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"Two thousand years ago, he walked this Earth teaching, guiding, loving and preparing to make the ultimate sacrifice. . . . What if today you could walk with him, laugh with him, cry with him? Not just through prayer but through the radio? You are listening to The Jesus Christ Show. To be a part of the show, call 1 (800) 520-1KFI. And now here is our host, Jesus Christ."
Jesus Christ is sitting in his fourth-floor office at Clear Channel in Burbank. He is surrounded by plastic tchotchkes that were given to him by family and friends, things like a George W. bobblehead and an Ann Coulter doll still in its box. There is a post card for Sarah Silverman's movie Jesus Is Magic on the desk. He sits behind a nameplate that reads: Jesus Christ. He gets phone calls:
Caller: Good morning, Lord. I am having a hard time. My husband and I got divorced last year, and it's mostly my fault. I am really searching for some kind of healing. I can't forgive myself for my marriage failing and can't believe that you could ever forgive me for something like that.
Jesus: What took place?
Caller: [Crying.] It was something I never thought could happen: I fell in love with someone else. I tried to make the best decisions for my marriage—it got to the point that I couldn't imagine being married to him anymore, 'cause my feelings had changed. And now, when I look back on it, I think I made the biggest mistake of my life.
Jesus: The thing about feelings is that they do change and they are going to change. They go back and forth. That is why you don't ever bank on feelings. A lot of people get caught up in "I feel like this and I feel like that," and that will change, it's very circumstantial. Pressing through is the best thing to do. Now, you made the decisions that you made and they had consequences. But if you are worried about it, I forgive you, absolutely I do.
[The caller cries some more.]
Jesus: I can't force you to forgive yourself. I think it is purposeless for you not to forgive yourself at this point, and to not release it is only to give fertile ground to the enemy and continue to allow him to pummel you and take up your precious time that you could be spending with me.
Jesus, in this case, is 37-year-old Neil Saavedra. With his tattoos, shaved head and proclivity for dressing in black, he makes for an unlikely incarnation of the blond-haired, blue-eyed, robe-wearing Son of Man whom we've gotten used to seeing on coffee cups and 3-D fridge magnets. But this is KFI, the radio station that plasters "Question Everything" and "The Straight Poop" in glow-in-the-dark orange letters across its billboards.
"In the agreed setting between the listener and me, I am going to pretend to be Jesus, historically to the best of my ability, theologically to the best of my ability. I do it in a controlled environment," Saavedra explains. "Like a magician. If you go and see a magician, you have an agreement with that magician. You say, 'I agree to you fooling me.' Outside of that context, then, [the magician] becomes a con man or a shyster. I am not Jesus. I don't think I am Jesus. I don't want his job."
Saavedra, who has a sound-bite-friendly sense of humor, politely lets his ever-ringing phone go to voice mail and tells me, "If Jesus were on MySpace and Neil were on MySpace, Jesus would have way more friends. But in my defense, he has had 2,000 years' more marketing."
For those of you who have never tuned in, the premise of The Jesus Christ Show, which airs from 6 to 9 a.m. on Sundays, is, in Saavedra's words: "What if Christ were living in Los Angeles and he had his own advice show?" It is currently KFI's top-rated weekend program, beating out Matt Drudge's The Drudge Report.
The program, which Saavedra has been hosting for the past seven years, starts with a 15-minute-to-hourlong monologue, or sermon, usually on an issue Saavedra is battling in his own conscience. After that, listeners call in, asking questions about everything from biblical details ("Where did Cain get his wife?"), to big theology questions ("Why is there evil?"), to sex advice ("Is masturbation bad?").
According to Saavedra, an old-school punk rock fan who says the Misfits are currently in his car stereo, his audience includes members of the Damned and the Vandals, as well as Entertainment Tonight host–turned–Christian singer John Tesh, local politicians, rabbis and members of the police force.
"The term 'preacher' makes my skin crawl. I think it would be honest to say I was an entertainer, an infotainer," he says, and then shakes his head and crinkles his brow before adding, "I hate those combination words, like 'sexpert.' "
As if playing Jesus Christ for KFI weren't confounding enough, Saavedra also switch-hits as the 50,000-watt superstation's director of marketing. No small task, given that KFI has a reported 1.4 million listeners and is the No. 1 news-talk radio station in America, thanks in part to Rush Limbaugh's and Dr. Laura Schlessinger's syndicated shows, as well as morning hosts Bill Handel and John Ziegler, whom David Foster Wallace immortalized in his Atlantic Monthly essay "Host."