An inside look at Reverend Billy Talen’s Church-of-Not-Shopping

February 8, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More

Reverend Billy is a clown and a prophet. All dressed up, he is a serious clown, self-honed and bearing sharp claws in the best tradition of court jesters. At the recent True Spin Conference in Denver Colorado I had a chance to meet the Reverend Billy of The-Church-of-Not-Shopping. Reverend Billy is an outwardly cartoonish persona constructed by actor Billy Talen.

Talan has been at it for so long and so intensely, however, that it is difficult to see where Talen ends and Reverend Billy begins. Even while he was discussing his mission during his presentation at True Spin, he was prone to erupt into his preacher voice, standing up and beckoning those present to heed the central tenet of his Church: that we “Not Shop.” Although Reverend Billy is famous for his anti-consumerist sermons, he also preaches on numerous other social justice issues. One of those other concerns is that free-flowing conversational and intellectual space—the place where naturally-occurring culture used to thrive—is now jam-packed with the profit-seeking messages

Photo by Erich Vieth

Photo by Erich Vieth

of corporations seeking to deny us the natural flow of our social interactions. “They want to sponsor our stories.” He is concerned that corporations have filled our heads with their music and their values, and their buy-oriented slogans, largely displacing us of our ability and desire to construct original thoughts through natural conversion. Billy argues that we need to ramp down the shopping because on a daily basis we are selling our very souls when we unnecessarily buy. We have remade ourselves into commodities, and our unwitting plan is to deliver ourselves to our sponsors.

Pop quiz: according to Rev. Billy, what is the best thing you can get someone for Christmas?
Answer: nothing.

Why should we stop shopping?  Reverend Billy might answer you with the Title to his 2007 documentary:  “What Would Jesus Buy?

No words really work well to introduce you to Reverend Billy. Take a moment, if you will, to allow Amy Goodman to introduce him to you.

Those who think Reverend Billy is only a clown fail to listen closely to his serious message, perhaps because of the outrageous way with which he delivers it. But make no mistake that Billy has carefully constructed both his message and his means of delivering it. He delivers it in a way that seems absurd in order to bring a modicum of attention to his message. You see, Americans love their shopping their conveniences, and they fiercely resist any suggestion that they need to change their ways. They simply won’t listen to people who tell them to give up recreational shopping—they see it to be a harmless expression of their personal liberties. Talen’s message to stop shopping often provokes scorn from buyers who see nothing wrong with an isolated purchase of a Mickey Mouse embellished sweatshirt. Just like they do to others who suggest they should do without some of the things they purchase, people often heap vitriole on Reverend Billy.

Billy discussed many of his ideas in 2003 book, What Should I Do If Reverend Billy Is in My Store? Here are a few excerpts from his book:

Not buying is a brave thing to do. At first it may induce vertigo, identity weirdness, and the desire for an unwanted pregnancy, but most often a new believer will have an abnormal kitsch-acquisition fit. The first response to the break in buying may be a huge sucking sound in your hands-you want to buy something, anything. You are headed for a relapse, a spree. My pastoral advice is to steer clear of Ralph Lorenz, Kenneth Cole, or any other fashion designer who is trying to anticipate the not-buying revolution by copping a look of weathered mess, offhanded nests, or lack of manufacture. . . .

When you lift your hand from the product and back away from it, a bright, unclaimed space opens up. Consumers think it is a vacuum. It is really only the unknown–full of suppressed ocean life, glitterati from Bosch DNA twists, and childhood quotes that if remembered would burn down the Disney store. . . .

In the Church of Stop Shopping we believe that buying is not nearly as interesting as not-buying. When you back away from the purchase, the product may look up at you with wanton eyes, but it will slump quickly back onto the shelf and sit there trying to get a life. The product needs you worse than you need it–remember that.

Page xii

We’re trying to find a thing called neighborhood, called community . . . we’re looking for it on the sidewalks out here, trying to reawaken it in the heart of commodification. Once we returned to public space, I can feel the eyes of the logos looking down at us, the actors and models selling their perfumes and cars from the high walls of the city. We have flouted them, and they gaze on, impassively.

Page 18.

The shopping gods try to tell us that there would be no world without products, no economy, no sex, and nothing to do. In this way they have persuaded us to give up on the control of our lives and the direction of our country. Do we believe in product life so much that we can never change?

Page 84

How do we retake our life? How do we take back our neighborhoods? Let’s talk practical politics. How do we read value (or even notice) are commonest gestures and exclamations, remember our personal and public memories? So much of resisting transnational corporations is remembering things that we’ve been told to forget. What story do I have that isn’t a part of a products language? When my neighborhoods working, those are the stories that come up for it.

Page 122

As I mentioned at the top of this post, I recently had the opportunity to attend a session at True Spin during which Billy Talen discussed how and why his character involved. He explained that he was “beat up in the soul” as a child. He was raised as a Dutch Calvinist, “where God is a Republican CEO … who decides whether you are going to hell . . . for eternity . . . and he may make that decision before you were born . . . This is the patriarchy in an extreme form . . . on crack cocaine.

I don’t think that Reverend Billy is exaggerating the importance of the issues on which he preaches. Many Americans have turned themselves into walking talking billboards. I noticed this issue the most when I spent two weeks with American travelers outside of the United States. My wife and I were traveling with a large group of adoptive parents in China ten years ago. I noticed that half of those people just couldn’t stop talking about American products and American restaurants, even though they were in the middle of a large Chinese city, thousands of miles from home. I don’t mean to single out these folks; we are all this way, to a greater or lesser degree, but it was most apparent to me when I kept hearing about “McDonalds” when dozens of locally owned Chinese restaurants were within walking distance.

Billy’s family had hoped that he would grow up to be a banker. “That did not work out.” He became a “theater person,” performing and eventually writing plays. As a young man, he adopted the persona of a preacher in order to tell his stories, which often took the form of “obscure poetry.” It was during this period that he “became enamored with the idea of being generous.” He gives a lot of credit to his “mentor,” Sydney Lanier, for taking him under his wing when he thought his life had “stabilized” (i.e., In the late 90s, Talen had built up a theater for the arts in San Francisco, and thought he was ready to settle down and have a family). Lanier convinced him that “America needs a new kind of preacher.” Billy was fascinated by this idea, and took the time to intensely study many American preachers. He “fell in love with the preaching form, which he describes as a distinctly American form of communication (other examples he gave are auctioneering and the blues).

After additional months of developing his character, Billy ended up standing in front of the Disney Store on 42nd Street in Manhattan. He “created a theology that Mickey Mouse was the Antichrist, warning people to stop buying sweatshop goods.” It was in front of the Disney store that he honed his craft during many appearances. He did this during the mayoral reign of Rudolf Giuliani, who demonized Reverend Billy, and Billy was repeatedly arrested. On many occasions, his bull horn was taken from him. While he preached the dangers of Mickey, though, he noticed that increasingly larger crowds stood around him clapping, stating “Alleluia” and “Amen.” Billy’s main concern back then was that Disney, along with the government, was converting public spaces into private spaces. Disney “co-opted the 2000 celebration in Times Square.” Barbershops and other small shops were disappearing. “Times Square was being converted into a mall without a roof.” Billy wanted to “empower neighborhoods” and he “didn’t want corporations running our lives.”

Back in San Francisco, “I thought I was in a middle-class situation. Things are different now, however. I’ve fallen in love with preaching and I will do this for the rest of my life.” When he preaches, Billy is often accompanied by the 40-person Stop Shopping Choir. Billy explains that he and his choir members “our post-religious people who are rebelling against consumerism. We won’t let corporations tell our stories for us.” Consumerism is a central concern for Billy, as militarism, which he describes the two biggest problems in modern America.

Billy enjoys assuming the role of a preacher. He noted that conservatives were often taking liberal icons and perverting them for their own uses. He decided to take on the persona of preachers, many of whom are xenophobic and backwards and he “took it over.” He worked extremely hard at mastering this form of communication. He is proud of the fact that he even had a “preach off” with a conservative preacher at a Southern university. “I won that one on a technical knockout.” The winning line was delivered by Billy to the opposing preacher: I love Jesus! I love Jesus! And thank God he wasn’t a Christian. He never was. That was invented later on. That was invented to sell tickets and to let people make a living . . . people like YOU.”

When he discusses his transition to Reverend Billy, it is obvious from Talen’s tone of voice and expressions that this was an emotional journey with lots of twists and turns. Indeed, he stated that he would someday write a book about the details. For now, he reminded the audience that “my trail was an eccentric one.” Then again, he points out that “we all have stories to tell.”

Reverend Billy enjoys talking about his in that those who struggle to categorize the experience they are getting when Billy preaches. Is it artistic? Spiritual? Political? He also enjoys knowing that he is preaching in public spaces (which he reminds us are all actually “contested spaces” now). But is Rev. Billy being humorous or being serious? He responds, “Being humorous and being serious or not mutually exclusive.” It is obvious that the Reverend Billy persona allows Talen to gleefully rebuff many of those who would scoff at these same ideas presented without the disorienting presence of Reverend Billy. Consider, for instance, this interview by Glen Beck.

Billy reminds us that preaching should be done in the commons. After all, “Jesus did not preach in churches.” Billy makes many references to the Bible, explaining that “even post-religious people make use of the “inerrant” Bible.” Reverend Billy and his Church have developed to the point that he has conducted religious services, such as “baptizing people into post-consumerism.” He often leads people in the reciting of the “Beatitudes of Buylessness.”

At the recent True Spin presentation, Billy asked, “Who should we listen to when we seek the truth?” His answer:

There is only one authentic preacher: The Earth. And we need to listen closely to the Earth. If we do, we would hear earthquakes, climate change, extinctions of numerous species, fires and droughts. We are in an ultimate emergency, and our main institutions are dysfunctional. If we pay attention, we can feel that something is building in us now, something ineffable, although someday we might have a name for it. We can see the protests were not working–they look like parodies of protests in the 60s. We need to stop, rearrange our emotions and reshape our lives.

In the question-and-answer period following his talk, he elaborated on his method of communicating. Many people have told Billy that they get emotional when listening to preaching, even though they have resisted. Billy discussed his favorite preachers. One of those is John F. Kennedy, “who spoke with long vowels; melancholy long vowels.” Billy claims that these long vowels show “an awareness of death. One of his other favorite preachers was Martin Luther King, who also used these long vowels. Good preachers also “have the courage to use repetition.” In good preaching, one finds a conversation that is not guided by any specific outline of ideas. When one is preaching, “one searches for the notes in one’s mind, which makes one’s message eighty times more powerful.” With honest and open preaching, “the Holy Spirit is coming into the room, and I’m not referring to the Holy Spirit of one of the three angry Mediterranean Gods.”

Talen advises that “All good preachers talk and sing at the same time.” When they do this, “this means that the moments of silence are moments where we think.” According to Billy, we deny death all day and we shop to help ourselves deny death. We shop with tight assholes.” After saying this, Billy stops and laughs, pausing and looking down. When he looks up again, he tells us that Martin Luther King preached in a variety of ways. One of his finest speeches was the “Dexter speech,” which can be found on YouTube, in which King “warns how arrogant America is to forcibly export its culture abroad.”

What does Billy want the most? “I don’t want to be just a successful entertainer.” He would like to remove the corporate narratives from our lives, in order to give us back our own narratives. Here are the kinds of things that we would think “if our lives were not so polluted with corporate sales pitches: “Wow excavation point life!” “Isn’t this amazing!” We would look at the night sky and we would “embrace it.” All of these types of thoughts would come through again “when the corporate chatter stops. When you stop polluting the river, the water will clear.” We need to “get free of all major con jobs.” And the problem is here and now. We will be free “when our stories are ours again.” We need to strive “to fully engage in human media, not corporate media.” Our job is to “create our own stories” and to be good to the Earth, for instance, by avoiding the use of any toxic products. Billy admits that this will take effort. “We need to take the time to get it right.”

For Reverend Billy, speaking and listening “is the human media.” We need to clear our minds so that we can “learn to relax and look other people in the eye to notice their sighing and nodding. When we see these things, we can ask them whether we are being clear. We can “seek complicity in our conversations, working on our messages together.”

Now, a couple comments of my own.

Rev. Billy is absolutely correct to remind us about this immense problem, however. Would kind and decent Americans be willing to force someone we knew and cared about to work under these conditions? Absolutely not. We would insist that we pay extra for the clothing so that they did not have to work under these conditions, so that they would have time to spend with their own children. The solution to this problem raised by Rev. Billy, however, is not simple—it’s not simply to stop buying bargain clothing. A better solution would seem to that one should consider how to get meaningful wages to the people who make the our clothing.

I’m certainly not criticizing Billy for raising the issue of the rampant injustice of the situation. He is absolutely correct to question whether we should be spending our money on cheap clothing. I will readily admit that I have no solution to this problem, though I’ve considered various approaches. Perhaps there should be a sign on every clothing rack in every American store indicating some basic information about who is actually in making the particular items of clothing, how they are being treated and how little they are being paid. In a recent article in Harpers Magazine, “Shopping for Sweat: the Human Cost of a Two Dollar T-Shirt,” Ken Silverstein gives us some appalling facts to consider. As the textile business began to thrive in Cambodia (currently a hotspot for clothing manufacture, often touted as a model for how to treat workers well) the monthly minimum wage at apparel plants was $45 in the year 2000. Nine years later, it had risen only to $56 while inflation had cut the buying power of these wages by 37%. The workers often labor 60 hours per week. Although relatively recent reforms have made for some improvements in working conditions (such as better ventilation and the abolishing of bathroom passes), it is still the unrelenting force of raw capitalism that pushes down the appallingly low wages. It is impossible for these workers to be able to afford the products they make, even those that are resold in the countries of manufacture. Silverstein notes, “A pair of sneakers cost $40; a girl’s T-shirt was $32 and a pair of shorts was going for $30. The combined cost come to about two months pay on an apparel workers salary.” A piece of clothing that cost about two dollars to manufacture is typically sold in the United States for $30-$40. A typical Cambodian textile employee “generates approximately $195,000 in retail sales annually, for which she receives about $750 in pay (factoring in an estimate of about 25% in overtime).

But consider that these terrible-seeming jobs are highly sought by the people living in the countries where they are made. Further, any requirement that the wages be raised for the workers would quickly see the local industry vanish, only to be relocated in a place where workers are willing to work for a few cents less per hour.

The reason I’ve taken this detour into the textile manufacturing business is to point out that Rev. Billy’s “solution” to the problem of this exploitation of labor, not shopping, would destroy many of these jobs, which are (again) highly desired by the people who do this work. What is the option to not shopping for clothing made by oppressed factory workers in far-off places? It is not at all clear what to do. Ideally, there would be an efficient bureaucracy which would require that Americans add, say, ten cents to the price of each piece of clothing, at least to each piece of clothing. In this fantasy scenario, a shirt selling in America for $30 would cost $30.10. Because Cambodian companies can require each worker cranked out 8,000 pieces of clothing per year, adding a dime to the cost of each of those pieces of clothing at retail, would only increase the price of a $30 shirt by one third of one percent. If that money could be funneled down to help the workers directly, however, that additional $780 per year would double the salary of each worker. The idea of an efficient bureaucracy to do this work is a fantasy, however. Market forces would destroy any attempt to make this workable—the profit motive would lead undoubtedly corrupt the attempt to help out the workers. For instance, a factory forced to pay an additional $780 for each worker would simply undoubted reduce its own contribution or seek kick-backs from the workers.

Reverend Billy is also correct that the people of America are insidiously being corporatized. Human animals are cultural sponges, and the longer we expose ourselves to mass advertising, the more we allow these professionally-honed advertising messages to soak in. Once that happens, an even more insidious thing happens: once we have filled our minds with these product-selling messages, we automatically and often unconsciously, repeat them to our friends and family instead of having naturally-generated conversations. Ask yourself how often it is that a conversation you’re having turns to the acquisition or pride in a mass-produced product. How often is it that you find yourself talking with someone who wants to discuss their new car, clothes or Wii.

I entirely agree with Reverend Billy’s criticism that corporations are taking over our conversation with their own commercially motivated messages. Rev. Billy’s concern finds support in a cognitive science book written by Geoffrey Miller, Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior (2009), a book that has undoubtedly become one of my favorite books of all time. Miller notes that much of human culture consists of an “evolutionary competition between the memes.” In modern times, means often take the form of stories, anecdotes, ideas, catchphrases, images, songs, sound bites, character types and personifications of qualities.

Miller argues that most successful means “our imposed top-down by marketing in the interests of certain powerful individuals, groups and institutions . . . most successful means–religions, political ideologies, languages, cultural norms, technologies-have been disseminated by churches, states, school systems and corporations with immense wealth and power.” In principle, marketing is a response to pre-existing consumer preferences. In fact, marketers sometimes refer to their work as “cultural engineering”–the intentional creation and dissemination of new culture units (memes) through advertising, branding, and public relations.

Miller notes that we are faced in modern times with an extraordinary proliferation of memes dominated by six global media conglomerates, including Time Warner, Disney, NewsCorp, Vivendi, Bertelsmann and Viacom. Further, four huge advertising holding companies which are not household names (Omnicon, WPP, Interpublic and Publicis) dominate the advertising business. Miller explains that these four firms “are at the heart of cultural engineering, as they are involved not only in advertising, but also design, marketing, media buying, public relations and lobbying. They design the memes, buy the airtime and column inches to distribute them, and measure how well the memes are achieving their purpose in promoting consumer, investor, and political recognition for their clients. Altogether, about $400 billion per year is spent in the global ad market-money spent specifically to promote some names, brands, products and people at the expense of others.

These huge corporations consciously create and spread the ideas that dominate our cultural conversation. They shape our views and preferences. We think of these sorts of things at the expense of the types of ideas that we would develop and exchange in the course of natural social exchanges, conversations among friends and family. Miller explains that these businesses have not engaged in a centralized conspiracy to dominate our culture. Rather, they are involved in the brutal competition with each other, using whatever research and techniques they find useful to hone what they hope to be viral memes, a classic case being Hello Kitty.

[Much of the above information is from Spent, pages 46-51].

I raise a toast to Reverend Billy for incessantly bringing these serious issues to the attention of the general public, using his unconventional means. Billy’s issues are serious issues that you will never see discussed seriously in the mass media, whose job is to fill our cultural consciousness in its conniving attempts to convince us to buy more and more, whether we need it or not. And it is a rare “real” American church that has the courage to tell its members to stop shopping.

Thank you for your genuine concern and focus, Reverend Billy. May your Church of Not Shopping continue to be successful in keeping us focused on these critical issues.


Tags: , ,

Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Culture, Religion, Science, Social justice

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Erich Vieth says:

    In this March 6, 2010 sermon, Reverend Billy preaches that the biggest purchases that we make here in American is war. "Bombing Baghdad is shopping. And there is no solution to this that isn't radical. It's time to be a radical American again right not. Think of the extraordinary things that radical Americans have done!"

    We can't figure out what that act of courage is . . . We're lost right now. Barack Obama's use of the word 'change' looks like it is to STOP change."

    According to Reverend Billy, Barack Obama presented a message about "the human logic of decency." But now that many of us feel radical disappointment with Obama, it's time to be radical, "like Jesus." It's time to start believing in the possibility of "the commons." We must update the First Amendment such that we reclaim the commons and make it accessible to even small dissenting groups of us. To do this can no longer be passive. We need to give up our consumerism, which shackles us. "We need to make FOOLS out of ourselves! … I want to be a FOOL for peace."

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Rev. Billy Talen has been arrested for putting a "holy hex" on the House of Morgan:

    The self-ordained Rev. Billy Talen was arrested on Easter Sunday after putting a "holy hex" on JPMorgan Chase bank, which he calls the nation's largest financier of coal-mining mountaintop removal. The former New York City mayoral candidate and his green-robed chorus put the hex on two bank branches, saying Morgan Chase has helped destroy more than 450 Appalachian mountains, deforested 800 square miles and polluted more than 1,200 miles of streams.

Leave a Reply