Just in time for the holiday season, What Would Jesus Buy? arrives on the scene with a simple but subversive message: “Stop shopping-start giving.” Despite the title, this documentary-produced by Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame)-is light on religious dogma and long on humor. With his bleached-blond pompadour, Reverend Billy looks like a two-bit televangelist, but when he prays he invokes a rather vague and decidedly non-patriarchal God, and he proclaims (in a Disney Store, of all places) that “Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist.”
The film follows Reverend Billy and the 35-person Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on a cross-country bus tour for the month before Christmas as they use street theater, choral music, and civil disobedience to try to persuade Americans to “put that Starbucks down and stop shopping.” As they exhort shoppers to abandon the malls, they’re met with a mixture of applause, bemusement, occasional hostility, and-always-a police escort off the premises. The documentary takes aim at some obvious targets, most notably the Mall of America and Wal-Mart. The interviews with a Wal-Mart employee unsuccessfully attempting to list the great benefits she receives and Wal-Mart advocate Andrew Young defending the corporation are so painful to watch they almost seem like a cheap shot. Despite this, the film never loses its light touch (“Ride of the Valkyries” plays on the soundtrack as the choir descends on the Mall of America), even though it includes interviews with experts such as child psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint and labor activist Charles Kernaghan. Although it decries the commercialization of Christmas, the movie is not preachy. James, the choirmaster, acknowledges: “Nobody can stop shopping. But you can have a conscience about it; you can think about its effect on other people.” Savitri, who is Billy’s wife and a choir leader, explains that they try to ensure the money they spend when they do buy will flow back into the local economy.
What Would Jesus Buy? deserves to become a holiday tradition. A non-fiction counterpart to It’s a Wonderful Life-a reminder of what the season’s supposed to be about. Only one problem: What sponsor would cough up for advertising?