What My Televangelist Taught Me
Ironically, Talen, who “made a decision to kind of permanently defend [himself] against Christianity,” has appropriated the language of Christian televangelists to preach against the powers-that-be. Even his spouse, Playwright Savitri Durkee, who also serves as the director of the Reverend Billy project, agrees that the interventions bring a “transformation” that can sometimes be spiritual.
Praised by the renowned Episcopal priest Sydney Lanier for his “prophetic quality” in the 1980’s, Talen worked with Lanier to develop the Reverend Billy character. “What he finally said was you would be well-cast as a comic-yet-serious new kind of preacher. If you can stand to listen to tell a televangelist on TV late at night, just listen to what they do,” says Talen. “I came to believe that Jimmy Swaggart…is a wonderful performer that has, however, deadly text.”
Let’s Cause Some Trouble
Though it’s abundantly clear what Talen is fighting against and why, it’s less clear what the concrete goals of the movement are. When Talen is asked to describe what his group actually advocates rather than simply what it opposes, he takes an uncharacteristically long pause. “There’s a phrase that my teacher uses a lot,” he says “Life wants life…unmediated life.”
Even if Talen has trouble articulating a solidified plan of action, he knows his influences. He talks reverently about people like Dorothy Day, Emma Goldman, Gandhi, even Jesus, as prophetic figures who took a stand for something they believed in, even experiencing some spiritual change in the process. “One thing that [Sidney] taught me…is that Christ figures turn society upside down….He brought me to the humanity and the writing of Jesus of Nazareth.”
(Don’t) Pity the Fool
Of course, sermonizing at a Starbucks is probably not going to change international labor laws any time soon—at least not directly—and Talen knows that. He recognizes the need for people struggling to change systems, but he also sees the need to change the way people think, the way they perceive, and, in a consumer culture, the way they buy. “I’m not a lobbyist,” he said. “I’m a fool.”
The movement’s website, www.revbilly.com, makes clear that their emphasis is not on policy minutiae or sweeping political agendas but a dramatic expression of the painful truths behind consumer culture. “Don’t confront any workers with anger or moral superiority. Never be utopian, never recite ‘the way things should be,'” the site proclaims. “Drama saves us, didacticism kills.”
Talen says the Church of Stop Shopping “ask[s] people to truthfully hallucinate the impoverishment of coffee workers in the foam of their lattes.” Durkee echoes this idea.
“Theatre started to seem irrelevant,” she says about her work before Reverend Billy started his crusade. “Unassailably,” she says about her current project, it’s work in which “you feel the possibility of change.”