What Would Jesus Buy?
2007, PG, 90 min. Directed by Rob VanAlkamade.
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Dec. 7, 2007
Two thousand years ago, an uncharacteristically angry Jesus stormed into Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem and, in one of history’s most famous temper tantrums (right up there with the siege of Troy), kicked all the money changers to the curb. Flash forward a couple of millennia to 2004, and you’ll find the Reverend Billy, performance activist and founder/spiritual leader of the Church of Stop Shopping, following in the footsteps of his hero by storming the cathedrals of our new American religion – the Starbucks, the Wal-Marts, the Disneylands – in an effort to free the Christmas season from the clutches of the capitalists and return it to those who choose not to celebrate their savior’s birthday by buying Xbox 360s. You see, the good reverend is on a mission from God to convince his fellow Americans that all their heedless consumerism will be their spiritual undoing, which is a pretty brave theology to espouse when you’re standing in front of a horde of shoppers in the electronics department at Kmart three days before Christmas. With his wild shock of blond hair, garish white suits, and post-TV-evangelist pageantry (complete with exorcisms and a full gospel choir singing songs with titles like “Convenience – the Shopocalypse Song”), Billy is the perfect zealot: passionate, single-minded, and, very possibly, totally around the bend. Watching him, in this Morgan Spurlock-produced film, rail against credit-card companies and multinational corporations in the middle of Minnesota’s colossal Mall of America, his 30 disciples by his side, one can’t help but feel that the guy must have a screw loose somewhere. But What Would Jesus Buy? director VanAlkemade isn’t interested in questions about the reverend’s sanity (or even his background); he’d rather glorify him as an uncorrupted prophet crying out in the American wilderness. Which isn’t to say that he’s not (God knows I can’t find any argument with a man who stands up to Walt Disney), but rather that true believers make for sloppy documentarians and that What Would Jesus Buy? is stuck in neutral because of its director’s almost total lack of intellectual and psychological curiosity. Where does true religion end and show business begin? Who exactly are all these people Billy convinced to spend Christmas on a bus crusading hopelessly through Middle America? And, most interesting of all, during those 30 days spent wandering around in a late-capitalist nightmare, did the reverend or anyone else on that bus ever wonder if those covetous, rioting souls they were fighting for may not be worth the saving? I guess we’ll never know. (See "Customer Service: Rob VanAlkemade and the Reverend Billy on 'What Would Jesus Buy?'" for an interview with the director and Reverend Billy in conjunction with the film's debut at the SXSW Film Festival.)