragedies within the US businesses that the “Church of Stop Shopping” aims to support. And, again, what happens to those Chinese workers if Americans lose their interest in things stamped “Made in China”?
Still, as a father of four kids who has been through the Christmas tradition of buying lots of presents only to have them sit in a corner two days after they are opened, I can understand asking the question: what’s the point? Is there a better way to embrace the Christmas season without going overboard in shopping and materialism? The first 40 minutes of What Would Jesus Buy? provide food for thought in this area, even if the rest of the documentary is inessential.