Ironic Authenticity: Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping
by Amber Day — Bryant University
January 15, 2008 – 04:01
Reverend Billy is the bouffant-hairdoed, Jimmy-Swaggart style preacher (created by performance activist Bill Talen) who presides over the Church of Stop Shopping. Together with his choir, Billy holds regular performances, stages stop-shopping interventions at retail corporations like the Disney Store, Walmart, and Starbucks, and stars in a recently released documentary called “What Would Jesus Buy.” What is striking about Reverend Billy’s use of irony is its extreme earnestness. The over-the-top character is engaging and amusing (and allows the performer a little more license to rant and rave in public than is granted your average citizen), but the cause he espouses is also deadly serious. The irony is not in the service of ridicule or a snarky superiority; rather, there is a more complicated form of play involved. While the character is exaggerated, Billy nevertheless preaches with genuine emotion and conviction, co-opting the real power and allure that the preacher-figure exerts. The journalists and commentators who have profiled Reverend Billy all remark on the real passion he summons forth in his flock, as savvy cosmopolitan types yell “hallelujah” with abandon. And Bill Talen himself, as this interview illustrates, clearly thinks of his work as a type of crusade, seamlessly incorporating his own convictions into the character’s “theology,” though he maintains a safely ironic gap. Reverend Billy’s act offers liberals the chance to abandon themselves to a type of committed fervor, while still remaining skeptical of organized religion and power. While I think it is unlikely that Billy is converting any committed conservatives to his cause, he plays to those who already share some of his anti-consumerist assumptions. Some would dismiss this as merely “preaching to the converted,” but this critique ignores the fact that the so-called converted may still be apathetic, unconnected to a larger movement, or simply in need of validation. Reverend Billy, it seems to me, aims to actively politicize and energize his base, offering them passion and purpose tempered with a knowing wink. The question is how to measure the efficacy of this project.