The Reverend Billy Talen, famed activist preacher and inexhaustible performance artist, is a noble and inscrutable man. Along with his Church of Life After Shopping, he's long belted out a mighty righteous sermon for our hyper-consumerist nation. Alas, the message—turn away from corporate products, away from dirty power, away from that which is destroying our communities, our planet, and amen—is not one most iPad-toting Americans are eager to hear.
But now, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, that punishing super-storm that tore through New York City, the capital of the world's capital, that message is starting to sting. It resonates. New York's prime movers are talking climate change, finally, but the nation's leadership languishes. And while the well-off world turns to the business of buying presents for their brood, the residents of Rockaway lack heat, food, power.
And so the Reverend preaches. His Church has joined Occupy Sandy in aiding the relief effort, and Billy's back to spewing fiery sermons. The themes: climate, disaster, consumerism—and the End of the World.
He calls his missives Freakstorms, and off they go. "The Consumers Consumed the Consumer" and "Shit the Rich" are but a couple of his colorfully-titled diatribes.
"Sandylujah!" he exclaims, during a recent phone interview. "Sandy says stop shopping! Sandy says let's live together. Sandy says slow down here! Sandy says stop the extinction wave!"
His point, doused in his signature florid venom, is still that we're heedlessly buying too much and forsaking genuine community. In our frenzied race to buy more and better stuff, that resource-intensive stuff, we're literally helping to conjure more powerful hurricanes, more floods. Scientists agree we're now heading toward a potentially catastrophic 4˚C temperature rise by century's end. And folks, especially those at the top and those not yet made homeless by a superstorm, don't much seem to care. We buy on. We drive on. We're mesmerized.
"We continue to have the difficulty of talking to each other, saying, 'This is an emergency.' Well, the tipping point may be sooner than that," Talen says. "I think the earth is saying 'no, it's too late.'"
So, with familiar fervor, Billy is taking to the streets again—he'll be extolling the virtues of Buy Nothing Day on Black Friday, urging harried shoppers at Macy's the word's largest department store to reconsider consumerism. He'll be helping out at the disaster sites, he'll be preaching in Times Square to the endless crowds of tourists.
"I'm going to have a science-backed Armeggedon. I'm going to set up shop with my fellow 'We-are-doomed' preachers. And we are doomed."
And he's going to stage an 'End of the World' revival, an afternoon of comedy, sermons, activism, and other hijinks at New York City's Highline Ballroom on November 25th. Not-so-coincidentally, End of the World is the title of his latest book, just out from OR Books.
Clearly, he's been busy. After the injustice of Sandy, there's a lot to say. There's a lot to get worked up about. And Mr. Talen may verge on goofy. He may seem bizarre, over-the-top. But guess what? Weed your way through the arcane elocutions, the hyperventilating theatricality, and here's what you get—the Reverend is right.