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My Take: What all those Jesus jokes tell us
The authors note that Jesus jokes have become popular just since the 1970s.
November 10th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: What all those Jesus jokes tell us

Editor’s note: Edward J. Blum is a historian of race and religion at San Diego State University. Paul Harvey is a history professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and runs the blog Religion in AmericanHistory. They co-authored “The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.”

By Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, Special to CNN

Did you ever hear the one about Jesus being Mexican? Well, he was bilingual; he was constantly harassed by the government; and his first name was Jesus.

Or, perhaps Jesus was Irish? He loved a good story; he never kept a steady job; and his last request was for a drink.

Or maybe it’s possible that Jesus was Californian? He never cut his hair; he was always walking around barefoot; and he started a new religion.

You may not have heard these Jesus jokes, but you’ve heard others. They represent a comedic trend that has animated the United States since the 1970s. More and more comedy gimmicks hit on Jesus, his ethnicity and his relationship to politics. Laughing with (and at) the Lord is now fodder for major motion pictures, barroom comedy tours, graphic novels, t-shirts and bumper stickers.

How is it that a figure sacred to so many Americans has become the punch line of so many jokes? And why is it acceptable to poke fun at Jesus when other sacred figures are deemed off limits or there is hell to pay for mocking them?

The explanations are as numerous as the laughs.

Immigration shifts from the 1960s changed the ethnic and religious faces of the country so no tradition dominates today. The Christian right made such a moral spectacle of itself that it practically begged to be mocked. The emergence of “spiritual, but not religious” sensibilities left many Americans willing to denounce or laugh about traditional faith. The public rise of agnosticism, atheism, and secularism led to aggressive mockery as a form of persuasion.

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If we pause to consider why we’re laughing, we find that the comic bits delve into some of our thorniest and unresolved problems. The jokes reveal much more about us than they do Jesus. They speak to how our society has changed, how it hasn’t, and what we’re obsessed with.

The first public jokes about Jesus were heard in the 1970s. There had been religious jokes before this, but none about Jesus had become widely popular because organized Christianity held such authority. As the economic recession and problems of urban decay collided with civil rights exhaustion and new immigration, however, some Jesus jokes emerged.

Archie Bunker on “All in the Family” was the white racist and misogynist you loved to hate and hated to love. On one occasion, his son-in-law challenged Bunker’s rampant anti-Semitism with the claim, "Jesus was Jewish." Archie shot back immediately: "Only on his mother's side."

The “All in the Family” spin off “Good Times” featured a black family that lives in an inner-city housing project, probably Chicago's infamous Cabrini Green. On the show's second episode, the oldest son J. J. astounded everyone by painting Jesus as black. The younger son loves it, and says he learned all about Christ’s blackness from the local Nation of Islam.

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As the family debates whether this black Jesus should be hung on the wall in place of their white Jesus, they “miraculously” receive $140 from the Internal Revenue Service. Feeling blessed, the family placed the painting on its living room wall, and the elated J. J. shouted his tagline, "Dyno-mite!”

From the 1980s to the present, the number of prominent Jesus jokes has multiplied like loaves and fishes:

• In “Talladega Nights,” Ricky Bobby and his family debated which Jesus to pray to (“baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers,” “grown-up Jesus,” “ninja Jesus”). Their overall hope is that Jesus will help them continue their extravagant lifestyle.

• “South Park” featured Jesus as a weak-kneed host of a local talk show who boxes the devil.

• “Family Guy” had Jesus perform magic tricks that wowed his ancient audience.

• “The Colbert Report” placed a gun in Christ’s hand and had him defend conservatives against the liberal “War on Easter.”

• “Saturday Night Live” let Jesus chastise Tim Tebow for using the Lord’s name in vain and ended the bit by declaring that the Mormons have it right.

One unforgettable scene in the rather forgettable recent film “21 Jump Street” may explain why Jesus has become such a joke.

Before Jonah Hill’s character returns to high school as an undercover cop, he prays to a small, crucified “Korean Jesus.” Down on his knees, he says: “Hey Korean Jesus, I don’t know if you only cater to Korean Christians or if you even exist, no offense. I’m just really freaked out about going back to high school. It was just so f***ing hard the first time. … I just really don’t want to f*** this up. Sorry for swearing so much. The end? I don’t really know how to end the prayer.”

The hilarity of the moment only makes sense in our time. Hill's character is unchurched and agnostic, but wants spiritual power to guide him. We can laugh at how agnosticism and being “spiritual, but not religious,” leave him uncertain of what to say, how to say it, and even how to end.

We can also laugh at how ethnic factors color his approach. By wondering if Korean Jesus cares only about Korean problems, Hill pokes fun at the issue which was made a media spectacle in 2008, when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright could be heard preaching that “Jesus was a poor black man” as part of his support for Barack Obama. What good is a God who only cares for those who look like him?

The Jesus jokes not only reveal how tangled our religious, racial, economic and political positions have become, but also how many outlets there are for the jokes. In these tense times, when presidential hopefuls point fingers at one another and families unfriend one another over political and cultural differences, laughing may be one way to talk about the problems without killing one another.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Entertainment • Jesus • My Take • Opinion

soundoff (5,750 Responses)
  1. Jesus Christ Son of God

    Sheeple...Wake up....Idon't exist. Wake up. Don't you have the inner strength to live your life? By the way, did you hear the one about my Mary, my 'virgin' mom?

    November 11, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  2. james

    My Take: What all those Jesus jokes tell me–Means that Mohammad is moving right along with getting rid of the Cristian faith–

    November 11, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • independent jim

      muhammed was nevr considered to be a god ..just a prophet ..his image is not put on display because of the commandment ... thou shalt have no false gods before me ... when his image is displayed the followers of Islam are offended because the christians do not respect the ten commandments

      November 11, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  3. Blasphemy

    There is only a slight difference between: "Do as we say or face the wrath" and "do as we say and be rewarded with 7 premenstrual virgins."

    November 11, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  4. lindaluttrell

    If you cannot laugh at and with yourself, obviously you are not comfortable with yourself.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  5. Hopeful

    "The Christian right made such a moral spectacle of itself that it practically begged to be mocked." Really? Is this the proposed reason offered for why it is acceptable to poke fun at Jesus when other sacred figures are deemed off limits? It must be because no other explanation was offered. A bit of a pointless article in my opinion. Perhaps the reason for the ridicule lies in people's inability to understand the simplicity of salvation through Christ? Or maybe the mocking of Christ was prophesized? Who knows. But one thing is for certain: It is disrespectful and insensitive to make Jesus the butt of jokes. It seems that political correctness applies to everything except Christianity.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      Nobody's off limits. We joke about everbody.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Month Python

      Thank god for god, it made our franchise.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  6. Woody

    Jesus has nothing to do with American politics as in the times Jesus was supposed to have been America was no known as it is today . Also Jesus was born on the continent of Asia at Asia Minor . Christian religion was not born in America as so many would want us to believe . If you take a christian bible in that part of the world today , you just might not live long enough to come home to tell about your trip ! Some religions do not look at Jesus the way a christian might !

    November 11, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  7. Daverelentless

    One has to make jokes when seeing a brown haired Blue eyed Jesus. That region of the world does not produce natives of that persuasion. Even the Christian Scriptures say that Jesus had skin of darkest Walnut, hair of thickest Lambs Wool. I.E. he was Black. The washed out Jesus is pretty funny just as an image.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  8. Fred Smith

    Another CNN garbage story written by those who wish to turn religion into myth. By lowering standards and proving the myths sceintifically religion is dropped to street trash joke level. The democrats even removed the word God from their platform. We heard you all vote NEA! You cant change what we hear and see with our own ears and eyes CNN. Go ahead and make your America (In God We Trust) into a Godless animal farm. Go peddle condums to your school children and murder their babies. Leave me out of your devil worship I would rather be dead.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Hey, fred – do you believe in Thor? Zeus? Ra? Or do you consider them to be myths?

      November 11, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  9. Rainer Braendlein

    Mock people which use religion as a smokescreen for their malice: pope, Muhammad, Jewish leaders, but don't mock the holy Jesus who died for the sake of your soul's health.

    I guess when people mock Jesus today they actually only mock a distorted image of Jesus they have. Probably this image rather resembles people like the pope, Muhammad, Jewish Scribes and Pharisees, etc. than Jesus. I guess no reasonable man would mock the real Jesus because the real Jesus was the most loveable man which has ever lived on earth.

    If you would meet Jesus today, I guess that you would love him. Only criminals would not love him because he could get in their way when they want to implement their evil plans.

    Hence, let us mock the pope, Muhammad, people who behave like Scribes and Pharisees, etc. but don't mock the real Jesus who is indeed sacred, and can make you new through the rebirth out of Water and Spirit (sacramental baptism).

    I am a Protestant.

    The mystere of sacramental baptism:

    Evangelicals may tell you: "believe in Jesus, and get saved!". This is only mere information which cannot improve your life. If you want to worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth, you have to receive sacramental baptism insti-tuted by Christ himself, not by the lousy sinful pope-rat. The only condition for baptism is repentance. Repentance means that you seek for moral improvement of your life.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      You're not a Protestant, Rainer – you're a nutbar. Delusional. Three cans short of a six pack.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • PerceivedReality

      Attack,
      What do you believe in? You probably believe in a bunch of theorys that really cannot even tell you what matter is. If you want to call people delusional maybe you should first consider your own beliefs. You think all this stuff came from nowhere and matter just started programing itself, I cannot think of a position more logically preposterous, yet that is what YOU believe!

      November 11, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  10. elijahi34

    This is why America is going through these severe storms as judgement on a nation that has lost it way. The economy is down and the people are living in sin. Ask those people who are suffering if they have time to laugh at jokes. Let us some up this matter. The Word of God stands firm ! It does not matter how many jokes you say about the Lord Jesus. The Word of God goes from one generation to the next as it says in the bible. The bible warns that in the last days the mockers would come. Those that know Jesus are not shaken by these actions. Haters of the Word of God have been around since the start. Just as the haters before you have passed on and their bodies returned to the dust of the earth, so will yours and your voice will become silent. Heaven and earth shall pass but My words will never pass away. Words rightly spoken by the Lord Jesus almost 2,000 years ago. How many generations have come and gone since that time. The Word of God stands firm and rooted and still continues to go from one generation to the next, while the enemies of God perish. Look and behold, it is the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the world. His knockout number is unknown. Ladies and gentlemen please stand to your feet . It is He. The living and glorious King of kings and Lord of Lords. I present to you the Lord Jesus Christ.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      "Gozer the Traveler. He will come in one of the pre-chosen forms. During the rectification of the Vuldrini, the traveler came as a large and moving Torg! Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the McKetrick supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Slor! Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!"
      Behold: the word of Vinz Clortho!

      November 11, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  11. MagicPanties

    Now don't ya'll be making no jokes about my invisible pink unicorn.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  12. Slender Bender

    Do you know what the Romans said to Jesus as he was on the cross??

    Hey Jesus how's it hanging/

    November 11, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  13. Rainer Braendlein

    Mock people which use religion as a smokescreen for their malice: pope, Muhammad, Jewish leaders, but don't mock the holy Jesus who died for the sake of your soul's health.

    I guess when people mock Jesus today they actually only mock a distorted image of Jesus they have. Probably this image rather resembles people like the pope, Muhammad, Jewish Scribes and Pharisees, etc. than Jesus. I guess no reasonable man would mock the real Jesus because the real Jesus was the most loveable man which has ever lived on earth.

    If you would meet Jesus today, I guess that you would love him. Only criminals would not love him because he could get in their way when they want to implement their evil plans.

    Hence, let us mock the pope, Muhammad, people who behave like Scribes and Pharisees, etc. but don't mock the real Jesus who is indeed sacred, and can make you new through the rebirth out of Water and Spirit (sacramental baptism).

    I am a Protestant.

    The mystere of sacramenatl baptism:

    Evangelicals may tell you: "believe in Jesus, and get saved!". This is only mere information which cannot improve your life. If you want to worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth, you have to receive sacramental baptism insti-tuted by Christ himself, not by the lousy sinful pope-rat. The only condition for baptism is repentance. Repentance means that you seek for moral improvement of your life.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • MagicPanties

      My invisible pink unicorn is praying that you get a clue.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  14. Carolae

    How can CNN allow the bashing of Jesus as a front page headline? Yes, there have been a lot of jokes over the years but the front page is not the place for it. These 2 goons may be historians or whatever they want to call themselves, but it shows they have no respect or probably don't even believe in God's son, Jesus. It shows just how low they can get in their speculation. Religion is a topic better not exploited in the news....it is private and your beliefs are your own. I have long stopped watching CNN for their coverage of news and have turned to FOX or NBC. They are only hurting themselves.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      It's called freedom of the press. Consider it along with freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of (and from) religion.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • snowboarder

      it is long past time for religion to lose its exalted status in society.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • PerceivedReality

      Snow and the like,
      It will, and the results will be a depraved society where people destroy each other in mass, do not count on civility too much longer, but remember it will be what you wanted. You want what ever evil you want, probably why you dont want to believe in God, people like you will bring a virtual hell on earth then you will all return to the oblivion you came from and the rest of us will mourn the loss of what you could have been.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • snowboarder

      percieved – absolute fearmongering nonsense.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  15. Jim

    When we make jokes about such figures as Jesus and Mohammed, we are not really poking fun at them, but at those who we think take them too seriously – to see if we can generate a reaction (or perhaps a discussion). For some, mean as it may seem, comedy exists in raising the dander of others.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Blasphemy

      Jokes can serve the purpose of cauterizing a bleeding brain.

      Sure it may hurt for a moment, but it is for their own good.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  16. Dave

    The fact that there is no actual reason to even suggest Jesus is anything more than a fictional character in a book makes the people who pretend he is more than that a punchline by itself.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  17. Henry

    These two clown, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey couldn’t care less about the gospel of Jesus Christ they just use the name of Jesus Christ to make a living for themselves, just like the mute-dogs occupying the pulpits of America exchanging the gospel of Christ for thirty pieces of silver under the IRS 501c3 Tax-Exempt Code for churches.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  18. Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

    Jesus saves!

    But Sidney Crosby get the rebound and sticks it in the top corner!

    November 11, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  19. kahn keller

    Yep... it is to be expected that jokes are now being made about a religious myth....a son of god... since the christians can no longer kill you for making the joke...it took 2,000 years... but was worth waiting for.... add this one: the greek and roman gods (hot for human females) produced thousands of "sons of gods".... christanity...only one...

    November 11, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  20. Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

    The three wise men are gathered at the manger in Bethlehem. They are kneeling, presenting their gifts. Mary gives them thanks for the gifts, then says, “But what we would really like is help with a name for our baby”. The first wise man says Ezekiel? Allowichus? Hermione? No, says Mary – those aren’t right. The second wise man suggests Rolando, Heraldo, or Germano – these are rejected as well. The third wise man says, “Hmm – I need a better look at the baby”. He goes to stand up, but, being rather tall, bashes his head on one of the rafters. He cries out “Jesus Christ!”, to which Joseph replies, “Hey, great name – we were going to call him Bob!”

    November 11, 2012 at 9:10 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.