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Thu August 7, 2014

'Boondocks' Creator Asks, 'What Would Black Jesus Do?'

Originally published on Thu August 28, 2014 6:43 pm

Black Jesus, a new show premiering Thursday on Adult Swim, is about, well, a black Jesus. Set in contemporary south Los Angeles, it presents a Jesus roaming around a neighborhood filled with liquor stores, mini-marts and people praying for help.

The live-action show is the latest project from Aaron McGruder, who's best-known as the creator of the comic strip and cartoon The Boondocks. Black Jesus is a show designed to push buttons, and it has already caused consternation among some Christian groups.

But Yolanda Pierce of the Princeton Theological Seminary says the show raises some important theological questions. "If Jesus were to return, what would Jesus look like?" she asks. "What would Jesus do? And would we, those people who consider themselves as Christians, as I do, recognize Jesus if the historical Jesus is not the blond-haired, blue-eyed [man] of our usual stained-glass depictions?"

Pierce also says that the provocative setting — a Jesus who drinks 40s, curses and smokes weed — might also reflect the reality of people who could use some ministering. "Especially people at the margins, who may be using weed or who may be drinking as a way to soften the brutality of their everyday existence," she says. She says Jesus would preach to those whom Scripture calls "the least of these."

The theological questions are well and good, but the broad humor of Black Jesus does not entirely convince Juan Floyd-Thomas, who teaches African-American religion at Vanderbilt University's Divinity School.

"It's kind of ... jarring seeing this black Jesus with a long perm and dusty, tan robes walking through south-central LA," he says.

Floyd-Thomas says he appreciates the way the first few episodes examine how Jesus might deal with police brutality, surveillance and contemporary racial strife. But he says the show, so far, is not as good as The Boondocks, which he says grappled with deep social questions.

Both Pierce and Floyd-Thomas say that the concept of a black Jesus is hardly new — it was a concept associated with black nationalism and explored on such TV shows as Good Times in the 1970s, and more recently by rappers like Kanye West and 2Pac.

Pierce says Jesus can withstand — even absorb — pop cultural interpretations. He was a hippie in the 1960s, and a culture warrior on South Park and in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. So, she says, it's not a stretch for Jesus on Adult Swim to turn cheap beer into fine cognac.

Floyd-Thomas says it never hurts for the question to be raised on screens, in bedrooms and living rooms outside church: What would Jesus do?

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A new TV show called "Black Jesus" is causing consternation among some Christian groups. It premieres today on Adult Swim, the late-night lineup on the Cartoon Network. The live-action comedy is the latest project from Aaron McGruder, who's best known as the creator of "The Boondocks" comic strip. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, "Black Jesus" is obviously designed to push buttons. She talked with some theologians about their response.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Yolanda Pierce is a minister and a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. She sat down recently to watch a preview of "Black Jesus." Here's what she was thinking.

YOLANDA PIERCE: I'm bracing myself, right?

ULABY: Pierce knew the show's set in contemporary South Central Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK JESUS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Jesus (Laughter).

ULABY: And it presents a Jesus roaming around a neighborhood filled with liquor stores, mini-marts and people praying for help.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK JESUS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: I need the numbers to the Lotto.

GERALD JOHNSON: (As Jesus) The Lotto numbers? That the best you can ask, man? I mean, there's folks out here dying of famine and pestilence, and you want the Lotto numbers. Come on, man. You can do better than that.

PIERCE: I did like that.

ULABY: Pierce says the show's concept raises real theological questions.

PIERCE: If Jesus were to return, what would Jesus look like? What would Jesus do? And would we - those people who consider themselves as Christians, as I do, recognize Jesus if the historical Jesus is not the blonde hair, blue-eyed Jesus of our usual stained-glass depictions?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK JESUS")

KALI HAWK: (As Maggie) What is it with that guy?

JOHNSON: (As Jesus) You want a beer? Oh, I love ya'll so much.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Baby, that's Jesus.

ULABY: How could the show not be provocative with a Jesus who drinks 40-ouncers, curses, and smokes weed. Yolanda Pierce says maybe it reflects the reality of people who could use some ministering to.

PIERCE: Especially people at the margins who may be using weed or who may be drinking as a way to soften the brutality of their everyday existence.

ULABY: Pierce says Jesus would preach to the people scripture calls the least of these. In "Black Jesus," they're bums, ex-convicts, even nerds.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK JESUS")

JOHNSON: (As Jesus) Who made Google, Tray?

ANDREW BACHELOR: (As Trayvon) Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

JOHNSON: (As Jesus) But who made them, Tray?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) They're messing with you, man.

BACHELOR: (As Trayvon) No. Their parents made them.

JOHNSON: (Jesus) God made them, Tray. I mean, you feel me?

BACHELOR: (As Trayvon) Right. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ULABY: The theological questions are well and good, but the broad humor of "Black Jesus" does not entirely convince Juan Floyd-Thomas. He teaches African American religion at Vanderbilt's University Divinity School.

JUAN FLOYD-THOMAS: It's kind of disconcerting - it's kind of jarring seeing this black Jesus with a long perm, you know, and dusty, tan robes walking through South Central L.A.

ULABY: Floyd-Thomas appreciates how the show's first few episodes examine how Jesus might deal with police brutality, surveillance and contemporary racial strife. But he says he's not yet seen a program quite as good as Aaron McGruder's earlier comic strip and show, "The Boondocks," that he says grappled with deep social questions.

FLOYD-THOMAS: Specifically to African Americans, to talk about OK, what are we doing? What is at stake here in terms of collective responsibility or communal self-regard and self-respect?

ULABY: Both scholars emphasize that "Black Jesus" is not a new concept. It's an idea that's been associated with black nationalism and explored on TV shows such as the sitcom "Good Times" back in the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD TIMES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Jesus wasn't black. The Bible would've said so.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) But it does say so.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) What are you talking about?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) It's in revelations chapter one verse 14. I read about it in Mohammed Speaks. His hair is like wool. And his eyes are like flame of fire.

ULABY: The idea's been explored more recently by musicians, including Tupac, Kanye West and The Game.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK JESUS")

DR. DRE: (Singing) Yeah, young black Jesus. You know why, 'cause I'm the young black Jesus.

PIERCE: We create Jesus in our own image.

ULABY: Professor and minister Yolanda Pierce says Jesus can withstand, even absorb, pop culture interpretations. Jesus has been a hippie in the 1960s, a culture warrior on "South Park" and in Mel Gibson's "A Passion Of The Christ." So, she says, it's not a stretch for Jesus on Adult Swim to turn cheap beer into fine Congac.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK JESUS")

JOHNSON: (As Jesus) Is this the only way I can get ya'll's attention, man? Come through with a little Cognac.

ULABY: Just like in the Bible, Jesus gets annoyed with his disciples.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK JESUS")

JOHNSON: (As Jesus) I come through spitting the gospel all the time, man. But ya'll ain't trying to hear your boy, though. No, ya'll ain't trying to hear me. So you know what, I don't even think I want to let you all hit this fine Cognac 'cause your minds ain't ready and your heart's not open.

FLOYD-THOMAS: You have this appeal to this notion of our better selves, right? How can we possibly be our better selves?

ULABY: Scholar Juan Floyd-Thomas says it never hurts for the question to be raised on screens and bedrooms and living rooms outside of church. What would Jesus do? Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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