Eccentric’s Corner: The Buck Stops Here

Bill Talen (Reverend Billy) fights the globalization and Disneyfication of neighborhoods.

By Matthew Hutson, published on January 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Bill Talen

PROFESSION: Actor and activist

CLAIM TO ECCENTRICITY: Master of political street theater

Man in street

In 2000, Starbucks circulated a memo answering the question "What should Ido if Reverend Billy is in my store?" Actor and instigator Bill Talen, an anti-consumerist cult hero known for bringing big-tent revivalism to big-box retailers, now hopes to shake up the ballot box; he's running for mayor of New York City on the Green Party ticket. Talen and his wife, Savitri Durkee—director of The Church of Life After Shopping and its 35-member gospel choir (their antics are documented in the film What Would Jesus Buy?)—lecture and perform around the world, but insist on buying local.

Were you religious growing up?

Savitri and I both had fundamentalist parents. I diverged when I discovered everyone had invented their own deity.

Even people who feel that they're following a brand-name deity?

It's interesting that you say brand-name deity. Our church thinks that the fundamentalist religion that reigns right now in American culture is consumerism. The megacorporations and their marketing departments control our behaviors, make us dream their advertising.

Did you choose the televangelist role because of your fundamentalist upbringing?

Preaching is central to it. Laurie Anderson called preaching "the landscape between talking and singing." Reverend Sidney Lanier, my teacher, even as I was saying I didn't want to have anything to do with the Christians, told me, "You have to learn to love the instrument and sometimes turn off the text." And I did. Preaching is like hip-hop, like blues. It's rhythmic and melodic.

What's the trick to preaching on the street and not seeming crazy?

If you're intent on creating change, you will have all sorts of responses. When we went into the Disney Store the first time—I call it the High Church of Retail, the hypnosis is so thick—we started doing things contrapuntal to the resident corporate story. We came in with preaching, laughter, and music. There were 20 different reactions. Some people were giggling, other people were stunned, others started clapping to the song, and some picked up their kids and ran out. You're cracking open the heart of the American culture and the economy.

Are more people listening now?

Now, we go on Fox Business News and they say, "Reverend, the Shopocalypse that you've predicted [an unspecified calamity, now identified as the current credit crunch] has happened. Tell us, what should we do?" But I don't want to be the quote-unquote expert.

You're a jester shaking people up.

If you know what to call one of our services, we're not having a very good show. If you can say, "That's politics, or art, or theater, or religion," then we're a product and you're consuming us.

You were right about the Shopocalypse.

That's why we changed our name from The Church of Stop Shopping. Shouting "Stop shopping" at people when they're broke doesn't quite make sense. Now the question is, "What kind of life are we going to live after consumerism?"

And what's the answer?

We want people to build passionate local market economies, where we're skill-swapping, where we're taking care of each other, where we know our neighbors. Farmer's markets are booming. Local economies are making a comeback. The old "roll up their sleeves, practical Americans"—that cliche turns out to be true. I counsel a lot of people who are addicted to shopping. Lots of folks are finding their way after consumerism was dominating their lives.

What are your main critiques of consumerism?

It doesn't support a sustainable economy, it doesn't support healthy communities, it doesn't support the Earth. And it doesn't support healthy people. Consumerism isolates us, and demon monoculture—the same two dozen logos everywhere—is disorienting. After a while you don't know who or where you are.

How many times have you been arrested?

We use the act of arrest as a source of our theater. For instance, Savitri has developed a whole irate-wife routine. If I'm exorcising a cash register, and I've got a store manager trying to lift me, I've got a cop trying to handcuff me, and I've got the choir singing, and we've got the usual mayhem going on, Sav will say, "Billy! You promised me you wouldn't do this anymore!" And all of a sudden the police back away. A marriage is a stronger government to a lot of police than their captain's instructions. I'm frequently detained, but booked overnight? Less than 50 times. All along the line to jail it's theater. We'll ask a policeperson who's arresting us, "How's your shopping?"

Are you ordained?

No, but Savitri and I have lectured at Yale Divinity School and been on the covers of Christian magazines.

How seriously do you expect voters to take a fake minister?

For over ten years in New York City, I've been in my costume shouting in community gardens and community centers, slowing bulldozers and saving bus lines. This is my gift to New York. Hopefully I've given the costume some meaning.