|A scene from "The Passion of the Jew" episode|
It is one of the most religion-fixated shows on the small screen. Jesus is not only a resident; he has appeared frequently, most famously in a boxing match with Satan, televised as a pay-per-view event. True, as host of a local, public access talk show, the Nazarene is portrayed as more of a flawed superhero than a savior. But there he is, flying around in the opening credits and taking center stage in more than a dozen episodes.
In the increasingly enmeshed worlds of religion and popular culture, Jesus and Christianity are no longer confined to such evangelical blockbusters as Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and the Left Behind series of pulp fiction novels. Sometimes the intersection of faith and entertainment is so unlikely - and unsettling - as to boggle the mind. South Park, a show that can be distasteful in the extreme but one that is especially popular with the 18-34 crew, is located at just such a crossroads. The producers give fair, if absurd, warning: A disclaimer preceding each episode cautions that, due to offensive language and content, the show "should not be viewed by anyone." In fact, some episodes based on religion may be so offensive to believers that they won't be aired when the series is syndicated on commercial television this fall.
Jesus came to live in South Park almost as an afterthought, series co-creator Matt Stone, who describes himself as an "agnostic Jew," said in an interview. Originally, the town's agents of supernatural intervention were to be aliens from outer space. But the X Files had become popular, and Stone and co-creator Trey Parker did not want it to seem like their show was a satire of the live action hit. Jesus of South Park often admits that he doesn't have all the answers, and sometimes he simply declines to intervene in the world, as when the South Park Elementary School's football team is being shut out by a rival. And, like his biblical counterpart, he can be short-tempered. In a brief promotional video that led to the series, Jesus got into a swearing, kung-fu fight with Santa Claus in a mall over the true meaning of Christmas (Correct answer: Presents). His phone-in TV show is called "Jesus and Pals" - the house band is called "The Disciples" - and the host's unique abilities enable him to know callers' names before they identify themselves. When one caller asked "how the hell" he already knew his name, Jesus snaps, "Well, maybe it's because I'm the Son of God, Brainiac!"
Obviously, this portrayal sets some Christians on edge. "As Christians, when they take the character of Christ and make him into a cartoon character, and have him do and say things that are totally out of his character, that's a very flippant attitude to take toward a person millions of Americans believe to be the Son of God," said Tim Wildmon, president of the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association (AFA). His group has crusaded against South Park, taking credit for driving off advertisers Geico, Best Buy, Footlocker and Finish Line, as well as for convincing JC Penney to stop carrying the show's merchandise.