Sunday, December 12, 2010

What Would Jesus Buy? (2007) (Agreement with the Film’s Basic Premise)

The title of this documentary is a play on the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” That phrase was coined a number of years back as a quick guide to help Christians discern the right choices to make in various situations. It was particularly embraced by Christian youth who wore “WWJD” wristbands, but the phrase became popular more widely in Christian circles.

As a result of this background, when I originally heard of this film, I thought it would be an examination of ethical shopping choices. I assumed there might be a focus on human rights of workers and the destruction of our environment due to practices employed in manufacturing many retail products. What Would Jesus Buy? does touch on those themes, but it is certainly not the main focus of the film. Instead, the film follows “Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir” as they go on a cross-country bus tour before Christmas to warn Americans of the pitfalls of consumerism and to “save Christmas from the Shopocalypse.”

The film was produced by Morgan Spurlock, who is better known for his assault on fast food in the documentary Super Size Me. I liked Super Size Me. In a simultaneously informative and comical way, the film examined a serious problem in our country: the disastrous effects of overconsumption of large portions of very unhealthy “fast food.” The film raised our consciousness while making us laugh. I’m down with that.

Similarly, I generally liked What Would Jesus Buy? As expressed in previous blog posts this year and last, I too have been disappointed and repulsed at the commercial exploitation of this important religious holiday. Christmas has been taken over by marketers in an effort to induce us to overindulge in material consumption. The irony of course is that the exploited holiday is the celebration of the birth of a man who taught us to not focus on material things, but to instead put our attention and energy into more lasting concerns. For that reason, I appreciate the basic concern of What Would Jesus Buy? It points out that Christmas shopping is really just emblematic of our culture’s wider year-long materialism and overconsumption, which the film equates (comically) to a religion unto itself. The filmmakers flag that this focus reduces us to worshipping material things. The film points out that on average Americans spend about 1 hour each week on spiritual pursuits, but about 5 hours each week shopping.

What Would Jesus Buy? explores the notion that Christmas is a marketing coup. Marketers have succeeded in equating childhood love with having material things. The film examines the myth of Santa, noting that parents go to extreme lengths to hide from their kids the fact that toys actually come from stores and do not have a magical origin. It is mentioned that other countries prohibit marketing to kids, but by contrast American kids absorb large numbers of hours of advertising each week and spend significantly less time in meaningful dialogue with their parents. The film mentions that child psychologists say that young children lack the developmental ability to distinguish between entertainment and advertising such that they are particularly receptive to marketing pitches. To illustrate these points, the film also interviews children who discuss the intense peer pressures of having the “right” brand labels on their belongings and the “right” clothes at school. The film also includes interviews with parents who are obsessed with giving their kids “quality” brand name presents, and having their kids celebrate Christmas with a slew of gifts. The film discusses the repercussions of such attitudes, including the financial vulnerability of overextended credit and the exploitation of workers in the developing world due to “big box” stores that emphasize an abundance of cheap merchandise.

Romans 1:25 (New Century Version)

They traded the truth of God for a lie. They worshiped and served what had been created instead of the God who created those things, who should be praised forever. Amen.

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