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.
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.
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.
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.