Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What Would Jesus Buy? (2007) (Troubled by the Style of the Film)

Although I agree with the substantive concerns of the film and I’m generally glad that a film was made to focus attention on the problems of commercialization and materialism, the style of the film was problematic to me.

What Would Jesus Buy? is described as a documentary. It purports to follow a man named Reverend Billy and his choir as they essentially go on a mission trip across the country. Reverend Billy speaks in an exaggerated preachy Southern drawl reminiscent of people like Jimmy Swaggart. Reverend Billy is a white man with a big bleached pompadour hairstyle and outdated, flamboyant attire. He resembles a blonde Elvis in the King’s later years. Reverend Billy is shown to exorcise people by putting his hand on their heads and pushing back in a dramatic fashion. His effect is like something from an SNL skit lampooning Southern Evangelical preachers. In watching the film, I half expected Lorne Michaels to appear at some point.

Similarly, the members of the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir have a caricaturist style. Despite their message of anti-consumerism, they have elaborate matching long robes. They have rehearsed choreography to accompany their singing. And they flail about enthusiastically in (mock?) rapture when Reverend Billy preaches.

I try to be a good sport, and I think laughter is a gift. Satire can be helpful; it helps us see faults that we might not otherwise see. As a result, I’m certainly not opposed to poking fun at Christians. We should all laugh at ourselves from time to time. None of us should ever take ourselves too seriously. And it is insightful for us to see ourselves as others do.

But What Would Jesus Buy? goes beyond poking fun. The film blurs the lines between reality and satire. In watching the film, it is not clear whether Reverend Billy is a street preacher with sincere Christian faith or a mocking performance artist with a social conscience. It is also not clear if the “Church of Stop Shopping” is an actual religious congregation or the stage name of a group of performance artists who are trying to make a political statement.

The film includes footage of Reverend Billy and the choir in several churches. They seem to be leading a worship service, but the reaction of the folks in the pews was telling. The cameras show several with big, dopey grins. They appeared to be audience members enjoying a funny show, not religious worshippers. As a result, religion seems to be the butt of a joke. I’m not sure how that squares with the purported message of Reverend Billy. If the point of the crusade is to save Christmas, why is that goal of any importance if religion is merely a joke? A broader year-long crusade against materialism would make more sense.

Other scenes in the film are even more troubling. At one point, Reverend Billy speaks to several devout members of an African American church. He represents to them that he is a pastor of the Church of Stop-Shopping. They have a serious dialogue, but Billy seems to be taking advantage of their goodwill and hospitality. If he is a street performer mocking Christians, it seems rather mean-spirited to have represented himself as an actual Christian pastor. That portion of the film had a Borat-esque quality.

In another scene, Reverend Billy and the choir take their proselytizing/protest/show to a Wal-mart where they attempt to exorcise the store. After they are thrown out of the store, but while they are still lingering in the parking lot, Reverend Billy purports to baptize an infant of loving parents who are receptive to his message. A Christian baptism is a meaningful, sacred religious ritual, but in my opinion it was ridiculed by Reverend Billy’s spectacle in a sacrilegious way.

In the end, I appreciated the message and consciousness raising of What Would Jesus Buy? However, I was very disappointed by the disrespectful way the message was delivered.

Luke 18:32 (New King James Version)

For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon.

No comments:

Post a Comment