Rev Billy has long protested against Trump and consumerism, while also providing comfort to spiritual refugees. He’s now bringing his choir to Ireland, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
Before construction began on Trump Tower in 1979, Donald Trump was granted permission by the City of New York to build the top 20 storeys of the 58-floor building in exchange for maintaining a publicly accessible garden on the fifth floor.
Since March, a curious figure can be seen in this garden, with blow-dried blonde hair, a white linen suit and a dog collar: it’s Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Choir. The group of activists and performers are staging a regular “secular prayer service” in protest against Trump’s presidency and against specific actions of his administration in the public garden, accompanied by their attorney to explain the legitimacy of their presence to security guards.
“We take groups of citizens through the submachine guns and the dogs and the Secret Service, and through the sort of supermall he’s got on the bottom storey and we take them up the escalators, plated in fake gold, and we take them to the garden and we exercise our creativity,” Rev Billy says.
The construct and alter-ego of his creator Billy Talen, Reverend Billy, is, as he describes himself, “part Elvis, part televangelist”. He was created 20 years ago as a comedic, larger-than-life device for protesting consumerism: part street theatre, part performance art, the reverend would stand outside shopping malls in the consumerist fervour of Christmas or on Black Friday, preaching to the blank-faced masses: “stop shopping! You can do it!”
Initially generating media interest as a quirky colour piece for TV networks to run in the holiday season, Rev Billy’s anti-consumerist, ecological message has since formed the basis of a documentary, What Would Jesus Buy, by Morgan Spurlock, and more recently the Stop Shopping Choir supported Neil Young on his anti-GMO album tour for The Monsanto Years.
As his congregation swelled to around 40 core performers and singers, their actions have included preaching inside a branch of JP Morgan Chase to highlight the bank’s funding of ecologically disastrous industrial projects, with the choir dressed as extinct Central American golden toads, a performance which saw Rev Billy arrested for the 75th time: he was charged with riot, trespass, unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct.
Speaking on the phone from New York, where he lives with dancer and activist Savitri D, the director of the Stop Shopping Choir, and their seven-year-old daughter, Talen, or rather Rev Billy, slides in and out of evangelising as he speaks.
The line between Rev Billy and Talen seems blurred, but what is very clear is that what started as a parody performance is now an exercise in authenticity, centred around a very real set of beliefs.
The change began in the aftermath of 9/11. “All these over-cultured, sophisticated New Yorkers were in our audience suddenly after 9/11, and we realised that they wanted to hold hands and sing and cry and laugh and share strong emotions with other people,” the reverend says. “I became a pastor, and I wasn’t so much a performance artist anymore.”
“We’ve been a real church for a long time now, with the parody only a frame, or a momentary invitation,” he says. “We’re always operating on a level of entertainment and on a level of serious religiosity at the same time.”
Raised in a strict Dutch Calvinist tradition in small-town Minnesota, Talen worked in theatre for years, developing the character of Rev Billy when he was in his forties.
“All sorts of bad things happen when people believe they are selected by God,” he says. Did he need to rebel when he escaped his conservative upbringing? “I don’t think I had any choice, but I was very clumsy; I stumbled my way out of a burning house basically. I was traumatised by the abuses of my childhood, and for years didn’t want to even consider a performance that used this preaching style as a ritual of Christianity.”
“It’s true that Reverend Billy is part a defence against my fundamentalist boyhood,” he says, “but it’s also true that in the United States, all of us have this fundamentalism besetting us. Basically, everyone in the choir is in recovery from their grandparents’ religion; we have Hindus and Muslims and Baptists and Catholics; the full spectrum of fundamentalist religions, and we’re all recovering together.”
Reverend Billy’s beliefs are anti-consumerist, anti-corporation and pro-earth. And Donald Trump epitomises everything he believes is wrong. “Donald Trump is the devil; he’s an apparition,” he says firmly. “He’s the king of consumerism.”
Yet the Trump presidency and its attendant wealth of protests may be attuning people to Rev Billy’s message at last.
“We’ve had a lot of shows this past year with the feeling that people want these demons cast out by a religious figure who’s also got that snake-oil salesman pedigree,” he says. “I also have false hair; I think I resemble a progressive version of this awful president we have.”
And so, several times a week, The Church of Stop Shopping are making their presence felt in Trump Tower: “We talk and write, and then we turn toward this gold-tinted tower above us and recite what we’ve written. It’s a ritualised resistance. Then we talk to the weeds and the moss growing on the building, assuring them that eventually, they will reduce the tower to a forest.”
“The governments and the corporations really don’t think it’s a bad thing to kill the Earth. They really don’t.
They’re operating through a tortured lens and they must be stopped. But they have us in a position of passivity with advertising that we’re bombarded with every day. They’ll keep feeding us hamburgers and planting us in front of our televisions and keeping us passive and we can’t let that happen,” Rev Billy says, suddenly in full preacher mode: “Earthelujah, we’ve got to rise up!”
Religion, but not quite as we know it
In Ireland, the 2016 Census revealed more Jedi Knights (2,050) than Jews (1,929), more Pastafarians (92) than Hare Krishnas (87), and more Satanists (78) than Salvation Army members (52). Here are some other parody religions founded for protest and/or a bit of fun:
Based on an ancient Sumerian belief system, Zuism, named for the “thunder-bird God of wisdom” Zu, was registered as a religion in Iceland in 2013. One per cent of Icelanders are now Zuists, due to the religion’s pragmatic promise of a tax rebate. Zuism was founded to protest the Icelandic government’s annual tax of €68 to a citizen’s nominated faith; those who nominate no religion aren’t eligible for a refund.
Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
Humans evolved from pirates, heaven contains a beer fountain and stripper factory, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a complex carbohydrate based deity who “boiled for our sins”: if ever there was a religion founded by and for students, it’s The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whose adherents are known as Pastafarians. They may be a parody religion, but adherents have gone to court to win the right to wear their religious headgear — a colander — in official ID photos.
The Church of the SubGenius
A true act of culture-jamming, the real motive of the Church of the SubGenius is to highlight the perceived ludicrousness of established world religions by mimicking them; founded in the 1970s, the parody religion has attracted interest from some well-known figures including David Byrne and cartoonist R Crumb.
Festivism arose from an episode of Seinfeld and is based on the spoof secular celebration of “Festivus” on December 23 every year. As a kind of anti-Christmas, Festivus has actually taken off, with Google even adorning their search engine page with the traditional Festivus ornament — a bare aluminium pole — on December 23 each year.
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