That's the premise behind the comical slice-of-life manga "聖☆おにいさん" (Saint Oniisan a.k.a Saint Young Men) by Nakamura Hikaru. It began serialization in Kodansha's monthly "モーニング・ツー" (Morning Two) magazine in 2007 and has since gained a fair bit of popularity as well as critical acclaim. It was even awarded the 2009 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize Short Story Award.
Unfortunately, it has not yet been licensed for North American release. As a Christian, I'd really like to see this manga translated into English. Some will find it offensive, I'm sure, but I think that the amount of discussion about Jesus, Christianity, and religion in general an English translation would generate would be beneficial. (Well, open-minded discussion would be beneficial, anyway. Obviously strong knee-jerk "This is sacrilegious and should be banned" type rants would probably only promote a negative impression of Christianity as close-minded and judgmental...)
Admittedly it's not a manga I can say that I enjoy without reservations, but I do find it interesting and fairly amusing. [Note: Just to give you fair warning, I talk in detail about some of the scenes, so the rest of the post has a lot of what some might consider "spoilers."]
[Side note: The first time I heard about it, I was really interested in reading it. The first chapter, though, didn't really catch my interest so I didn't bother reading more. After talking about it with a friend, however, I decided to give it a second try and ended up going through all of the chapters currently available online as English scanlations.]
It's interesting to see the writer's perspective on/portrayal of Jesus, even though (based on what I've read so far) I do have some issues with the characterization of Jesus. The artist/writer did apparently research the characters and topics a fair bit, and reportedly has stated that the work is meant to honour both characters--which I don't doubt, but...
There are some minor things I find odd--like the running stigmata gag where Jesus's foreheard starts bleeding (around the crown of thorns) when he gets upset, but I recognize that they simply feel strange to me because they have their roots in the Roman Catholic tradition. But the one thing in the manga that I can't seem to reconcile myself to is how Jesus comes across as very careless about money. (In contrast, Buddha is the more practical/budget conscious character.)
On the one hand, I can understand how the depiction is a literary necessity. I mean, a lot of the humour of the manga comes from the contrast between Jesus and Buddha in their personalities, reactions to things, etc. Besides, in comedic stories characters usually need to have some sort of personality quirk that can be played upon. Apart from literary/artistic explanations for Jesus' portrayal in the manga, I can also see how one might come to think that Jesus might have a careless attitude towards money since he does say:
So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. - Matthew 6:31-34
But not worrying excessively about money/not working too hard in the pursuit of wealth is different from being careless about money. And the Jesus of Saint Oniisan is portrayed as being a careless and even somewhat frivolous spender.
For example, every time the two go traveling/sightseeing somewhere, Jesus wants to buy useless souvenirs/things and Buddha constantly has to tell him to mind their budget and to be more practical. In one chapter (v1 c3), the two go to Asakusa. Buddha has to buy a baseball cap to cover his head/forehead so that he won't be accosted by tourists. Jesus, on the other hand, chooses to buy a complete Shinsengumi costume set--a purchase he justifies to Buddha as a pajama set. In another chapter (v1c7), Jesus spends a lot of money on a beginner's modeling set. And the first things he makes--the "something very dear to [him], a representation of [his] symbol" that Jesus sculpts--is not a cross which Buddha expects it to be but rather a laptop computer. (Jesus runs a blog/website where he posts reviews from every drama on every TV drama on the same day that it airs.)
Taken individually, I found both scenes quite amusing. Being a fan of the Shinsengumi and having been tempted more than once to buy some tacky Shinsengumi paraphernalia myself, I could definitely relate to the Asakusa experience. As a blogger who has recently added Sitemeter to my site--so I'm now compulsively checking my site stats once or twice a day!--I found the "Jesse's Dramandala" (Jesus uses a pseudonym) chapter pretty amusing.too.
But when I look at broader implications of the scenes, it bothers me to realize just how much of the time the Jesus of the manga is occupied with things. More than just being a frivolous spender, he comes across as being rather materialistic. Yet Jesus is the one who said "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.... But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19a, 21). So I don't think Jesus would really spend a lot of time trying to find the right Asakusa souvenir or making a lunchbox shaped like a notebook computer (much less making one as his "symbol").
Another "interesting" thing about the "Jesse's Dramadala" chapter (v1 c5) was the role it assigned to Buddha in one scene. After finishing his blogging, Jesus is hungry and wants to eat something. But there's nothing in the fridge and it's raining outside, so he asks Buddha if they can order in. Budget-conscious as he is, Buddha suggests that Jesus fast for the night. Finally Buddha seems to relent and goes off to get Jesus something. He returns in short order with a glass of water and a plate of rocks and tells Jesus that he can simply turn it tor bread and wine.
What's interesting about this scene is that it casts Buddha in the role of Satan. After all, in the Bible, before Jesus begins his ministry, he spends 40 days and nights fasting alone in the wilderness:
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." - Matthew 4:1-4
So Buddha is actually taking on the role of the devil when he tells Jesus to turn the rocks into bread! And it seems like this was done intentionally by the writer, since Jesus' reply is something along the lines that Buddha doesn't have to play the part of a "demon bride." (Of course that's from the English scanlation. I haven't read the original Japanese, so I can't say how accurate the translation actually is.) I wonder what devout Buddhists would have to say about that?!
Another scene that I thought was interesting on a personal level but problematic on a Biblical level was when Buddha and Jesus participate in a mikoshi carry at an autumn festival (aki matsuri) (v1 c8). Jesus and Buddha are talking about how cool happi coats are, but in order to wear them, they have to participate in carrying the mikoshi (portable Shinto shrine). In the end of course, they decide to do it even though they're afraid of "getting made fun of by the Shinto god (of the shrine)." Their logic: no one will recognize them anyway!
The Biblical issues with the scene are pretty obvious, but it really struck me because way back in my first year in Towada I also participated in a mikoshi carry in the Towada Aki Matsuri. At the time I only thought of it as participating in a Japanese "cultural" thing and didn't even consider the religious implications.
And I think really that's been one of my biggest problems living in Japan. There are so many "cultural" things that have Shinto/Buddhist origins/meanings but it seems like many Japanese don't make that distinction between religion/culture, so I always end up going with the flow and thinking about the implications after the fact.
For example, last year the Towada ALTs were invited to a New Year's celebration held by the Towada Soroptimist Group. We ate traditional Japanese New Year food (osechi ryouri), played with traditional children's toys/games. They also dressed us in very nice kimonos (girls)/hakamas (guys). But at one point our hostess asked us to pay respects to her late husband. This of course involved lighting incense and "praying" at the household memorial altar.
Although this custom comes from Buddhism and is a form of ancestor worship, I feel like for many Japanese it's more a matter of respect rather than a religious practice. So I was afraid that refusing would seem disrespectful. I did do it--out of respect--and tried to offset the sense of "wrongness" by at least praying to God while paying my respects, but it was a very uncomfortable moment for me. And really, I should have not done it and explained why I felt uncomfortable doing it. I'm sure our hostess would have understood if I had explained that I was refusing in order to be respectful to my own beliefs, and not out of any disrespect.
I've always felt like it was cowardice/fear of "confrontation" that made me "go with flow" and that kept me from properly explaining myself in such situations. But from reading Introverts in the Church I've come to realize that as an introvert, I generally take longer to think/react (compared to more extroverted people), so it's really more a problem of feeling pressured to respond without having enough time to think. And of course when you're feeling under pressure, it's easier to choose the path of least resistance. The Soroptimist New Year's party wasn't the first time such a situation had come, but the last time I had thought about the issue of paying respects to deceased family was the summer of my first year (re: obon), so I was sort of taken by surprise by the situation. Instead of simply feeling guilty about being "too afraid to explain myself," from now on I think I just need to remind myself before going to a Japanese person's house that such a situation may come up and prepare myself mentally to give a proper explanation.
But back to Saint Oniisan...
As problematic as I find some aspects of the manga, there are some scenes which I find truly funny. My favourite scene is probably the sauna scene in v1 c6. Jesus and Buddha go to the local pool/community center and end their day in the sauna. Jesus strikes up conversation with a guy there who just "happens" to be a yakuza member! The yakuza member see Jesus' scars and asks how he got them. Jesus answers that they were from being "condemned to capital punishment by some government officers" and the yakuza guy takes him to be a fellow former convict.
The yakuza guy goes on to explain how he spent seven years in Hokkaido after being betrayed by one of his "younger bros" (from the English fan translation). Jesus remarks that his situation was similar, but, in his case, he was able to come back after three days. The yakuza is naturally impressed and wants to know how Jesus managed that. Jesus replies that he didn't actually do anything. The yakuza guy asks if "someone pulled [Jesus] out from there." Jesus' answer: "Oh, no, in my case... It was the will of my Father, so..."
From this the yakuza guy draws the conclusion that Jesus is the second generation head of his (yakuza) group! It's really a great scene, and the way Jesus is drawn when he says "It was the will of my Father" really adds to the effect!
Although each chapter is pretty much stand-alone, there is some plot continuity. For example, when Jesus and Buddha go to the fall festival (v1 c8) where they participate in the mikoshi carry, they actually meet up with the sauna yakuza guy. He (and some fellow group members) are running a game stand and they are actually the ones who get Jesus and Buddha the happi coats and invitation to participate in the mikoshi carrying. =P
Actually, I really liked that the yakuza were "the first friends [Jesus and Buddha] made in the mundane world." I think it really fits with the Biblical depiction of Jesus as a friend of people outcast and marginalized by society.
So yeah, I think Saint Oniisan is an interesting manga that raises a lot of good points for discussion about not only the characters of Jesus and Buddha but also about religion in general. I haven't decided whether or not to buy the Japanese manga yet, but I'm definitely keeping track of the English fan translations!