A scene from "The Passion of the Jew" episode
Quick - where in the vast and largely sinful expanse of TV land does Jesus dwell? If you're puzzled, here's a hint: it's not on any religious channel. The correct answer is that Jesus resides in South Park, a fictional Rocky Mountain town that is the setting for the foul-mouthed Comedy Central series.

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.

"South Park made Life of Brian 'look like a playground.'"
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  • In South Park, Jesus' advice is occasionally categorical: "Cheating is lying and lying is wrong, no matter what the circumstance." Yet he refuses to take a stand on some thorny issues, like assisted suicide. Alone one Christmas, he sits before a cake with candles, singing, "Happy birthday to me." Jesus, who addresses God as "Dad," also has his lighter moments. While singing in a local nightclub, he twirls his halo on his finger. Perhaps because it is so over-the-top in its mocking of religion, like Monty Python's Life of Brian, South Park has largely escaped criticism from evangelicals apart from Wildmon's group.

    Parker, a Python fan, is not surprised that Jesus's portrayal has not provoked a backlash from Christians. In South Park, he explained at a television critics' press conference in Pasadena in January of 1998, "Jesus is a great guy." Stone acknowledges that the two writers bring a "humanistic approach to Jesus. He's a regular guy. But he's a very good regular guy." In several episodes, Parker adds, "He's the hero and he tries to have other people follow him, so I don't know what they have to protest about."

    There have been exceptions, like Louis Giovino, a spokesman for the conservative group, the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Giovino told National Public Radio that South Park made Life of Brian "look like a playground." The animated series "is very vicious in its satire toward most religions." Other Catholic observers disagree. "In the midst of all this gross-out, puerile humor are flashes of insight into the religious condition," says the Rev. James Martin, associate editor and culture critic of America magazine, the national Catholic weekly. "In a way it's very subversive because it leads people through one door - humor - and leads them out another," to a serious consideration of faith and theology.

    Some very serious theological points are made, often by Jesus. People in South Park are concerned that the world might end at the turn of the millennium, so they pray for revelation and assurance. "God can't answer every prayer and suddenly give you everything you want," Jesus explains to the waiting, restive crowd. "That takes all the living out of life... If God answered all our prayers there'd be nothing left for us to do ourselves. Life is about problems and overcoming those problems and growing and learning from obstacles. If God just fixed everything for us there'd be no point in our existence... Yea! Believe in me and ye shall find peace." Alas, that is not what the crowd has come to hear. "We've heard that crap for about 2000 years now!" a character shouts. "We wanna hear something new."

    Apparently, everyone in South Park who isn't Jewish is Catholic, since they all attend one unnamed church, led by a priest, Father Maxi (possibly a play on Maxi Priest, the Reggae singer), with the assistance of a nun, Sister Ann, whose order is called The Bleeding Eyes of Jesus. Maxi is a narrow-minded theologian - denouncing Halloween and preaching eternal damnation to a boy with cerebral palsy who is unable to confess his sins, as well to anyone who does not accept Jesus and profess Christian faith through Catholic doctrine. "The Jews crucified our savior!" he says. "I mean, if you don't go to hell for crucifying the savior, then what the hell do you go to hell for?" Sister Ann disagrees, at least with regard to the Jews, and phones the pope for support - without success.

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  • The boys' faith is shaken when they discover the priest having sex with a married woman in the confessional. But even the venal Father Maxi - who secretly bet on Satan in his fight with Jesus - has his limits. In an episode devoted entirely to the Catholic Church's pedophile scandal, he condemns his fellow priests and bishops for not repenting and renouncing their actions. He, too, carries his case to the Vatican, where his luck is no better. "You forgot what being a Catholic is all about," he told the Curia, in a televised address. "People are losing faith because they don't see how what you've turned religion into applies to them... Look, I'm proud to be a Catholic, but I'm a Catholic in the real world. It's time for you all to do that too. It's time for change." Stone says there was a good deal of anger involved in writing this episode, that everyone on the staff was appalled by the sex scandal and the church's response to it. Martin, who has not seen this particular episode, says some material in the series "is extremely hostile and I find it offensive, but that goes with the nature of satire. It's not surprising that they take pot shots at the Catholics - everyone else has."

    In another episode, a Mormon family moves to South Park and their young son, Gary, wants to be friends with Stan. What unfolds is a remarkable portrait of the history and modern practice of Mormonism, scrupulously balanced between respect and ridicule, concluding with a clear-eyed plea for tolerance from the boy, who is rejected and persecuted by the other kids. "Maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense," and that may have been made up by Joseph Smith, Gary says. "But I have a great life and a great family and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that." The faith's history and theology are irrelevant, he says, and he doesn't care. "What the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people."

    Pentecostals and evangelicals also take some lumps in the show. Cynically, Eric decides to form a Christian rock group, called "Sanctified," just to cash in on a trend: "All we have to do is sing songs about how much we love Jesus, and all the Christians will buy our crap." Pat Robertson and his 700 Club, and sanctimonious missionaries in Africa are ripped to shreds in another episode. Eric claims to be a faith healer and forms a congregation that draws everyone away from the church, until he is exposed as a fraud.

    In August of 2004, South Park released a DVD featuring three recent episodes dealing with faith, including their satire of The Passion of the Christ, mischievously timed to coincide with the release of the DVD release of Mel Gibson's blockbuster. An accompanying press release boasted that South Park "is one of the few shows to explore different religious themes in an intelligent and boldly irreverent way." Talk about understatement. The Passion episode, which aired while the film was still in theaters, was irresistible to the movie's critics. "Combining pop culture with that religious religiosity, there's great comedy there," Stone told the Los Angeles Times. Much of the episode, called The Passion of the Jew, deals with the film's impact, stoking Eric's anti-Semitism and Kyle's guilt as a Jew- as well as portraying Gibson as certifiably insane. However, its conclusion is anything but absurd. While many Christians found great meaning in the film's focus on Jesus' suffering and death, some liberal Christian scholars like John Dominic Crossan echoed South Park's take. Stan says: "If you want to be Christian, that's cool, but you should follow what Jesus taught instead of how he got killed. Focusing on how he got killed is what people did in the Dark Ages, and it ends up with really bad results." People in the crowd agree. "We shouldn't focus our faith on the torture and execution of Christ," says one. "We shouldn't rely on violence to inspire faith," another agrees.

    In the end, the South Park gospel is simple, the watered-down antithesis of evangelical Protestant belief in salvation through grace, rather than through works: Be a good person, be nice to others and don't worry too much about the hereafter. Or, as Stan's dad Randy concluded in one episode, "The only heaven we can hope for is one here on earth, now. We should stop waiting to get into heaven, and start trying to create it." Jesus' version: "God doesn't want you to spend all of your time being afraid of hell or praising his name. God wants you to spend your time helping others and living a good, happy life. That's how you live for him."

    That's good morality, if debatable theology.

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