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 • Opinion

soundoff (5,750 Responses)
  1. joshua

    see dr owour and see blind see, paralitic walk and many more sickness healed. kakamega kenya revival.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  2. MagicPanties

    Why did Jesus cross the road?
    To talk to the invisible pink unicorn.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  3. Gay4God

    What's the difference between Jesus and a picture of Jesus?

    You only need one nail to hold up a picture.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Jesus was black and not may pictures depict him that way.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  4. GAW

    Most jokes are also directed towards the Americanized views of Jesus. Especially as we see plenty of Jesus junk and the images and concepts of Jesus as portrayed by Fundamentalists and Evangelicals. Plus no one is going to pronounce a fatwa against you if you say a joke about Jesus....you just might gets some people perturbed but that's about it.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  5. Ray Gunn

    I've never understood why Mary wasn't stoned to death for being an adulterer?

    November 11, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Her husband, the Roman Citizen Joseph, claimed Mary's child as his own and relocated to Bethlehem during the first trimester.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  6. wes

    Slow day amongst Belief Blog authors, CNN?

    November 11, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Catholics just elected a Ptesident, time for CNN to downplay that power.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  7. Jerry

    There is scientific proof that Jesus walked on water........Sh!t floats! Hehehe!!!

    November 11, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  8. John P. Tarver

    Mathew was a tax collector-rich man
    John was born to a home with servants-rich man
    Jesus was born a Prince of Israel-rich man
    All these men are the opposite of what we learn in church, more like a prototype for Islamists

    November 11, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Damocles

      So rich people are Islamists? Makes sense.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      It is the wealthy Islamist who blows up our buildings and ships. Usama was a billionaire who decided to go live in a cave in Afghanistan with the CIA, instead of enjoying his wealth and power.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  9. Valente

    CNN goes out of its way to insult Christians but does not dare insult Muslims.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Didn't read the article, did you?

      November 11, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • SaltyBob

      If jesus wasnt so fun to make fun of their would be less yea I found jesus hes working at the corner store for min wage.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  10. Welch

    All religion is kooky.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  11. rwee200

    Change the name Jesus to Muhammad and see what happens then tell me Islam is a peaceful religion.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Robert Smith

      Agreed. Mention something about Muhammed and its all over. What a double standard. CNN always bashes Christianity.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Pete

      If your best defense is that at least you don't blow stuff up, then I am not that impressed.

      November 13, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  12. John P. Tarver

    The Jesus of Luke was born a wealthy Prince of Israel with purchased Roman Citizenship and walked away from it all for the 70 week Prophesy of Daniel; with supernatural power. The Jesus they sell at Church was born into poverty and took 3 1/2 years to do some faily natural things. The Jesus they sell at Church has no power and is a joke.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  13. RAWoD

    The bible thumpers have killed all their chances of relevancy in the twenty-first century.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Bob

      Your in for a big surprise

      November 11, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Gay4God


      November 11, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • MagicPanties

      My invisible pink unicorn says YOU'RE going to hell for bad grammar.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Craig

      BOB: come Bob on my meat popsicle

      November 11, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Troy

      @Bob. LOL silly christian.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  14. Welch

    "And why is it acceptable to poke fun at Jesus"

    Ah....maybe because there is absolutely no scientific proof whatsoever for the supernatural of any kind including Jesus, Thor, Zeus, Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy?

    November 11, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • betty

      I worship the Easter Bunny

      November 11, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Ishtar was once widely worshipped, but we normally call her by John Wesley's english anagram of Easter.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • GAW

      Same ol' same ol response from an Atheist.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  15. Henry

    I Will Build My Church, And The Gates of Hell Will Not Overcome It. Jesus Christ

    November 11, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Troy

      That's mostly because Hell doesn't exist.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  16. Roger L. Martinez

    Reblogged this on UCCS History Department and commented:
    "Did you ever hear the one about Jesus being Mexican?" CNN covers Edward Blum and Paul Harvey's new text, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  17. JJ

    That picture of the Euopean Jesus is just priceless. The look on the lamb's face is also priceless. Is Jesus giving the lamb a scrotum rub?

    November 11, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  18. Givanni

    the bible is a book of illogical nonsense written by man.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Bob

      Illogical only to the children of the devil.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Welch


      November 11, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Givanni

      good comeback...Bob. you mor0n

      November 11, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • betty

      fairy tales. impossible BS!

      November 11, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  19. John

    Hypocrites: You really need to be imersed in the Muslim culture, there is no room for disbelivers there. The speech of infidels is not tolerated

    November 11, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  20. Bob

    The comments here show that the spirit of this world is very much alive.
    They are very close to destruction.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Givanni

      so give me all your money and possessions, if that's true. The fact is you spew this garbage, but don't actually believe it yourself. That makes you a...hypocrite.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:10 am |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.