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.
When people make jokes about the Savior of the world, it tells us that those people are ignorant.
Wow, and the guy who believes in fairy tales is a genius then, huh..
No, Muslims and Atheists are not geniuses.
Joke, if you want to see a good christian joke look up the story of a bunch of the nutters standing around a statue of the virginn mary praying to the bird sh*it on her head, I mean really.
I like the one down south in the 90's when there was a tornado and the people were all praying in the chuch it may even have been easter and the tornado ripped the roof off the church and killed a bunch of people, including a number of children...oh that wasn't a joke, it really happened...guess god was sitting on the can for that one
My invisible pink unicorn is spiritual but not real, so I listen to her sage advice.
I see Richard Dawkins has posted today
What really matters is what God, Himself, thinks about the gross disregard for His Son's great gift and sacrifice for love of us. "Of how much more severe a punishment, do you think, will the man be counted worthy who has trampled upon the Son of God and who has esteemed as of ordinary value the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and who has outraged the spirit of undeserved kindness with contempt?" Hebrews 10:29 in the Holy Bible.
Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
What really matters is that my invisible pink unicorn will love you back if you just believe in her.
you guys are so full of it.
full of $h!t, that is
The dimocrat trolls are out in legion today. LOL
Someone left their humor in the car.
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward~Matthew 6:5
Dictionary definition of FEAR: Reverential awe, great respect.
Bless everyone of you. But in the end i am sure you would not be crying out the name of the lord for comfort or help.
My invisible pink unicorn is crying out for comfort.
Can you help?
What's this "in the end bit". I was crying out to God for help no less than five minutes ago when I ran over my foot with the vacuum cleaner.
With a little faith and some mushrooms gathered in the forest you can see God too.
snowboarder – You clearly are missing the point of my statement. If there were evidence, it would be fact.
Belief in fact, is not faith.
Faith = gullibility.
Lui, turn off your TV. You believe more lies daily than the rest of us Christians combined.
kid – belief in ancient religious texts in the absence of evidence is delusion. pure and simple. no different than the belief in any other religion.
" First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires.
They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning
of creation." But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heaven's existed and the earth was formed out of
water and with water.By water also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed.By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgement and destruction of ungodly men.
Sorry, but your blah blah blah blah comments from an ancient book of mythology mean nothing at all.
That's because you're spiritually blind.
Bob, you've been proven wrong about your interpretations of the bible if anyone is spiritually blind it's you.
Bob – if you mean I can't see invisible fairytale beings in the sky, then you're right.
But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.~Mark 13:32
bob – there is no reason to believe any of that to be true. simply none.
Since Jesus couldn't even predict his own return I think I will just ignore Bob's threats.
Traditional Marriage according to the Holy Bible: "If a man r a p e s a virgin and gets caught, he must pay 50 pieces of silver to her father, and then marry her, and never leave her" Deut 22:28-9
funny the only reason these christians seem to believe in this silly nonsense is cause thier scared of the end of days , the sad thing is we could be 28th century and they could still claim jesus is coming back and of course they say you can't prove he's not so that's enough facts for them , unbelievable
Jesus, is just not the son of God. he's a really fun guy too, loved to have the little kids hanging around. dude out right hated going to church! and to top it off the guy made the best wine ever. unlike the other big religions being a liberal Christen can be a blast. heck liberal Christens even love the Gays! you just want to be careful around them, they'll levee a bad taste in your mouth lol.
All fine and good, but, has anybody been following the stuff going on along Euphrates River and the book of revelations in Bible. People get ready!
I think it goes beyond any of the reasons stated in the column. I think people have come to realize that all religions are quite divisive, polarizing. If we don't believe in their gods, their messiahs, we then ask ourselves, why do we really believe in ours? Ultimately, we come to the realization that our holy books were written by ordinary men. Men who were trying to govern the people with their rules. But, in doing so, they created tremendous rifts between different faiths. We're all living with these evolving rifts today. We have long seen other people's faiths as humorous, now... we're forced to take a good look at our own. And it is hilariously comical. Dangerously so.
Just for the record, H&E, Jesus had absolutely no political aspirations. He attacked man's FALSE "religion". This is why he was hated and why he was killed. Jesus defied the falseness of the so-called temple with a powerful weapon: the TRUTH. Jesus was speaking about himself when he said, "But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here." Matthew 12:6. Jesus taught the power of truth, peace, real love, and genuine respect for God and His kingdom (rulership in our hearts). There was no monetary or political reward for him.
Written by ordinary men? no way, every holily book on earth no matter witch faith you pick, has been gone over with a fine tooth comb by the Rich and Powerful! All The true teachings of that Wild Peace-N-Love Pinko Hippy Rabbi named Jesus were over written a long time before the Roman empire got in on the game. Can guess by who? Can you guess what for? I bet you can? heck the same stuff is going on today right here in America. just look at the Christian right. Most Faith groups around the world have leaders who use GOD to prove that they are the right butcher for the job?
Hey Christians, I hear ya. We members of the Flat Earth Society get laughed at and ridiculed all the time too by all those smarty pants know it all types. Those "rational" science lovers with their demand of evidence, etc. Just ignore them. They'll find out one day that we're right when they are out for a walk one day and fall off the edge of the Earth. Then we'll see who's laughing.
It takes much more faith to believe what you do, than to believe an Intelligent Designer (read GOD) created all things. Please tell me, how did so much order come out of disorder? Why did it take billions and billions of years for a Darwin to come onto the scene and explain it all? What explains the rapid technological advances we've made in the past 200 years as opposed to past 400 billion? In 10 years will we all be flying around by flapping with our new apendage wings?
@ Elliott: What? No – strike that. WHAT?????
Religion is the joke. We are all the victims.
keep an eye on colorado spring soon God will be on the news there and sunami is coming to the americas. Jesus is the Ark of God step in He is about to close and seal the door and fire will fall from heave. mathew 24 joel 2 habbacuk 3
Yes, religion is a filthy perverted disease of the mind
Some say "the devil" appears as an enormous flock of black birds. One day I was driving off the interstate overpass and I all I could think was....."Oh crap I almost hit satan with my car". ;-)
A crowd in ancient Israel gets ready to stone some poor woman.
Jesus walk up to the crowd, raises his hands and says:
"Yea, verily! Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone!"
A wild-eyed woman bursts through the crowd holding a rock the size of a bowling ball.
She winds up like Nolan Ryan, and hurls the small boulder at the woman, killing her instantly.
Jesus gazed upon the woman and thus spake:
"G*dd*mmit, Mom! Sometimes you really p*ss me off!"
you must've been at the Dimocrat Convention this year boo'ing.
People talk all the time about how can you believe a book written by men a few hundred years after the death of Jesus Christ. Take a look at the Islamic Koran (Quran). It was written by one of three possible sources which is either God himself, Muhammad, or the Arabs as a whole. It's been said Muhammad was illiterate and that the Quran places Muhammad above everyone. If I remember correctly, there is a passage in the Quran about a woman who is actually a Jewess, a hated vile race to the Arabs (same then as it is today), and it places her above the Arabs who would be worshipping Muhammad. It never fails when you punch holes in religious texts, the Quran is the same as the Bible in that respect, you find inconsistencies, non-truths, impossibilities, and to the faithful, miracles. The difference between Christianity and Islam is that Jesus never has been a pedophile, was never mentioned he was illiterate, and did not lead by his loins as Muhammad did.
Now the Talmud, to me a vile piece of crap as I am an anti-Zionist, is worse than the Quran. They talk about they are the #1 folks in the world. There are two versions of the Talmud written in different geographical areas by two different faction of Jews. They also talk about genocide of the gentiles yet no one thinks that is wrong, just as there is nothing wrong apparently with praising a pedophile.
Keep in mind that Catholicism I feel is much different than Christianity because of its rituals.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you;
The OT was written before Christ. Strike one. The NT was written by contemporaries of Christ. Given Paul, John et al didn't live past 90 years old, difficult to see how it could have been written a couple hundred years after Christ's death. But continue to disinformation campaign. Apparently it is all you have.
The red-state christians (or evangelical "fake" christians) have made Christ a god-idol whose name you invoke when you want to be wealthy or when you want to score touchdowns in a football game. With most of these folks there is very little understanding or belief in the true teachings of Christianity. They think what their Sunday morning preachers and what their Republican leaders like Russ Limbuagh tell them to think.
Unfortunately, you are correct. Many of my Christian bretheren mistake political pandering as true Gospel for some reason. Then again, there is no outright revulsion for all things good, like the Dimocrat Convention showed us. I don't know whats worse: Downright hypocrisy on the right, or downright perversion and vile epithets from the left
There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?
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.