South Park has had a consistently successful run ever since it’s debut in 1997. Created and written by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who also do the majority of the voices for the show, it is aired on Comedy Central, a network known for edgy, line-crossing comedy programs that are often marked by intelligently satirical qualities. South Park is no different. While the show often tends toward easy humor such as excessive profanity and fart-jokes, it also has moments of skillful insight.
South Park is now in its tenth season, and is slated to run at least two more seasons, after which there will have been 182 episodes aired. It has also been placed (to the amazement of many) in syndication, after some of its more controversial content had been edited out for a TV-14 rating.
South Park was decried by many when it first debuted for a number of reasons. Many felt that the cartoon medium automatically drew in child viewers who would watch the show, which was not produced for children. To make matters worse, the principal characters in the show were children themselves, giving children possible “role-models” to look up to.
However, one controversy that never really became a reality was concerning one of South Park’s regular characters: Jesus. Matt Stone, co-creator and writer, says of their liberty with portraying Jesus, “…it really is open season on Jesus. We can do whatever we want to Jesus, and we have. We’ve had him say bad words. We’ve had him shoot a gun. We’ve had him kill people. We can do whatever we want.”
Where does this come from? Why do they feel the need to treat the character of Jesus in such an irreverent way? One reason they feel able to do so is because neither Stone nor Parker are traditional Christians. Matt Stone was raised Jewish but claims not to be religious, and Trey Parker would only say, “I believe there’s something going on that we don’t know. That’s as far as I can go.”
In fact, what causes them to make light of religion is a unique form of both admiration and ridicule of faith in general. “Neither one of us is anti-religious at all. I mean, I’m fascinated by religion,” says Stone. Parker adds, “All the religions are superfunny to me. The story of Jesus makes no sense to me. God sent his only son. Why could God only have one son and why would he have to die? It’s just bad writing, really. And it’s really terrible in about the second act.” Motivated by what they view as inventions of man that they find “superfunny,” Matt and Trey have set out to treat Jesus as very few have before: just another guy to make fun of.
It is particularly hard to identify many similarities between the Jesus portrayed in South Park and that of the Bible, for reasons that will be made plain later. There are, however, a few key resemblances that, when not taken for granted, are striking.
In the gospels, Jesus makes it unequivocally clear that he is indeed the only begotten Son of God. The Jesus of South Park likewise makes no bones about his origin:
Caller: Uh, this is Martin…
Jesus: Martin, from Aspen Park, yes, I know.
Martin: How… [did] you know that?
Jesus: Well, maybe because I’m the Son of God, brainiac…
At various other times, people are shown to doubt Jesus, only to be corrected at the end of the show. It is this doubt that takes center stage for many episodes that feature Jesus. Almost every time the general public comes face to face with the real Jesus, they respond somewhere between apathy and general dislike, similar to the general response to the biblical Jesus, particularly during his later ministry. Note how Jesus’ followers react when he is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane: “And they all left him and fled.” (Mark 14:50) Similarly, those in South Park find it hard to stick with Jesus when their necks are on the line, or even when they may lose any amount of money. When Jesus was slated to box Satan, many doubted his ability to defeat him because, “Satan is huge.” Even when asked about this cowardice by Jesus himself, they reply, “Right, well… He does have a couple of hundred pounds on you, Jesus.” In fact, it is only the child-like faith that truly believes in Jesus’ ability. When Stan is asked by Jesus whether or not they believe he can beat Satan, Stan replies, “Sure, dude, you’re the Son of God.”
Jesus is also portrayed as undeniably human. He feels real human emotion just like everyone else in South Park, and like the biblical Jesus, he must grow in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52). After Jesus spends an episode attempting to convince God to show up at his New Year’s Party so that, “it will bring my Father’s children back to their faith and back to mine eyes, for I an the Lamb of God,” Jesus learns an important lesson:
Jesus: 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, then there’d be no point in our existence. That’s why he wouldn’t show up to my New Year’s party… I get it now, Father. I had to learn all this on my own. I was overcome with my new popularity and, and I let pride get in the way of good judgment.
While the emphasis on Jesus’ humanity may be a bit over the top, the principle is the same. God has come down to earth and given up the benefits of being God in order to save us (Philippians 2:6-7).
Despite these similarities to the real Jesus, the Jesus of South Park is overrun with flaws. While he is portrayed as feeling real compassion for humanity, he also seems generally unable to help them. In the world of South Park, Jesus’ sad attempt to help mankind is by starting a public access talk show, and even that seems to veer off in a completely different direction than Jesus intends at times. After hosting a show in which it turns out eerily like an episode of Jerry Springer, the following exchange takes place:
Jesus: I want to apologize to all of you for what happened in there. In our competition for ratings we lost sight of why we got into show business in the first place.
Jimbo: Yeah. TV’s and beer.
Jesus: Actually, I was referring more to the pursuit of truth, but-well anyway, I can’t wait to get back to my old show without all the glitz and the ratings and producers…
The “old show” Jesus is speaking of, which he clearly prefers, was a typical call in show in which Jesus answered phone calls of everyday people and did his best to give them advice that would help them. Oftentimes his advice was theological, such as “Yea, children, I am the Way and the Light,” while other times it was ethical. No matter what the advice, Jesus is usually blown off. Jesus is utterly powerless to do anything about it.
The omnipotence of Jesus is winked at, but not fully realized. The South Park version of Jesus’ power is similar to that of a superhero. He can guess people’s names and he can make wine (“Put your hands together and welcome the only man in town who always has a fully-stocked wine cellar, Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesus Christ,” ) but, for the most part, that is the extent of his ability.
In the animated short on which future full episodes of South Park were based, The Spirit of Christmas: Jesus vs. Santa, Jesus comes down from Heaven for one purpose: to beat up Santa Claus, who he feels has ruined Christmas. As Jesus fights Santa, the kids of South Park ask themselves, “What would Olympic figure skater Brian Boitano do?” Almost instantaneously, Brian Boitano skates onto the scene and points out what turns out to be the ultimate moral of the story: “This is the one time of year in which we all try to get along, no matter what we believe in. This is the season just to be good to each other.” The kids notify Jesus and Santa of this truth, and they both see the light and stop fighting. When Santa attempts to apologize to Jesus he responds, “No, no. It’s me who should be sorry.”
In this archetypal short film, the character of Jesus is established in no uncertain terms. Jesus is short-tempered, violent, and unaware of deep profound truths relating to His own holiday. These examples of deep and profound flaw in Jesus are present in order to make one point: this Jesus is ridiculous. No one in their right mind would bet on Jesus in a fight, or take his advice on life issues, much less make him lord of their life.
Whose Jesus is this?
The portrayal of Jesus in South Park is dreadfully remote from the biblical portrayal, and it’s hard to watch an episode of South Park and enjoy such a treatment. But one must ask what exactly motivates Matt and Trey to treat Jesus in this way?
There are many reasons one could propose. Already in mind is the aforementioned fact that they believe the gospel to be just a badly written story, but we must also consider how one reacts when they see Jesus represented on South Park. Could it be that many react in recognition? It seems that the South Park Jesus is a satirical Jesus that American television audiences recognize, and where would the typical TV viewer recognize this Jesus from? It’s pretty clear that they are not familiar with the Bible. What the viewers find so silly and ridiculous is not the Jesus of the Bible. They are laughing because this absurd form of Jesus is the casual Christian’s Jesus. Most Americans claim to be Christian, but it is unlikely that the majority of these “Christians” are anything more than casual in their daily worship. Perhaps the target of their satirical jabs is less the biblical Jesus and more the general American perception of who Jesus is.
South Park’s Jesus-humor is often dead-on in that case. Most “Christians” see Jesus as a nice guy that has some advice for them if they really want it or feel the need for it, but they have no intentions on listening to him if he says anything that may challenge them. Jesus may be the Son of God, but very few treat him as God Himself, Lord of the Universe. Truly, Jesus is misrepresented in South Park, but could it be that he is even less accurate within the psyche of the American Christian?