Performance Artist Reverend Billy Preaches the Gospel of Anti-Consumerism and Occupy at Chapel
Reverend Billy is one part evangelist, one part activist, and another part (specifically his hair) Elvis. Wearing a white suit and snakeskin shoes, the preacher took the stage of the Memorial Chapel on Monday evening, hollering “Earth-alujia” and spreading the anti-consumerism, pro-occupy gospel to pews of eager, and occasionally confused, audience members.
Reverend Billy—more formally known as Bill Talen—is a member of the Church of Stop Shopping, an activist group and self-described “post religious” organization based in New York City. By holding public “services” and exorcising emblems of consumer culture like credit cards and cash registers, the group hopes to draw attention to the pitfalls of consumerism.
Growing out of Talen’s 1999 solo sermons in Times Square, the group now includes a large gospel choir, has performed across the U.S. and Europe, and was the subject of a 2002 documentary.
Professor of Religion Mary-Jane Rubenstein, who has been discussing Talen and his church in her Intro to Religion class, worked with multiple groups and individuals to bring the Church of Stop Shopping to campus.
“The problem of global capital has only escalated in recent years, and it has become clear that’s it’s not enough just to protest in places like Target and Wal-Mart,” Rubenstein said. “The idea is that corporations have somehow taken over our political life. The Occupy movement emerged out of this, and I think the Church saw there a funny reverse of what they were doing—rather than bring the public to the private, they brought the private to the public.”
Much of the sermon focused on the importance of public space, with frequent references to Occupy, including the choir’s lyrical chants of “We are the 99 percent.”
“We don’t really have the words, but we have discovered the power of the commons,” he preached. “All we have to do is start a little ecosystem, feed each other, sing a song, and be of service to one another.”
Monday night’s sermon included topics as diverse as environmental sustainability and anti-bank activism, coalescing in the goal of “casting the demons out of vaults and ATM lobbies that finance Mountaintop Removal Strip Mining,” in the words of Talen.
Rubenstein said she does not believe that The Church of Stop Shopping is mocking religion. Rather, she pointed out, the group has formed a community that in some ways resembles a religious one.
“While it is a political movement and a piece of performance art, the group is not making fun of evangelic modes,” Rubenstein said. “They’re using these forms and finding them powerful. They have created a community of people who care for each other and try to live with one another in relation to one another.”
Talen’s preaching style was loud, gruff, eccentric, and his tone of voice alternated between. Then he frequently engaged the audience, intermittently crying “Earth-elujah,” “Change-elujah,” and “Occupy-elujah!”
“We realized that you can be telling a prayer, and in the middle of it tell a joke, keep going, and it’s still a prayer,” Talen said.
At the end of the sermon, Talen and the gospel choir selected a student from the audience to exorcise, crowding around the student, quaking, and spewing prayers.
Some students thought that this detracted from the overall message.
“I thought it was kind of ridiculous,” said Hannah Rimm ’15. “I could see what they were fighting for, but I could not really take the act seriously.”
Simon Edmonds-Langham ’14, however, disagreed.
“Billy’s sermon, while aggressively condemning at some points, and nearly impossible to follow at others, outlined a basic philosophy,” he said. “How much of the whole thing is an act—how fabricated this character really is—is up for debate, but the speech was passionate and effective nonetheless. He had the crowd in his hand.”
The performance in its entirety garnered a wide range of reactions, from students who were ready to join the movement to those who left in the middle of the sermon.
“It was hard to tell how much was parody and how much was sincere,” said Will Fesperman ’15. “The choir looked like they could be the cast of a TV series about a bunch of strangers who are forced to band together when their Manhattan apartment building is besieged by zombies.”
Though some students came into the sermon with almost no knowledge of the context and were surprised by Talen, others came into the performance with a better idea of what to expect, as the quasi-religious group has been the main topic of conversation in Rubenstein’s and Associate Professor of Religion Elizabeth McAlister’s Intro to Religion Classes for several weeks.
“There is a relationship between American Christianity and unregulated capitalism,” Rubenstein said. “What I think is interesting about Reverend Billy’s work is that he takes the evangelic mode of communication and expression and deploys it against capitalism.”
Students in the class learned about the varying representations of religion in today’s society and their manifestations within capitalism and consumerism.
“Leading up to the performance, we learned a lot about Oprah and religion, relating consumerism to religion, and the market as God,” said Talia Baurer ’15. “We have looked at so many definitions of what religion is. I think this is a good modern example of a group using the framework of what religion is for a different purpose. I think that they have a really powerful message, but I do think that without the prior knowledge the people who are in the class have, the message can get lost in how extreme and comic it seems.”
Edmonds-Langham agreed with Baurer.
“It was fascinating coming into Reverend Billy’s performance having spent a few weeks studying his movement in class,” he said. “That background allowed me to see the performance as less of an act and more as an actual religious ceremony. The man has a message, and it just happens that his method of spreading it toes the line between Broadway revue and southern Baptist-style service.”
Although the response was not uniformly positive, according to Rubenstein, this may not necessarily be a bad thing.
“I think what is important to take away from this is that theater, like education, doesn’t have to make us love it in order to make us think,” Rubenstein said. “You don’t have to come out a convert in order for it to have done something and have some kind of message. It could be that the people who were most troubled or most perplexed actually got the most out of it.”