Skip to main content

What's wrong with 'Black Jesus' comedy?

By Jay Parini
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
The most talked-about person in Hollywood lately has been Jesus Christ, whether it's movies such as "Son of God" or TV shows such as "Black Jesus," pictured. But 2014 isn't a watershed moment for religion; Jesus has been depicted on the big and small screens many times before. The most talked-about person in Hollywood lately has been Jesus Christ, whether it's movies such as "Son of God" or TV shows such as "Black Jesus," pictured. But 2014 isn't a watershed moment for religion; Jesus has been depicted on the big and small screens many times before.
HIDE CAPTION
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
When Jesus came to Hollywood
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
When Jesus came to Hollywood
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
Jesus on screen
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jay Parini: Trailer for new TV show "Black Jesus" drawing ire of conservative Christian group
  • It shows guy who lives in California, says he's Jesus, is black, consorts with rough sorts
  • Parini: Criticism seems misplaced; Jesus' image as man-of-people runs through Bible
  • Parini: Jesus I know, love was something of a party animal. He can survive "Black Jesus"

Editor's note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has just published "Jesus: The Human Face of God," a biography of Jesus. Follow him on Twitter@JayParini. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I've just been watching the trailer for "Black Jesus," a show that will premiere on August 7 on the Cartoon Network during its child-unfriendly late-night spot, which they call Adult Swim. Already at least one Christian group has begun to lobby the network to cancel the show, regarding its contents as blasphemous. (Cartoon Network is owned by Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN.)

From what I can tell, the series is a bit of a spoof, with some foul language. The general notion seems clever: A guy who thinks he is Jesus, who might even be Jesus, lives in a poor neighborhood of Compton, California. He's got a ragged band of followers -- they look like winos and potheads -- who follow him around with lots of bantering. The scenes shown in the trailer seem relatively funny, and it appears that nobody is quite sure whether this is a madman who thinks he is Jesus or maybe the Lord himself come back in a strange outfit and, indeed, black skin.

Jay Parini
Jay Parini

Is this offensive? The jury will have to be out until we see whole episodes, but in concept—particularly if the rest of the show is like the trailer—it does not seem so. Let me explain.

First, let's look at the criticism: "Adult Swim is not ridiculing any other religion and wouldn't dream of mocking Mohammed or Muslims, but has no problem denigrating Christians" the conservative Christian group American Family Association writes on its website. It's certainly a good point. People feel free to mock Christianity and Jesus, but they hesitate to mock Mohammed. This is likely because some Islamic fundamentalist groups can be more than touchy and sometimes dangerous.

\
"Black Jesus" is a new Adult Swim comedy.

I generally don't think one should attack Mohammed, as it obviously offends large groups of sincere followers, and there are some extremists ready to kill to make their point. It was, however, truly horrific to see what happened to Salman Rushdie in 1989 when the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie, as he had written what the Ayatollah considered a blasphemous novel, "The Satanic Verses."

I admire Rushdie immensely, as a writer and person, and I would argue that he had every right to publish "The Satanic Verses," at least in Western countries. In the context of his book, a work of literature, he was clearly being satirical, and if satire goes, the whole shebang -- meaning literate and moral culture -- vanishes with it. Satire is one of the essential ways that human beings have for looking at themselves and laughing, seeing themselves in a larger context. As someone once said, tragedy is a short-term view of things; comedy is the long view.

But is "Black Jesus" appropriate satire, and does it do anything to harm Christianity?

As a Christian myself, I like the idea of seeing Jesus return in various guises, skin colors, outfits and social contexts. Why not? The Jesus I know and love was something of a party animal. His first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding: and lots of wine was apparently drunk.

Mysterious figurine found in gnome
Does papyrus say Jesus had a wife?
Restaurant ad depicts Jesus smoking pot

At the Last Supper, in keeping with Jewish tradition (if you regard this as a Passover feast or seder), everybody was obliged to drink four glasses of wine. In Luke 5:27-32 the Pharisees condemn Jesus and his friends for eating and drinking with "publicans and sinners." In Matthew 11:18-19, we read that Jesus is accused of being "a drunken and a glutton, a friend of tax collectors and sinners."

On and on, the image of Jesus and his band, which includes a fair number of women -- including Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna (see Luke 8:2-3) -- seems one of a merry-making group, not a pious and bedraggled or depressed conclave.

Jesus met with whores and bartenders (publicans) and all sorts of marginal folks. It's not unreasonable to think that, if he should return today, he would socialize as well with bums and pot-growers and winos, even someone from the IRS. He would associate with anyone who would lend an ear, spreading his good news, which to Christians is the joy of the coming kingdom, the joy of giving one's time and treasure to those in need, the pleasure of becoming God's hands in the world.

This was what Jesus did. Christians should understand that following Jesus means acting in the world in ways that improve it. Matthew tells us in 7:16: "By their fruits ye shall know them."

I'm sure the message of Jesus can survive "Black Jesus." And I look forward to many other versions of Jesus, in many settings. He would always speak in the lingo of the neighborhood, even if to some ears this might sound "foul-mouthed." He would show irreverence of a sort, great joy, and a passion for justice. His sense of humor would take on many forms, as it did during his life. He would spread the gospel in whatever language and manner the context required.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT