Film review of "WWJB?”

WWJB? A Rob Van Alkemade film. Produced by Morgan Spurlock. 90 min. 2007.
Reviewed by Chris L. Rice

Bill Talen, together with his wife Savitri Durkee and a large gospel styled choir, make up the activist performance group Reverend Billy and the First Church of Stop Shopping. Over the Christmas season of 2005 we at Jesus People USA got a rare and unique opportunity to briefly interact with Reverend Billy and the gang, as one of our long time members, Glen Van Alkemade, is the director’s older brother. I could tell you a few stories from the week they rolled in that don’t appear in the film—maybe in the next blog entry. Director Rob Van Alkemade introduced a screening of his film at Cornerstone Festival this year and Glen introduced the second screening the next day. I was able to see the entire second screening. A 3:45 piece of the short film “Preacher with an Unknown God” is still available on Rob’s website Cityfish. (This will give you a taste of WWJB?)

WWJB?, a Morgan Spurlock production, documents the Shopocalypse bus tour of American over Christmas 2005. What sort of a man dons a large blonde boufant, a white collar, a white suit and (sometimes) black gloves, picks up a megaphone, and adopts the personae of Benny Hinn and Lenny Bruce rolled into one? WWJB? provides some answers. Over the years many televangelists have become symbols of affluence, judgmentalism, and spiritual manipulation. Bill Talen seems to be trying to reclaim the image to preach against affluence, corporate control, and a cultural insanity of over consumption. This use of a familiar cultural image to produce a different effect has a name, Wikipedia defines culture jamming as:

the act of transforming mass media to produce commentary about itself, using the original medium’s communication method. It is a form of public activism which is generally in opposition to commercialism, and the vectors of corporate image.The aim of culture jamming is to create a contrast between corporate or mass media images and the realities or perceived negative side of the corporation or media. This is done symbolically, with the “detournement” of pop iconography.”

We could say that cultural jamming already has a precident in biblical history. The role of the prophet in the Old Testament was to bring God’s often negative critique to the people of Israel. Rev. Billy seems to know this, much of his preaching takes a prophetic tone. He shows up in a Walmart parking lot and preaches that without “Change-Allujah” the spirit of consumption will possess and consume us all. The beauty of the film is that we get to see Billy and the church trying to live their message. At times, as when Billy throws himself on the shrubs in front of Walmart headquarters in Bentonville Arkansas, its quite clear that the message falls flat, even to the church themselves. In this scene and in the ones to follow, they outwardly wonder what good they’re doing. When Billy stops and touches a child and (I guess) baptizes it in a parking lot the next day, they feel it’s all worth it again.

Perhaps the hardest thing about political activism is the sinking feeling that your public message is only active when it has attention. The struggle comes in the attempt to embody a changed life 24/7 even when the camera isn’t on. What is striking is that Rev. Billy has latched onto a subject that embarrasses the mainstream Christian church. He is right. Christians are often the worst offenders when it comes to spending. Many have been snared by the tempting idea that the gold of heaven is not figurative, but meant for us beginning now. That’s certainly not the teachings of Jesus.

I heartily recommend WWJB?. Its a delightful story about a group with an important message. See it if you can.

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