By SEVEN McDONALD, Wednesday, March 7, 2007 - 12:00 pm
(Photos by Kevin Scanlon)
Neil Saavedra brings God down to Earth
“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.’ ”
No, he’s not the lost member of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, he’s Neil Saavedra, and he plays Jesus, not a trombone.
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.”
While “More S timulating Talk Radio” (the station’s promo tag line) bulldozes through the minds of America, it is hard to say which of Saavedra’s roles is more influential. Is it his weekly presentation of an interactive Jesus Christ, complete with confessional musings and sexy cutaway music like Depeche Mode’s “Your Own Personal Jesus”? Or the task of instilling in Angelenos a hunger for KFI’s conservatively slanted take on the day’s headlines?
Either way, Saavedra is an eerie mix of both of his posts. Quick on his feet, he is an articulate, slick talker who admits to crying regularly out of spiritual frustration and getting down on his knees to pray for guidance. He likes fart jokes, reminiscing about his youth, and eating lunch nearly every day downstairs from KFI’s studios at Arnie Morton’s Steakhouse, where he hugs and shakes hands with the staff as they pass by.
“What would be funny would be if I sat here and tried to pretend to be the ultimate Christian,” Saavedra says, dressed as usual in black. “ Do I like shock value? Absolutely. Why? ’Cause when you make a noise, people’s walls come down. It is inherently who I am. KFI is about irreverent honesty. You can try and force that it’s conservative because we have Laura and Rush, but ultimately it is just ideas .”
Five days a week, he comes up with provocative billboard slogans, attends corporate meetings, and runs interference for the other on-air personalities. On Sundays, he tapes his show.
“I have a 56,000-foot telephone that allows me to talk to 126,000 people a week; that’s pretty cool to me. ’Cause they get to talk to me too. I really get moved and touched from the people that call in.”
“I am a better listener during the show, more responsive, all those things,” says Saavedra, who adds that on most Sundays, he will call his mom from his car after the show and talk about how it went. “If I could find a way to be that guy that I am for three hours [on Sundays], every hour of the day, I would have it in the bag.”
The son of a daydreaming Latino bellhop father who had a Big Fish knack for telling stories, and an Anglo Catholic mother who ran her own wallpapering business, Saavedra admits to fighting a lot as a teen and even once stealing a car. He may not be the conservative Christian community’s first choice to play the role of Christ, but the bilingual Long Beach native seems about right for a station that sells itself as the best source for “irreverent information.”
“People hide behind reverence. Talking heads, pseudo-intellectuals, know-it-alls — we [KFI] don’t care about them. We’re making fun of reverence. We’re shaking people’s ideas. It’s social satire,” Saavedra says. “This is me in a nutshell — I take the show seriously and the content seriously. I don’t take myself seriously at all... I have a foul mouth; I like crass humor, a stiff drink. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe there is truth.”
Saavedra’s Jesus Christ started out as a guest on Bill Handel’s morning show. At that point, he already had his own show, called simply The Neil Saavedra Show . The last hour of his show was something he called “The God Hour,” which he recalls as basically him just bitching about his own frustrations with the church, and going back and forth on the air with atheists. “As far as who conceived it [the Jesus character], it might have been Bill, ’cause it wasn’t my brainchild,” says Saavedra.
Handel says he can’t remember who came up with the idea and calls it an “immaculate conception.”
After a few successful guest appearances on Handel’s show, the station asked him to do a full hour of just the Jesus character. Robin Bertolucci, the station’s program director, soon expanded it to two hours, and eventually three.
Saavedra counts among his heroes Billy Graham and Phil Hendrie, whose seminal The Phil Hendrie Show , featuring controversial “guests” voiced by Hendrie, was on KFI for years ( See LA Weekly 's "Radio Provocateur" by Paul Cullum, June 10, 2004 ). And, though he says it’s not the purpose of his radio show, he would be thrilled if, as the result of listening, someone were to ask Jesus into his heart.
He asked Christ into his own heart when he was 17, and he did it because of a girl.
“That’s the way most people come across God, it seems,” Saavedra jokes one afternoon at Morton’s. “A little missionary dating.”
The girl liked Jesus, and Saavedra liked her. At first, he told her she was full of shit. But later, a friend from his school invited him to come to a mostly black Baptist church. Something the preacher said reached Saavedra that day.
“It reeked of truth and responsibility,” he recalls, picking at a plate of salmon. “And I went up to the pastor afterward and accepted Christ.”
After that, he went home and freaked out, worried that he might have just joined a cult. He started reading up on Christianity and religions in general and, apparently, has never stopped. Besides reading the Bible almost daily, he has read the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Buddhist texts and even The Satanic Verses .
“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.”
"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."
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.
Caller: To begin with, what a privilege to be talking to the Jesus I have read about my whole life... Can you describe gravity for me?
Jesus: Sure, in what sense? To what conclusion?
Caller: In whatever sense; you obviously know what I am thinking about.
Jesus: I am just curious if you do.
Caller: Oh, Jesus, you’re great.
Jesus: Yeah [sarcastically] , I’m a hoot.
Caller: How old are you, Jesus?
Jesus: I am 33.
Caller: You are! You are only one year older than me!
Jesus: Pedro, have you packed anything this morning or smoked anything this morning?
Stacks of reference books surround Saavedra at his desk: the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Norman L. Geisler’s When Skeptics Ask and the New American Standard Bible. Fox News and MSNBC are both on TVs that hang from the ceiling, the sound on mute.
Behind thick glass, the screener, who, with his long, dyed-black hair, looks an awful lot like a roadie for an ’80s metal band, is fielding calls. He types brief messages into a computer for Saavedra to read.
Does he ever feel ill-prepared to be the voice of Christ?
“I’ll tell you, I’ve been doing this a long time,” Saavedra says. “[It’s a] matter of knowing that as unique as we all are as individuals, there are a tremendous amount of similarities. We yearn for the same thing: to be loved. We question the same things: existence, transcendence. On the show, I am not preaching to anyone but myself. I am most likely going through the same things that [audience members] are. And they go, ‘Oh my gosh, I thought you were talking to me.’ ”
There are times, though, when Saavedra gets calls that even the voice of Christ can’t handle. Like the time he had a person call in threatening suicide.
“It jarred me,” Saavedra says. “I am not a therapist. The police got involved. I don’t remember all of the details at this point. I ended up talking to this guy for a long time and even writing a letter to the judge of a court case he was in. I took him off the air, ’cause I thought it was getting a little sensational and gross.
“On occasion, I will take a call off the air,” he continues. “I never take the character off the air. So, when I pick up the phone, I say, ‘ Hey , this is Neil , I do the voice of Jesus, and I didn’t get a chance to finish your call on the air.’ Oftentimes they will call me Jesus again, and I will say, ‘ No . We are off the air. I am Neil. ’ ”
He says he feels pretty sure no one believes he is really Jesus, though he has been asked to autograph Bibles.
Saavedra still remains personally skeptical about church, though it does not stop him from encouraging listeners to go.
“Do I adhere to all the advice I [give] on the air? No. I am giving the advice to myself the same as I am giving it to anyone else.”
The spiritual lone wolf describes himself as a “man without a country,” meaning he loves Christ, but he doesn’t always love the church, though he does infrequently attend the Oasis Christian Center on Wilshire.
“I said something about the church on the show once, and a pastor called me and said, ‘I was reading in Rick Warren’s book where it said, ‘You shouldn’t say bad things about the church, because the church is the bride of Christ, and would you want someone saying bad things about your wife?’ I said, ‘If my wife was a slobbering alcoholic, I hope someone would come and tell me.’ Oftentimes the church is in disarray, not all churches.”
Beneath all the irreverence, though, Saavedra does have some very traditional beliefs. Christ is the savior, the devil is a real entity, there is no such thing as reincarnation and, of course, Jesus lives in heaven.
“Except,” he jokes, “from 6 to 9 on Sundays.”