Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Shopper, Repent!

The leader of the Church of Stop Shopping explains how consumerism corrupts us - and how "not-buying" is our salvation.

by Bill Talen, aka Reverend Billy

In our strange worship at the Church of Stop Shopping we recently took a shiny Sunbeam toaster and put it in the center of the altar.

A young man named Jonah walked up the aisle of the church for his exorcism. As he walked toward the Sunbeam his obvious admiration for it, competing with his faith in the potential of his own buylessness, was very clear. The congregation prayed that he would somehow not grab that sleek chrome bread heater (it resembled a Mercedes coupe and had computerized controls, including a woman's voice that purred "Your toast is done"). I placed my hand on the forehead of this shaking soul as he pleaded with us, "Oh, I don't need your help, I'm just browsing!" How could we possibly blame him for the bald lie? We had positioned the Sunbeam beautifully on a red velvet cloth.

As Jonah reached for the product we prayed hard. The choir hummed and the deacons moved forward to lay hands on the craven consumer as the devil pulled the young man's begging fingers toward the toaster. Jonah was pretty far gone. "Oh ... toast and butter ... toast and butter ... it's more than a smell ... Oh, my God! Black currant jam on the butter, oh, oh!" The cry was hideous.

But wait! Jonah's hand hesitated, and then pulling out of that force field, it flew back and wavered there in the air. Jonah stared, in shock, at his released fingers. Then he ran around the church as if proving to a Pentecostal TV audience that now he could walk. Held aloft by the preacher, his hand was shaking with new freedom, unburdened. The Stop Shopping Gospel Choir was swaying with the power of a receiptless God-Goddess that surpasseth all valuation. The object looked cheated, cuckolded. Finally the Sunbeam deluxe toaster was just fucking junk.

Not-buying is a brave thing to do. At first it may induce vertigo, identity weirdness, and a desire for an unwanted pregnancy, but most often a new believer will have an abnormal kitsch-acquisition fit. The first response to the break in buying may be a huge sucking sound in your hands - you want to buy something, anything. You are headed for a relapse, a spree. My pastoral advice is to steer clear of Ralph Lauren, Kenneth Cole, or any other fashion designer who is trying to anticipate the not-buying revolution by copping a look of weatheredness, offhandedness, or lack of manufacture. Their sales departments think all day about your escape, admiring it and blocking it. They study you via surveillance feeds as they sit in their easy chairs, thoughtfully rubbing their chins.

When you lift your hand from the product and back away from it, a bright, unclaimed space opens up. Consumers think it is a vacuum. It is really only the unknown - full of suppressed ocean life, glitterati from Bosch, DNA twists, and childhood quotes that if remembered would burn down the Disney Store. Many Americans consider this withdrawing gesture a dark thing. Officially, it is absurd, an antigesture, like an American who didn't go west, who didn't go into space, who had sex without a car.

In the Church of Stop Shopping we believe that buying is not nearly as interesting as not-buying. When you back away from the purchase, the product may look up at you with wanton eyes, but it will slump quickly back onto the shelf and sit there trying to get a life. The product needs you more than you need it - remember that.

Now, if you try this - if you lift your hand from the product, pull that hand back into the aisle, back away from the product, and carefully move toward the door - you may feel turbulence deep in your muscles' memory. You may feel the old grab, the lift, the swipe of plastic, and finally the bagging for the road. The ex-consumer can easily lose his or her footing, buffeted by all those ghost gestures.

Like crack cocaine or membership in the National Rifle Association, shopping is an annihilating addiction that must be slowed down to be stopped. Or flooded with new and different light. But people, please - do something! Think of something quick. The research phase is over. How many times do we have to hear that seven percent of the world's population is taking a third of the world's resources? How many neighborhoods need to be malled? When will our foreign policy be violent enough to turn our heads? Recently a local Starbucks rang with shouts of "We are from the Church of the Necessary Interruption!" We try many strategies. Enacting a purchase in a formal church ritual on Sunday or acting out a comic version of being born again might help those parishioners when they are cornered in Temptation Mall. Sweatshops are truly shocking, and I've seen the sheer force of the information stop a shopper. We make dramas, we sing and shout, and chain ourselves to Mickey Mouse. We are desperate to access the bright and unclaimed space that the corporations must desperately hide.

In another time, long, long ago, maybe you could have gone ahead and had a life without shopping. But now life without shopping is something that takes years of practice, since shopping is so virulent and ubiquitous that mothers are bathing their wombs with sounds of Mozart so that their fetuses will score higher on their SATs. Now everything from the most intimate disease to daydreaming is a pretext for the avant-fascism of convenience, comfort, and closure.

We might call that unclaimed space "ordinary life". And how do we design that back in? How much of real life hasn't made it into our fully mediated consumption? Can we ever go home again? We have made thousands of purchases - thousands of times the doors have closed behind us as we walked farther into that big, big sale.

The bumper sticker says Birth, Shopping, Death. Well, birth and death are a part of ordinary life. And ordinary life is itself amazing; the intriguing mystery that precedes birth and follows death does not stop when we are alive. Perhaps the great con began when churches made us pay our own arrival and departure. Life itself has as much unknown in it as death; it is just as inexplicable. That's the thrill of the ride. We say, Put the ODD Back in God!

We shop because we fear life. We shop because we want to banish from life something we identify with death, the unknown. It waits for us in that bright, unclaimed space. Of course, we are trained to think of what we can't know as a bad thing. Actually, it is the source of the brightness; it is why this space has no owner.

I'm claiming that the rejection of living-by-products opens up a sensual and peopled life, and it also has in it an acceptance of the unknown, which is always waiting with the glorious indifference of the fires that float above us in the night sky. Is it a contradiction that accepting this unknown is what makes it possible for us to live together? Well, there is nothing more thoroughly mysterious than love, thank God. Those who organize defenses against the Unknown (such as religious fundamentalists and consumer fundamentalists) foment numbness, hatred, and war. Unfortunately, they have perfected their imitation of ordinary living, and that comes to us as the comforting ghost gesture of shopping.

Ordinary life will feel counterintuitive, to put it mildly. But what will happen to the American consumer when the consuming stops is about as fascinating a question as we can ask.


Excerpted from What Should I Do if Reverend Billy is in My Store? by Bill Talen (The New Press, 2005). Reprinted with the author's permission.

Bill Talen is an actor and activist who, as the Reverend Billy, leads the Church of Stop Shopping, an anti-consumerist communion devoted to putting the "Odd into God". He lives and preaches in New York City, but has been feted and arrested in several countries. For further information, visit

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Bill Totten


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