Faith Review – What Would Jesus Buy?
by Jeff Smith
Film Title: What Would Jesus Buy?
Year: November 18, 2007
Director(s): Directed by Rob VanAlkemade, and produced by Morgan Spurlock, known for SuperSize Me (2004), and the 30 Days television documentaries. VanAlkemade has directed three documentaries, Reaching the Autistic Mind: An Educational Challenge (2002), What Would Jesus Buy? (2007), and Training for the Apocalypse (2011 post-production). He has also directed one short film, Preacher with an Unknown God (2005).
Original Release Form/Venue:
Originally released for theaters.
Current Availability and Formats:
Released onto DVD on May 27, 2008 but is not yet available on blu-ray disc. Available on Netflix. Clips available through hulu.com.
Documentary – PG, 90 minutes
The plot of this documentary is an examination of the commercialization of Christmas in America while following Reverend Billy (Bill Talen) and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on a cross-country mission to save Christmas from the Shopocalypse (the end of humankind from consumerism, over-consumption and the fires of eternal debt.) The film also delves into issues such as the role sweatshops play in America’s mass consumerism and Big-Box Culture. From the humble beginnings of preaching at his portable pulpit on New York City subways, to having a congregation of thousands – Bill Talen (aka Rev. Billy) has become the leader of not just a church, but a national movement.
Reverend Billy is the star vehicle of the documentary, as he humorously travels across America with his choir to spread the message of consumerism and it’s grip on our lives.
Because it’s a documentary the film doesn’t have fancy camera work, but rather transitions from different aspects of consumerism, such as credit card debt, addictions, social justice, etc…
Film Language Elements:
The setting of the documentary is an important element of this film. Reverend Billy takes his tour to local towns and performs his show outside of Wal-Mart, Target, the National Mall, Disney World, and in New York at Macy’s. He also performs at several churches along the way. The setting of the secular and the sacred is poignant in the documentary. The film also shows how crazy people are as they run one another over in stores on “black Friday” to be the first to get the hottest items. Clerks tell of how they are treated by customers who are irate and angry when they don’t get what they want. The documentary has been edited to weave in questions and answers of the average American based on the particular topic as it continues to follow Reverend Billy on his tour.
Billy’s performance outfit has what looks like a regular priestly collar and black shirt, but he can tear it away revealing Mickey Mouse on a cross. These types of outfits are a part of the act, trying to shock and awe the audience to hear the message.
Audience/Cultural Context Elements:
This documentary is intended for everyone – particularly the younger generation that is fixated on having “things.” The documentary is provocative in it’s title provoking interest by using Jesus as the backdrop of shopping. Morgan Spurlock produced the documentary and his notoriety of “Super Size Me” and his infamous television show, “30 Days,” are enough to draw those who have seen these documentaries back. This particular film follows the themes of Spurlock’s other works; which put simply is how modern day American’s live their lives and the choices that we make that are destructive. This particular film shows the dangers of over consumption and how Americans consume more at all costs; even debt. It shows the ugly side of our culture and how we have become slaves to the merchandise industry.
Theology is Found:
Theology is found explicitly as the entirety of the film addresses the issues of consumerism. Most of Jesus’ teachings are focused on what we do with our “stuff,” or what we treasure most, so this film focuses entirely on addressing those issues not wholeheartedly from scripture but by presenting the themes and posing questions that can foster more conversation around the topic.
Theological Themes for Conversation:
How do we preach Christmas appropriately?
How does our shopping affect others? (social justice)
The deception of Americanized Christmas
Stewardship of consumption – being content with what we have
How much is enough? Should we seek more?
Is happiness or joy found in having more?
Labels – having the very best for our children – is it necessary?
Credit Card slavery/addiction
Relationships vs. marketing of television
Large corporation monopoly vs. local stores – “buying American”
Choices – Can we celebrate Christmas without gifts?
What about the poor? What do we do for the poor at Christmas?
How do we preach the message of Christmas? – is Rev. Billy’s way of presenting the message the most effective? How do we handle this issue in light of Christ?
Suggested Use of Film:
This film can be used as an illustration of theological themes, or it can be used as a clarification or deepening of theological themes. Some theological themes are explicit, and yet some of the film can be used to question the bias of the director as well. Either way, it could be used to bring about great conversation.
Recommended Amount/Parts of Film to View & How to View It:
This particular film could be watched in it’s entirety and then discussed, or it could be used as individual clips to discuss the different elements of it. It’s possible for this film to be used as a 4-6 week study, so that you watch particular segments and then have discussion.
This documentary does a great job of revealing consumerism and the dangers of it. If you watch the whole documentary, you will find a bias against large corporations, particularly against Wal-Mart and Disney. It’s important to recognize that because there isn’t a balanced view of the large corporations.