The Reluctant Religion of Reverend Billy
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
St. Mark's is an Episcopal church; an impressive edifice of rough gray stone perched behind a black iron fence on 10th Street and Second Avenue in New York.
Today a crowd of 200 fills the nave, looking less Episcopal than pure East Village. This is hardly Reverend Billy's first St. Marks sermon, but it is his first matinee. He and his Church of Stop Shopping, from which his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir takes its name, are scheduled for a three o'clock performance.
But I use "performance" lightly. Whether this is theater or religion remains an open question. I have come to see a man expound a moral truth to a crowd of believers while his choir sings hymns from the dais behind him -- in a church no less. So how is that different from any religion? If the preacher is a fake, but he preaches his sermon sincerely to a crowd of authentic believers, is it an act or is it conviction?
Rev. Billy is not a real reverend, though he is certainly a preacher. Bill Talen, 53, is an activist and performance artist, and at heart, he and his choir are political theater. Talen assumes the role of an evangelical preacher, complete with large, bleach blond pompadour, a breathy intonation and a handkerchief to wipe his face when the spirit is too emotional. His choir is as enthusiastic and talented as any, but they sing praises to no specific god -- rather, they warn of the coming "shopocalypse," the death of man, brought on by his own consumer excess.
Rev. Billy was born in 1997, when Talen was dually inspired by the mass-market makeover of Times Square and the old style street preachers who protested it. After gaining a reputation for fringe theater and activism, Talen formed his church, now a certified non-profit, and the choir. His wife and collaborator, Savitri Durkee, currently directs the performances.
These days Rev. Billy is a well-known protest figure, famed for his theatrical retail raids and crusades against chain stores. He is also no stranger to the press -- today's service (he is at St. Mark's Church every few months) is being filmed by a French camera crew as well as by Super Size Me 's Morgan Spurlock.
But Rev. Billy's frequent coverage tends to treat his act as creative progressive protest, and rarely sees his churchman motif as anything but playacting. But religion is no stranger to theatrics. Every sermon is a script; what matters is the belief behind the staging, and whether we judge the doctrine as legitimate enough to label it a distinct "tradition."
Jonathan Dee, who profiled Rev. Billy in The New York Times Magazine, came closest to raising the spectre of sincerity in the Church of Stop Shopping. He wrote that the Reverend may "finally be less a character than a mode of expression." "The whole Reverend Billy experience," he continued, "born in parody, was becoming less and less distinguishable from an actual church service -- a reaffirmation, in a ritualistic setting, of a common core of spiritual values."
But even Dee approached this revelation from a skeptical perspective, acknowledging his possible "sacrilege." He chose to judge the Rev. Billy experience on faith, rather than on ritual. "Act as if you have faith," he concluded, "and faith will be given to you." But faith is not at issue here -- the experience is. Of course this is theater, but Talen could not have invented Rev. Billy if he didn't have faith in the message. He simply invented a new and culturally recognizable way of sharing that message. His costume and his retail exorcisms may be parody, but only in their medium, not in their message. And if the act is at its heart an expression of his faith in a new way of seeing, then the question is when does a belief become a religion? In espousing a way of looking at life while dressed up as a cleric, perhaps Rev. Billy inadvertently became one.
St. Mark's is sparse and open, filled with plastic chairs beneath a high, arched ceiling. The four-piece band begins its overture, belting out a jazzy church tune, with a keyboard playing the role of organ. The organist wears a Mao cap, while the saxophone player has a pink feather boa. Then there are the angels -- women in slips and feathery wings, laughing as they hand out flyers for a protest at Victoria's Secret. The music picks up, and a sound fills the room, that of hands clapping in rhythm.
The service begins with a double line of Stop Shopping Choir men and women dancing and stepping and clapping their way up the center aisle. Most are draped in glossy blue choral robes, while four soloists wear their own clothes. They sing "Stop Shopping!" and "Hallelujah!" When they reach the dais, a tall blond woman with pink false eyelashes leads them in song. Rev. Billy steps out a few minutes behind them, full in character, shouting "Stop shopping children!" and stopping himself, shaking hands with parishioners. He is wearing a tight tan suit with a black tunic and a white Protestant collar. When he arrives at the front he stands off stage left, dancing in place in a wildly enthusiastic half jog, raising his hands in praise.
The song peaks and ends, though the service is rarely without some sort of background music. Billy calls out "Can I get a Changellujah here?" Then he starts sermonizing, telling us straight off that "we're gonna leave here with something beyond entertainment." God is ever-present in a Rev. Billy service, but he is "fabulous," and "unknown."
The Rev. asks his choir to acknowledge their gods, and one asks for "fair trade clothing" for a blessing. Another praises the god "of the first orgasm you have with your true love." This latter line is improvised, but Rev. Billy goes with it, and it becomes a running joke throughout the service. "I'd like to ask everyone in this room to remember your first orgasm with your true love," he declares, pausing for a moment. Later, he keeps referring back to "our orgasm god."
The Stop Shopping Choir is a mix of ages and races. They hum and dance and shout "Amen" with the spirit, but it shouldn't be written off as pure performance. There is no professional glamour in activism theater; it requires its actors to believe in the message they are preaching. The choir raises its arms in praise as Rev. Billy preaches. He passes the microphone to a Forest Ethics representative, who decries the waste of Victoria's Secret catalogs. A Guatemalan woman asks for donations for the victims of Hurricane Stan (the one "without a press agent") and the plate is passed for donations. The service is intermixed with original, anti-consumer gospel hymns. All the music is up-tempo, and most songs are choreographed. The service is full of laughter. The medium and the message are material and spiritual at the same time.
The "shopocalypse" is the sum of Rev. Billy's fears. "It's the death of the community," he says, "and the death of this earth." Rev. Billy doesn't believe in the issues that divide the political left, arguing that it's all one issue, "the issue of life. We're taking our last breath and the shopocalypse is killing us. We have consumed too much for too long. The earth destroyed, our communities gone, and now we're saying goodbye to our own life. But that last breath, all those issues, have just become one issue. So find each other tonight, now that the eight days of rain are over. We have a little bit of a break, from the earth shaking with waves and storms and tsunamis, and still everything around the world, the poor people runningâ€¦now that we have a little bit of a break. It feels like the sun is coming out again. It feels like maybe Browny and Bush are receding, the thugs have been found out. It feels a little bit like Wall Street is backing down, it feels like there's a little bit of an opportunity for us. Let's not turn on our computers and have 300 little issues. Let's try and have one issue, our body of one issue -- the heart that we have deep inside ourselves. But one issue, thanks to god."
Rev. Billy preaches for a reinvention of values: anti-corporate, anti-consumerism, pro-community, pro-spirit. It's not a new protest theme but Rev. Billy has ritualized through the intonation, and the metaphorical and physical motifs, of religious expression. And while the "Amens" I hear all come from the choir, there is plenty of applause.
He is preaching to believers. Billy sings the praises of "Jesus the peasant revolutionary," of Gandhi, Dr. King and Cesar Chavez. The Choir concludes by singing "democracy is not for sale," and with a sung version of the first amendment. After an hour, Billy brings the house down with his final call to worship: "One issue -- stop shopping -- Changeallujah!" The Choir dances out, down the aisle.
There is a Western cultural distinction between theater and worship -- the latter is underlined by faith, while the former is underlined by fiction, or at best, imitation. Religious theater -- the passion play and the Christmas pageant -- is an expression of religious conviction that imitates theater, rather than a theatrical expression that imitates conviction. But this is not a necessary distinction, merely a modern one. Ancient Greek theater was a conscious synergy of creative expression and worship.
Durkee, Rev. Billy's director, wife and collaborator, prefers to think of their work as theater, but theater that belongs to an earlier tradition. "I think," she says, "that the way to consider it is to really abandon a modern notion of theater, go back to theater as ritual--ritual can transcend." This definition of theater would in turn allow the Church of Stop Shopping to transcend the line between performance, religion and politics: Dionysus instead of Shakespeare.
After the performance, Rev. Billy is shaking hands outside, out of character, but not completely. His speech remains peppered with euphemisms; he greets his friends and admirers as both Bill Talen, and as their preacher. When he answers questions, it is hard to tell how sincere he is, because he still seems half-immersed in his role. This might be Rev. Billy I am talking to, or it might be Bill Talen. He continues to employ rhetoric and metaphor, and resists more complicated questions. "We resist consumerism," he says, "and that includes resisting labels. We want the experience to come first, rather than the labelâ€¦Back away from the product on the shelf. We're getting back to god -- that fabulous unknown -- by backing out of the fabulous hypnosis of products."
Talen was raised by, in his own words, "Right-wing Christian assholes." Perhaps this is why he resists categorization. "The experience is yours," he says, and he admonishes me, telling me "don't blur the lines, let go of the lines." We are interrupted a few times by passing well-wishers, and after one of them Rev. Billy just sort of wanders away.
Later, once he has changed out of his performance clothes, Rev. Billy, or rather Bill Talen, seems more down to earth. But he remains resistant, perhaps even tired of asking himself what it is exactly he is doing. "It's definitely a church service," he says, "a political rally, it's theater, it's all three, it's none of them." That's not much, I admit, but at least we are getting somewhere.
Brad Tytel is a writer living in New York City.