May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
February 29, 2012
For me, it all begin with Jeebus, who was made manifest to the world in the fifteenth episode of the eleventh season of The Simpsons. In this episode, titled “Missionary: Impossible,” Homer flees a mob of angry PBS telethon hosts by hopping a cargo plane to hide out as a missionary in Microasia.* Realizing the gravity of his situation, Homer gets on his knees, clasps his hands together, and appeals in all humility to Jeebus: “Save me, Jeebus. Jeebus, where are you?”
It is a comic signal of Homer’s lack of religious intelligence, which further manifests itself in his failure to properly evangelize the population of Microasia. But hearing this contortion of the name, image, and historic effect of Jesus triggered something deep in the recesses of my stock orthodox images of the Christ. It is Homer’s great Davidic moment. In this episode, he has finally come to grips with the tragic implications of his slapstick self-reliance and turns to something grander and more meta than anything The Simpsons had ever offered its characters: Jeebus.** For both Homer and myself, this moment had the texture of revelation.
I saw this episode years after it aired in 2000. By that time I had completed an undergraduate degree in theology and biblical languages, with a sprinkling of cultural studies proper and was well into a graduate degree in New Testament Literature – so I had spent a significant amount of time tracing the presence of Jesus in the New Testament and the life of the earliest Church. Throughout this time I had developed a working concept of Jesus, an image that was a constantly evolving flux of the academic, confessional, political, and mystical. And it still is. But this was my image. It was one that I was at such pains to develop and curate because my theological stake in understanding the person and presence of Jesus is quite high. Even though I have always been aware of the agony of influence at play in my description of Jesus, it was always presented with a certain sense of historical and dogmatic certainty. I always took this certainty to be the essence of orthodoxy.
But I was very wrong about that. It wasn’t until I felt a certain sense of camaraderie with Homer’s quasi-sacrilegious plea that I realized something very important. When it comes to his iconic presence in history and culture, Jesus doesn’t belong to me. I do have some very definitive, and I think informed, ideas about who Jesus is and what he means with respect to time and space. But I have since been learning how to reject the sense of propriety that guarded my understanding of Jesus’ appearance in Homer’s prayer, or in Bunuel’s films, or Finster’s art, or Chagall’s paintings, or Van Sant’s cinema, or internet memes, or any number of cultural contexts that have no confessional or theological interest in Jesus.
Why is it that Jesus appears so frequently in unexpected settings? Can lines be drawn between sacrilege and constructive re-interpretations of Jesus? Jesus as an icon of suffering, charity, and resistance to power has an incredible gravity in the arts, which often trickles out into public discourse. Why is Jesus such a convenient stand-in for these elements of our shared cultural heritage? Why is there such a hermeneutical ickiness at play here?
I am going to spend the foreseeable future at Filmwell devoting all my posts to answering some of these questions. I want to reclaim what I will refer to as the “alternative history of Jesus” that is present in an array of texts, films, and works of art, and probe it for nuances that may contain unexpected seams of Christological glory. Our sense of ownership over his image in any context often prevents us from discovering a Jesus who is sturdier and more expressive than we think.
So, tune in. Posts will be labeled accordingly.
** Homer did not invent Jeebus (var. Jebus). It arrives in The Simpsons via Frank Zappa, who may have borrowed it from Duke Ellington, who used it his entire life as a way to curse without feeling bad about it. This is currently unverified, but Duke Ellington may have borrowed it from the 19th century, in which it was used in a similar manner. In our era, “Jeebus” has become a very common bloggerdom way of identifying and lampooning what are percieved as the political ignorances of the religious right, often appearing as the God of Rick Santorum.