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 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT