Before there was Reverend Billy, there was Bill Talen, born and raised in Minnesota, in the midst of conservative Dutch Calvinism, a faith he rejected as a teenager. He became a playwright, performer, and producer, working for years in San Francisco before he moved to New York City in the mid-1990s. “Rev. Billy,” Talen’s alter ego, was created in 1997, when Talen/Billy began street-corner preaching near the new Disney Store in Times Square, using the cadences and mannerisms of a TV evangelist to decry the chain-store commercial excesses of gentrification.
Rev. Billy began to take his preaching into the Disney Store, and later into Starbucks, often joined by supporters who would help him stage “shopping interventions,” during which he might, for example, perform an “exorcism” of the cash register. In the process, the Church of Stop Shopping was born, a performance activism nonprofit staffed almost entirely by volunteers, including many professional musicians, singers, and actors who turn up as they’re able at actions and rallies promoting free speech, local communities, and anti-consumerism; tour with Rev. Billy as the Stop Shopping Choir; and help lead periodic “revival” productions.
Talen uses elements of parody in Rev. Billy. But the persona reflects much more than over-the-top mannerisms and rapid-fire wordplay. Rev. Billy seems to have grown out of Talen’s genuine soul-searching and his delving into the writings and work of activists, theologians, and radical performers. This preacher and his church that is not a church has a distinct philosophical—some might even say theological—basis. Talen, it should be clear, professes not to be a Christian and distances himself from all organized religion. But much of the political and spiritual truth in Billy’s “sermons” will seem familiar to followers of Jesus with ears to hear, and believers of other traditions as well. And as he struggles, sometimes awkwardly, to express something both incarnate and transcendent without using any known religion’s terms, one can see the fire of a devotion that mere political rhetoric could not contain. Agree with him or not, Rev. Billy’s call to seek “the god that is not a product” seems to be a mission statement, not a joke.
Given that there is a long tradition of prophetic theater and theatrical prophets, we asked eminent biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann to examine whether and how Rev. Billy might relate to the prophets of the Bible. —The Editors
That day Starbucks was busy but quiet. People were relaxed and talking, sipping $6 venti lattes. Then there was a phone conversation, readily heard by the sippers, about being in the wrong Starbucks and missing each other. There was another cell phone call, this one raising the question of buying all the “extras” sold by Starbucks. Soon two more calls occurred over the same issue—then a dozen calls, enough to disrupt the entitled relaxation. Finally there was a disturbing hubbub and the phone-callers shrieked with joy and celebratively removed themselves from the shop, to the great relief of management.
It was a prophetic disruption by the Church of Stop Shopping, a fairly typical enactment of “guerrilla theater” by the folks around Rev. Billy, a dramatic performer of prophetic faith.
R everend Billy, also known as Bill Talen, has gotten the strange idea that the Big Corporations, notably Disney, Starbucks, Nike, and Wal-Mart—and their shameless commitment to profit at the expense of human infrastructure—constitute a destructive force in our society. He has, moreover, reached the critical judgment that such a negative ideological force in our society must be resisted, and can best be resisted from a self-aware theological perspective that operates with parody and irony. The purpose of such parody and irony is to expose what seems like an economic operation as an ideological force of totalizing scope in our society. This force seeks to situate U.S. consumers in an uncritical way in the “life world” of consumer capitalism.
The specific discipline that is expected and required by this corporate “life world” is endless shopping without reflecting on the needs of or obligations to the community that might curb patronage at such shops. That is, Rev. Billy takes these organizations (and many others like them) as agents of consumerism that has become a “consuming” ideology in our society. In the end that consuming ideology distorts not only social resources but eventually neighborhoods, practices of neighborliness, and social vision as well.
Thus the Church of Stop Shopping, Rev. Billy’s congregation, dispatches its members in protest against the Church of Shopping and engages in deliberate, sustained resistance to shopping as a way of participating in an alternative covenantal life.
AFTER HEARING HIS disc of preaching and music and reading his two books—What Should I Do If Rev. Billy Is in My Store? (The New Press, 2003) and What Would Jesus Buy? Fabulous Prayers in the Face of the Shopocalypse (Public Affairs, 2006)—I have no doubt that Rev. Billy is a faithful prophetic figure who stands in direct continuity with ancient prophets in Israel and in continuity with the great prophetic figures of U.S. history who have incessantly called our society back to its core human passions of justice and compassion.
In thinking about Rev. Billy, I have had recourse to an old article by my friend and Hebrew Testament scholar Sibley Towner, “On Calling People ‘Prophets’ in 1970.” I take from Towner four marks of a prophet that are easily identified in the talk and walk of Rev. Billy.
First, prophetic practice has a style that gives dramatic form to what is said and done. That is, prophets are “performers.” That style, characteristically, is one of enormous, passionate conviction. One would not situate one’s self in a risky challenge to such great corporations, as Rev. Billy does, were there not deep conviction that is grounded in thoughtful social theory that, as in the ancient prophets, is kept mostly hidden in more-popular modes of discourse. That social theory in ancient Israel focused on the concentration of wealth among the urban elites in Jerusalem that would bring destruction because the poor were not honored or taken seriously. Rev. Billy’s conviction concerns the super-corporations (and their uncriticized ideology) that serve the insatiable monopoly of the urban-suburban elites. That style of the prophetic, moreover, consists in parody that teases and makes fun of both corporate seductions and the long list of consumers who sign on for lattes and much else.
It is the power of parody to call attention to the unstated but powerful intentions that are mostly kept hidden in advertising and public presentation. The parody of the prophetic regularly slides over into irony, in which things are renamed and re-identified so that their truth cannot go unnoticed.
Second, prophetic practice has a rhetoric. While Bill Talen in fact is not a “reverend,” he is closely enough allied with the church that he can easily and readily appropriate church lingo and terminology. His “sermons” reflect all of the passion and rhetorical force of an evangelistic preacher accompanied by devoted listeners who respond with engaging verbal support, affirming what he says and urging him on.
The rhetoric of this preacher is saturated with religious terminology that talks about “change” (repentance), “real love,” and “freedom.” In an important riff, Billy says he must be “surreal” if he is to talk about reality; he is in need of being “exorcised” if he is to escape the demonic power of consumer ideology; and he must be “impossible” if he is to be understood. That triad of “surreal, exorcised, and impossible” shows the prophet seeking a mode of discourse that is not contained in and domesticated by market ideology. That is, the consumer ideology is so totalizing that anything outside of it must, perforce, sound outrageous. We are able to see ancient prophets practicing daring, scandalous rhetoric (and conduct) in an attempt to make sense outside the dominant ideology of their time. Billy is an echo of their work.
THIRD, PROPHETIC PRACTICE is located institutionally in society and appeals to a particular constituency. In ancient Israel the prophets were variously situated amid the temple and the central institution of monarchy (thus Isaiah could speak of a “messianic king”), or among the peasants who regularly faced economic emergency brought on by the exploitation of the urban elites. Their work is always context-specific. Billy is, for sure, a voice “crying in the wilderness,” located in a risky environment outside the ordered domain of Pharaoh but well short of any new place of prosperous well-being. Billy is indeed swimming “upstream” against enormous odds.
But he is not alone. In his practice, he is the voice of a “church”—albeit a curious church—but one rooted in the visible historic church. His practice would not be possible without “church” in that he has disciples, a choir, and a congregation which responds to his preaching. This institutional form, partly serious and partly parody, lends a certain kind of authority and gravitas that provide standing ground for his testimony.
Beyond that, it is clear that Rev. Billy is identified with and has wide support among the company of believers (religious and secular) who know that our current market ideology is a path to death. As always with prophets, Billy’s vocation is to be a presence visibly at work in concrete acts of protest, resistance, and alternative possibility. Thus the talk he offers is rhetorical insistence of a most concrete kind that has a chance to impinge upon settled authority and unquestioned social assumptions.
Fourth, what counts in prophetic practice is the message of a truth rooted in God and enacted in concrete society. Billy quite explicitly situates himself in the tradition of Gandhi, César Chávez, and Rosa Parks, three he names. Without being reductionist, it is fair to say that prophetic utterance characteristically concerns divine judgment and divine hope.
The divine judgment Rev. Billy pronounces concerns a condemnation of religion that has been “hijacked” by the right wing, the resignation that we have “nothing to love but fear itself,” and the self-deceptive illusion that commodities can make us safe and happy. The shopping he assaults is seen to be an ideological practice whereby we keep “the demons in the zoo.” All of that will come to a sorry end for which he uses the term “shopocalypse,” a play on “apocalypse,” that imagined end of the world in a divine judgment as a great conflagration. Like every good poet, Billy has no interest in when or how that may happen, but only a conviction that this ideology that drives our society can only end in failure and raw disappointment.
But prophetic practice is not finally about judgment. It is about hope. Hope for Rev. Billy is the deep conviction that there is a viable, choosable alternative to shopping that will make possible a human community of neighborliness, peace, and justice. At one point he even uses the phrase “eternal life,” but he would not want that phrase misconstrued, as if it referred to enduring life as “pie in the sky.” I understand his usage to mean a possible human neighborhood. And as with every prophet, that hope requires committed embrace. Billy urges his congregation to “use your bodies for your freedom”—that is, to vote against the slippery consumer ideology with your feet, even to use your bodies in the practice of corporate “interruptions” as a way of testimony to an alternative. He also urges active remembering that is an act of radical neighborliness, a difficult act of specificity against great corporations that want to encourage timeless amnesia.
The discipline of Stop Shopping by itself is only a negation. But Billy intends for that discipline to help us redeploy our energy and attention toward the neighbor. Like all prophetic figures, Billy’s aim is not to entertain but to recruit. It is now clear, given the current betrayal of our constitutional rights, the erosion of an independent judiciary, and the stifling of an independent media, that the human crisis in our society is deep. Billy’s stratagem is a way to think and to act appropriately.
Amos Wilder, the wise New Testament scholar of the last generation, observed that the parables of Jesus are a form of “guerilla theater,” action against settled conviction and an invitation to listeners to come “on stage” into the action. Before Jesus, this same guerilla theater was the enterprise of the ancient prophets. That theater continues with Rev. Billy. We are surely apt candidates for the Church of Stop Shopping. With enough new recruits for the action, perhaps we need not be subjected to the Shopocalypse.
Walter Brueggemann was professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, when this article appeared.