Every once and a while Jesus shows up in strange places.
The first time I saw Jesus appear in a peculiar place was as an adolescent at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) thanks to my friend Birghapati, a Hare Krishna. Upon discovering I was a Christian, Birghapati opened up the book The Hidden Glory of India to share with me how Jesus, after surviving his crucifixion, traveled to India, learned under a guru, and taught there for several years. The section on “the lost years of Jesus in India” was only two pages, but in that short chapter was an entire universe of problems, possibilities, and peculiarities for me to fathom.
Encountering Jesus in a strange place thrust me into a world of healthy, albeit challenging, questions, which in turn spurred my personal spiritual progress and taught me much about religion at the margins. Your own experience of Jesus in a strange place could prompt your own discovery or, if contemplated in a community, a group’s grasping of the nature, and reality, of Jesus — even as he appears in strange places.
With the proliferation of new media sources (television shows, podcasts, webpages, social media sites), Jesus pops up everywhere and millions of people see him, or hear about him, in a relatively short period of time. He appears on hospital windows, spaghetti dinners, in Middle Eastern dreams, and in newly syndicated TV shows like “Black Jesus” — a scripted comedy on Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” from “The Boondocks” creator Aaron McGruder.
Each time Jesus materializes there is undoubtedly controversy concerning orthodoxy and who has the authority to adjudicate Jesus’ authentic appearances and presence. But, what if instead of immediately denouncing these outlier apparitions of Jesus, we all took the opportunity to ask a few relevant questions?
To get a grasp of what I’m going for here (and before you immediately denounce me as a heretic), let’s look at the case of “Black Jesus.” The comedy show centers on a black Jesus Christ living in contemporary Compton. His mission is to spread a gospel of kindness in “the hood” with his modern-day disciples. In the first episode, Jesus gets busted for smoking pot, only to escape being charged by transforming the marijuana into garden salad (playing off Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine in John 2: 1-11, no doubt).
It is easy to see how many Christians could be offended by such a portrayal of their Messiah. Likewise, many African-Americans may be affronted by the stereotypes that are thrust onto a “black Jesus” who, instead of being a rousing Messiah, proves “a lazy, unemployable drug-user.” Indeed, choruses of complaint have been raised by both constituencies in the wake of the show’s recent release.
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At the same time, there are commentators and cultural pundits who are laying blasphemy and bigotry aside to ask “what can we learn from ‘Black Jesus’?” Chandra Johnson wrote in The Deseret News National:
After the collective denunciation among faith groups of Adult Swim's new show "Black Jesus," which spawned a handful of Change.org petitions, some are trying to glean deeper meaning from the show.
Now, how does this question, and others that must precede, and proceed from, it help us learn more about Jesus and religion at the margins? Here are five questions that can prompt a healthy discussion when Jesus shows up in an unexpected place:
1. Where (and when)?
The first question(s) to ask is “where does this come from?” and, subsequently, “when did this appearance first happen?” The social locatedness of a spiritual encounter is paramount in understanding what such an appearance can reveal about the people experiencing it and concerning the experience itself.
Take, for example, the various manifestations of the Virgin Mary (La Virgen) in indigenous contexts across Latin America. In Guadalupe, she co-mingles indigenous heritage with Catholic religion and becomes the symbol of a new mestizaje — a new world Mexican religious and cultural identity. Then in San Juan, she bridges and permeates borders between national identities, civil rights entities, multicultural institutions and various ethnicities. Wherever La Virgen appears, she is speaking to the culture’s need to bridge the traditional and the contemporary and to give birth to something new, salvific, and powerful, yet tender.
So what does it mean when “Black Jesus” shows up on Adult Swim? Perhaps we would best first ask “when?” This “Black Jesus” is not the first black Jesus. He comes at the end of a long line of artistic depictions of Jesus influenced by culture, political, and theological circumstances. Jesus has been depicted as black — either as African or African American — for centuries. Notably, the “Black Christ” movement helped identify Jesus’ suffering with the struggle of African Americans in the U.S. who were fighting for equality and acceptance in their own nation. Wherever Jesus has appeared as “black” he has been viewed as associating, identifying, and commiserating with those who feel oppressed because of the color of their skin.
2. Who (and when again)?
What does this mean, then, when “Black Jesus” is introduced to the Adult Swim audience? What is the significance of those to whom Jesus now appears? What does this tell us?
Adult Swim’s audience is not predominately “black.” In fact, its typical viewers’ ethnic make up is almost two-thirds “white” (62%), with a third “black” (27%), and otherwise Hispanic or “Other” (11%).
Perhaps this “Black Jesus” is introducing the concept of the “Black Christ” as liberator to an audience who is generally, or wholly, unfamiliar with this liberating figure of the marginalized and downtrodden. Or, possibly, its being used as a comedic foil and is seeking to be offensive for offense’ (and ratings’) sake.
And this unveils the important question of “why this ‘Black Jesus?’” Aaron McGruder is no rank-and-file comedian solely seeking laughs and high marks. He is a social commentator who formerly used his characters on “The Boondocks” to speak to pertinent issues in politics and culture. He did so with a young African-American voice, “one that never backed down with his satire in the face of criticism and one that showed we weren’t just a materialistic, money-hungry generation…” but one that cared about the political and social issues of the nation, and world, at large.
Conceivably, McGruder and the Adult Swim team are not only making Jesus funny, and cool, for their white, hipster-fied, demographic, they are also introducing a distinctly “black” voiced Jesus into the “wide world of white” to peel back the surface and expose the nitty-gritty, real-world, issues that the African-American population in the U.S. deals with on a daily basis.
This leads to the central question that those who seek to grow from their encounter with “Black Jesus” are asking — “what can we learn from this show?”
Comedy, especially when it is offensive, pushes boundaries of what is acceptable in society in order to transgress the current cultural order and be a trailblazer for change.
As The Deseret News National shared,
minister Christopher House took a different tact entirely on The Huffington Post, saying the show was an opportunity for Christian reflection. ‘Identification precedes personal, spiritual and social salvation,’ House wrote. ‘Rather than simply dismissing the show as being blasphemous, maybe we should continue to watch with an awareness of contemporary issues and a strong sense of irony. To do so would ask us to consider what then does it mean to have a black Jesus living and moving in impoverished black spaces?’
To see how relevant, and important, that question, and “Black Jesus,” can be, look no further than #Ferguson. McGruder could not have foreseen the future, but the timing of the release of “Black Jesus” could likewise not have come at a more (in)convenient time. As our nation wrestles with racial stereotypes and spills blood and sparks fires on the streets of St. Louis, “Black Jesus” no longer seems a laughing matter, but one of serious contemporary import. That “Black Jesus” is on view on a network that appeals predominately to “Whites” might be the most consequential element of this manifestation.
But how can all of this even be possible? How can it be the case that Jesus can be morphed, co-opted, reshaped, and re-cast in so many cultural, religious, and political molds?
Without delving into the debate about the veracity of the various ethnic and cultural portrayals of Jesus throughout the ages, this latest likeness of Christ testifies to the continually potent, and potentially problematic, “translation principle” proposed and popularized by Lamin Sanneh.
In his book Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture and several other essays and works, Yale scholar Sanneh expounded upon the idea that “translation” is embedded in the Christian message, and particularly the life and ministry of Jesus. From a missionary perspective, “Christianity is recognizable only in the embodied idioms and values of the cultures in which we find it,” Sanneh wrote in Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective. There is much potential here, as the “the receiving culture [becomes] the decisive destination of God’s salvific promise….” However, there is also inherent danger, as “mission as translation” commits to a bold and radical step that may lead to the “muddying of the waters” and leave Jesus at the mercy of various “cultural makeovers.” This leads to contested theories of who, and what, Jesus was and is.
Ever since he was born, the masses have argued over who Jesus is and who he claimed to be. There are many contemporary voices that make the claim to authenticity in a religiously, ethnically, and culturally diverse world. Who has the claim to say that their Jesus is the correct Jesus? Who doesn’t have that authority? Is “Black Jesus” an authentic Jesus? These are good questions to wrestle with in your community.
As the debate rages on what can be gleaned are the following points:
- Taking a step back to ask hard questions about “Black Jesus” allows for us to learn more about how people view Jesus and what is inherently “translatable” about him.
- It also permits us the opportunity to view religion from the margins and associate with religious, and cultural, “others” whose ethnic, social, or political locus may be wholly unfamiliar to us.
- Finally, we can use these above questions and guidelines to ask similar questions of other spiritual experiences and manifestations. When the Virgin Mary appears on toast, Krishna becomes a superhero, the Buddha is found in the butcher shop, or the Qur’an is hung on the wall for an art installation we can ask the significance of where this has shown up; to whom it appeared; why to them, in this place, at this time; what does it mean; and how is this even possible.
Perhaps these points will not lead us to “truth,” but instead to a deeper understanding of the multifaceted and complex ways that people experience the sacred mystically, sacramentally, and prophetically in a media-rich and multi-religious world. Often, these experiences are not “authentic” in that they conform to the orthodox code, but they are authentic insofar as they are experienced. So that begs the question of why they are experienced and what that means for the religion for which they bear the most consequence.
In this instance, “Black Jesus” has appeared and we have experienced the phenomenon. What does this tell us about Jesus? What does this tell us about "us?" What can we learn, and apply, from this manifestation whether it be authentic or heretical, comedic or blasphemous?
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