Performance Art: The Gods of Shopping

It is no secret that shopping and religion are close relatives in America -- money is God, God is heavily marketed, and then there's "Christian rock" -- but it sure does help to be reminded sometimes. Not surprisingly, neither advertiser-driven media nor religious leaders like to make the connection. But every once in a while, out along the edges, someone else does to great effect, usually by satirizing self-appointed spiritual leaders whose God keeps telling them to solicit our cash and buy themselves a really fancy house.

One of the latest such entries, Mrs. Betty Bowers (the creation of one Paul Bradley), touts herself as America's Best Christian, "so close to Jesus" that she knows His AOL password, shares His Delta SkyMiles, and has convinced Him to delay the Rapture until her hair grows out. He has blessed her with riches, social status, and excellent fashion sense. As she puts it, "If God created me in His image, I have more than returned the compliment."

Betty also generously gives back to the rest of us. On her Web site, www.bettybowers.com, and in her new book, What Would Betty Do? How to Succeed at the Expense of Others in This World and the Next, she dispenses advice on what to wear ("a look of humble self-sacrifice-and an $8,000 Prada jacket"), what to change ("homosexuals-and then into something shimmering for dinner"), and what to save (a "monthly quota of souls" -- and "the embarrassment of ascending to Heaven with the poorly groomed").

Betty does not make personal appearances, but in her virtual performance art she nonetheless draws on the venerable drag-diva tradition. For the most part, Bradley's Bowers is a simple camp parody of a Bible-thumping snob: Dana Carvey's old Saturday Night Live Church Lady in Manolo Blahniks and an expensive haircut. She cautions that "an open mind is the Devil's picnic." She finds many portions of the Bible "too smutty," and heads up Saving Love Until The Sacrament (SLUTS), Christians Having A Righteously Itemized Tax Year (CHARITY), and Baptists Are Saving Homosexuals (BASH). She is the founder of the Christian Crack Whore Ministry and of a halfway house exclusively for the Bush children. She has conducted "interviews" with Laura Bush and Dr. Laura, and offered commentary on political issues from the death penalty ("rather pallid" with "none of the spontaneity of an Old Testament stoning") to Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, whom she admires for their religious fanaticism but chides for their inferior marketing.

This is hardly a new kind of parody and the target is nothing if not broad. But Betty's version is hilarious, and energized by a deeply informed bitterness. Bradley/Betty's important twist, tailored to our age of branding, is to suggest that the key to the gates of heaven is a credit card. In fact, Betty, as a True ChristianTM, is herself a brand. On her site, you can purchase T-shirts and mugs that say things like, "God told me to hate you" and "Love the sinner, hate their clothes!"

Betty Bowers wouldn't get within sniffing distance of Reverend Billy. Like Betty, though, Reverend Billy has a lot to say to consumers. The invention of New York performance artist Bill Talen, Reverend Billy runs revival meetings in Disney stores and Barnes and Nobles, backed by his Church of Stop Shopping gospel choir. Dressed in a white tuxedo jacket over a black shirt and clerical collar, he tells his flock that "all sins are a form of shopping." In April, he organized the New York Theater Festival Inside Starbucks. Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping provided recommended scripts for people to perform while pretending to be customers at 10 Starbucks around Manhattan. They included lines such as, "My desire has been completely and utterly appropriated, rerouted, and Starbuckized"; "I'm a perfectly rendered facsimile of a Bohemian"; and "I am a Starbucks bitch!"

There is plain silliness in this, but it is serious political street theater. Talen cites as influences Tennessee Williams, Jesus, Lenny Bruce, and the gnostics. He talks about "breaking the dominant narrative" and providing a "counter-vision," about "the illustrious interruption" and "the benevolent hallucination" that might follow. The performances often involve collaborations not just with his own crew of activist-actors, who hand out fact sheets after their performances, but also with unwitting customers who do not realize that the people yelling into cell phones about how Starbucks screws its coffee growers or how Snow White is a bad role model are not shoppers like them.

Talen may have learned preaching -- what Laurie Anderson described as "the landscape between talking and singing" -- largely from late-night radio shows, but by now he is much more a man of God than a parody of one. He is a great musical talker, and he sees himself as a sort of prophetic social critic, like Jesus before he was "franchised." He is out to save souls.

What he wants to save us from, as he put it in a Disney store sermon a couple of years back, is the "fatal disease known as involuntary entertainment," the "disease known as continuous shopping," and the "sea of identical details" in which we are drowning. He wants to awaken people from their consumer-induced trance with a spiritual jolt. He wants to lead them back toward the unknown. "Life is unexplained," he recently explained. "We have to find the unknown, the thing that they can't put in a package, and remind each other that that's life. Fundamentalists don't allow the unknown, and consumerism never allows the unknown, since it competes with advertising. The starry sky has no frame around it. You can't shop at that moment, in front of the starry night sky."

Of course, with fundamentalists of all kinds blowing up themselves, us, and each other, and with the Catholic Church covering up the sexual abuses of priests, the critique of either greedy evangelists or apostles of capitalism can seem a bit beside the point. Indeed, the satirical points of someone like Betty Bowers, welcome as they are, look tiny next to the traumas of the last year. For Reverend Billy, though, September 11 was a key moment in the affirmation and expansion of his political theology. Bill Talen reveled in the reclamation of public spaces, the community use of neighborhoods, the awakened humanity and collective grieving and sense of starting over that was so prevalent in New York for the few weeks following the World Trade Center attacks. People had, literally and metaphorically, stopped shopping; they had learned each other's names.

Reverend Billy preached seven sermons on seven Sundays. To his metaphor of shopping he added the metaphor of bombs, arguing that there is a connection between the religiously justified attacks on New York and Washington, the bomb-Afghanistan response taken by the Pentagon, the buying-is-patriotism media barrage, and the corporate takeover of public spaces about which he'd been railing before 9-11. They are all, he said, inarticulate, inhumane ways of communicating; they are all attempts to eliminate us; they can all be traced to greed and the hijacking of religion; and they are all absurd. Talen is preparing a monologue based on these sermons called "Other Love," which is set to open June 9 at New York's Ontological Theatre. It will probably not be very funny: It was originally going to be called "The Birds Are On Fire," after a child's description of the burning bodies he watched falling from the twin towers. Reverend Billy preached to me recently over the phone as a preview. "I'm gonna give myself a break-kuh today, children," he suddenly bellowed. "I'm gonna forgive myself today-yuh. Because each and every one of us is laboring under the psychic weight of powerful absurdities, children! What does it do to you when 24-7 you're hearing monopoly called democracy? Bombing is called security, patriotism is called shopping, racism is called crime fighting, jingoism is called knighthood, evolution is called not-beautiful, advertising is called free speech-huh. And the market is called God-duh. Forgive yourselves, children! It's not easy walking around all day listening to these sorts of powerful absurdities." He paused, perhaps for an amen, then boomed: "We're starting over!"

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