What Would Jesus Buy? is a 2007 documentary by producer Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) that examines how Christmas—the “season of giving”—has in fact become a season of shopping and out-of-control consumerism. The film follows Bill Talen—also known as “Reverend Billy”—a performing artist who leads the “Church of Stop Shopping,” a group that is traveling around the country to save Christmas from what they have dubbed “the Shopocalypse.” Dressed in a white suit with impeccably coiffed hair and a perfected parody of “preacher-speak,” the charismatic Reverend Billy and his red-robed gospel choir’s act, though sometimes silly, has a powerful message. By staging performances in shopping malls, in Times Square, and, amidst the epitome of the commercialization of the holidays—Disneyland on Christmas Day—this group, and this film about their mission, has a powerful message: to stop shopping, and start thinking about the implications of our nation’s pathological obsession with buying.
What Would Jesus Buy? interviews families who spend thousands of dollars every year, maxing out credit cards so that “Santa” can bring their children every expensive, trendy new toy. The film points out the irony in the trouble parents go to make it appear as though nothing was bought at all. Experts discuss how the story of Santa Claus and the illusion created by advertising that Christmas is a season of love and giving has caused our children—and adults—to associate imagination and love with the instant gratification of material items. In our modern Christmas season, Billy and his choir tell us through songs and “preaching” that everything is commodified: from the gifts we buy to the “spirit” we think we feel to the “love” that we think we’re giving through these material gifts.
The film also briefly discusses the serious consequences of buying from superstores like Wal-Mart, whose workers often receive no benefits, and whose goods are frequently “made in China” by workers getting paid pennies so that Americans can buy cheap products to wrap up and place around their already overly burdened Christmas trees. In another heart-wrenching moment, Reverend Billy and his wife talk with a man who owns a small clothing store selling American-made products that’s been in his family for a hundred years. The man, however, is struggling to stay in business due to the recent arrival of a Wal-Mart in his small town, demonstrating the devastating effects of corporate power, and consumer power, on our local economies.
Ultimately, the film tells us that when you have to buy, buy local. Buy in a way that supports your community and doesn’t exploit human beings. Being conscious of where we spend our money, especially around the consumer frenzy of the holidays, can ultimately make a difference in people’s lives, both in the small towns of America, and in factories across the world. No present is worth the suffering of others, especially when there are so many more important “gifts” to give. In a poignant moment at the end of the film, Reverend Billy tells his audience to “buy half as much and give twice as much…to give your child more of your time, or your loved one more of your love—these things are the real gifts.”
WWJB? is not a film about “keeping Christ in Christmas.” In fact, Bill Talen doesn't even consider himself a Christian. Regardless of what you believe the “true meaning” of the holidays might be, none of our traditions —whether originating with Christians, Jews, or Charles Dickens—had anything to do maxing out credit cards or people being literally trampled to death by frantic shoppers. As WWJB? points out, if we have to ask ourselves whether the holidays are still the holidays without the toys and gifts, it’s time to reexamine what we’re actually celebrating, and how we can change.
When I look back at my own childhood Christmases, I don’t remember what toys I unwrapped. I remember decorating cookies with my mom. I remember my dad reading me “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and then when I was alone in my room, taking a last long look out at the snowy sky, knowing Santa Claus was up there, and believing in pure, unexplainable magic in the way that only children can. Of course I no longer believe that reindeer can fly, and the reason I love Christmas no longer has much to do with religion. But I still believe in magic—the magic that only the holidays can bring, which is togetherness, comfort, peace, and beauty. In the words of my favorite Christmas hymn, “Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace.” You don’t have to be a Christian to believe in something as hopeful and lovely as the message of Christmas. Now that’s something you can’t buy in a store.
Watch What Would Jesus Buy? by streaming it on Netflix or Amazon.com. To order a copy of the DVD and to learn more about Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, visit www.revbilly.com.