“What Would Jesus Buy?”

A Christmas present arrived at our house a few years ago in early December. It wasn’t a package, it was a phone call from my brother who said, “You’ve got to watch this movie. It changed the way I think about Christmas.”

I did watch that movie and I tell people about it every year. This is probably a good time to bring it up because a lot of people stress about buying stuff in December. If you’re overwhelmed by (or just tired of) material expenses hijacking the high holiday of our country’s major religion; if you want some laughs, if you want to see people with a whole ‘nother take on Christmas, then gift yourself this season with, “What Would Jesus Buy?” starring Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. It’s free on the web.

Reverend Billy is the creation of New York City method actor Bill Talen. Fifteen years ago Bill got fed up with the Christmas takeover but didn’t internalize it. One day, by himself, he went into Times Square decked out as a televangelist: clerical collar, white suit, big hair, revival voice, and all. He preached to New Yorkers about the manipulations of the Shopocalypse. Hallelujah brothers and sisters, Amen. Since then he’s been arrested more than 50 times. He’s also acquired a following, a big gospel choir, a band and a mission. ‘What Would Jesus Buy’ is a documentary about the Church of Stop Shopping’s real life cross-country bus trip via America’s most expensive, most heavily promoted, most iconic shopping Meccas.

In the Mall of America — over 4 miles of storefront and 42 million visitors a year — in Wal-Mart Headquarters, along highways and byways, churches, community centers, there’s Reverend Billy with a megaphone preaching the good news with choir singing, shoppers cheering, credit cards getting exorcised, security guards freaking out all the way to Disneyland where they end up on Christmas Day.

This film has some uncomfortable moments. There’s the segment on sweat shops overseas where foreign children make what American children get for Christmas. There’s a scene where Billy tries to turn the tide of a Black Friday opening at a big box store as the crowd just surges on by unstoppable as a herd of buffalo. There are poignant moments, too. Memories shared by old people who remember their wonderful childhood Christmases with no money. They tell how happy they were with little gifts.

Projections are that we Americans will spend over $630 billion dollars on Christmas in 2015. For comparison, $630 billion is enough to fund the National School Lunch Program for 57 years. About 50 percent of us owe more in credit card debt than we have in savings. There’s 7.3 square feet of self-storage rental unit space for every man, woman and child in the country and everybody seems to be talking wistfully about downsizing their stuff. Maybe helping with that can be our Christmas present.

The message in this film isn’t that no on should shop. We’re all going to shop. But we can spend less, buy locally and enjoy it more if we channel Reverend Billy.

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