You're On With Jesus

Neil Saavedra brings God down to Earth

"I'll read anything," he says.

Saavedra, who is now in a serious relationship with a left-wing, atheist social worker, never studied theology formally. Instead, he audited classes at the Chalcedon Academy in Agoura Hills, which specializes in Christian apologetics. Apologetics is derived from a Hellenistic Greek legal term that means "defense." Christian apologetics is the art of defending your faith using scripture.

"First Peter 3:15, one of my favorites: 'To always be ready to give a defense to people who ask about the hope that lies within you, with meekness and reverence.' A lot of people forget that last part, especially apologists," Saavedra says. "But the word there is apologia, which is where we get the word for apology. So, as an apologist, whether you're a political apologist, religious apologist or philosophical apologist, you're just defending an idea or concept. For me, I find that to be noble. It's kind of sexy too, 'cause you're battling minds."

His former teacher, Dr. Craig Johnson, whom Saavedra says he hasn't seen in years, runs the academy out of his home. Reached by phone, Johnson said he listens to The Jesus Christ Show and is in no way surprised at how far his former student has come.

"Neil was the sharpest student I ever had. Everything you pour out, he picks up," says Johnson, who also has hosted Christian radio shows, both mainstream and obscure, and who recently returned from a missionary trip to Nigeria. "I always told Neil there are two kinds of people—the quick and the dead. Neil has what we call wisdom. He can accumulate facts. But he has that extra ability, knowing where to apply them, an immediate sensitivity. He can adjust the facts he is given. He builds bridges; he doesn't use walls."

Apologetics and marketing seem somewhat similar: Both are about minimizing problems people may have with the concept one is promoting, or the product one is selling, and winning over the person being debated, or the consumer being wooed.

Saavedra says he doesn't see the parallel, but one gets the feeling his apologetics training didn't hurt his marketing abilities.

In response to the argument that perhaps some ideas, specifically spiritual ones, are complex and subtle and possibly should not be watered down to something that can be digested over a medium like commercial radio, Saavedra points to the apostle Paul, who said: "Be all things to all men."

"It means, don't be so stubborn in the way you give information that you refuse to give it to somebody in a way they will understand," Saavedra explains. "If you spoke Spanish, it would be stupid for me not to find a way to articulate in Spanish what I am trying to share with you."

The whole cast of KFI on-air hosts, including Saavedra, who, despite being in marketing, insists that he has "zero tolerance for bullshit," can seem like 2007 versions of Peter Finch's character in Network; they're all throwing their own symbolic televisions from their windows, screaming, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take this anymore!"

An army of mainly conservative loudmouths who might be intended to represent hyperverbal versions of their listeners, the on-air talent is reactive and bristling at everything it hears, reads and sees. We, the listeners, get to tune in and decide if we want to follow along. Maybe that's why the edgy Saavedra, who regularly gives the church and Christianity "a beating," does so well there. Maybe that, and the fact that he can talk the shit out of the Bible.

For all the cringe-worthy, self-mythologizing one-liners, and there are a lot of them (the first time we ever spoke, which was on the phone, he told me, "I look more like Satan than I do Jesus," and called me "little freak," apparently with affection), Saavedra's faith is genuine. He has also done his homework. He quotes the Bible nimbly and has the distinct quality, on air and off, of taking his time to thoughtfully and sincerely convey the meaning of the Bible and also get his point across.

"I've joked before that if I was any more faithful, the show would suck," he says. "And, if I were any worldlier, the show would suck. I'm an odd balance of attitude and faithfulness. I am rebellious. That's one thing Jesus and I do share. I think Jesus was rebellious, in the healthiest of ways."

Saavedra says he struggles like the rest of us. He has a divorce behind him, he gets mad in rush-hour traffic, and he has normal communication problems with friends. He talks, or prays, to Christ throughout the day, specifically before and during his broadcasts. He also uses his love for pizza to illustrate how we all suffer from addictions.

"I could not think of a world without the combination of bread and cheese," he says. "I thought it would be fun to do a cookbook of just pizza, called The Passion of Crust. I don't know if it would go over very big . . . always marketing."

If you are getting the feeling that Saavedra is some sort of MTV-friendly rock & roll Jesus, you're apparently not the only one. He says he has been approached about developing TV and books, but there is nothing in the works at the moment.

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