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.
Jesus jokes don't mock Jesus, but his regular misuse for Empire, War, etc....We didn't make him a mascot for those things. YOU did.
QUESTION: If "Creationist Christian Cretins" truly believed in Adam and Eve then why do all historical paintings and images of the happy couple display them with distinct and prominent belly buttons? Just sayin'......
Does everything in a painting or drawing have to be correct? I doubt that most artists would have ever considered that Adam and Eve would not have a belly button since they were created.
@NoTags: Yes, you're correct, artists would never think to get the details right. Besides, anyone that believes in Adam and Eve is not doing any real thinking anyway....
Geneses 16: 8-9
And he said "Hagar, Sarai's slave girl, where have you come from and where are you going?" She answered, "I'm running away from Sarai, my mistress." The angel of the Lord said to her, "Go back to your mistress and submit to ill treatment at her hands"
JB. I am sorry to hear that humorous slants on a quasi historical figure from 2000 yrs ago hurts your feelings. You would think that someone who has a close, personal relationship with the creator of the universe would not be so fragile.
This whole JESUS thing is a lie,,,,, The letter j is less than 500 years old, no letter j in hebrew alef bet... JESUS formely spelled Iousus who was a roman godess of healing..
Poorly written article. A string of the jokes from pop culture and ends without a conclusion of any sort. Why even write this? I thought it was going somewhere and thought I was going to share this article with friends until it ended abruptly without anything to say.
Spot on, my thoughts exactly. What a lazy attempt at writing – CNN should be smacked for posting this crap.
This is the most stupid article I have ever read in my entire life. The sad thing is that it was authored by two so-called historians.
My earthly name is John, but my heavenly name is Diomitron. I am here for the time is near. The arrow in His quiver has been loosed to fly, and I must prophesy. I prepare mankind for His Great Day. LET THE WISE HEAR WHAT I SAY!
john – the difference between a prophet and a mental patient is simply the gullibility of those who surround them.
Jesus Christ is a fictional character. The Bible is a work of Fiction. There are no gods.
Also prove there's no flying spaghetti monster.
A Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian walked into a bar. They immediately convicted each other of blasphemy and executed each other.
And that my friend is why sane people mock religion.
Excellent example lmao
"Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings; yet even angels, although stronger and more powerful,do not bring slanderous accusations against such beings in the presence of the Lord. But these men blaspheme
in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed,and
like beast too they will perish."
Well? There was that one Angel. And his followers.
Celestial beings and angels don't exist.
Jesus, if he existed, had to have been dark skinned..... not the Barry Gibb looking guy in the picture on every church wall. Everyone native to the region was North African / Middle Eastern. Assuming that some of the contributors to the Bible actually met the man, none mentioned that his appearance stood out..
And the story about Jesus was stolen from other pagan religions and he wasn't actually born in December...but shhhh....you don't want to wake up the christians to reality.
how is this relevant?
ummm...we all KNOW he wasn't born in December einstein – thank you for being so enlightening. The Bible itself makes it clear that he was born sometime in the summer (shepherds grazing their flocks) so yes – you are so perceptive. It doesn't actually matter WHEN you celebrate it – the celebration is SYMBOLIC.
They stole the celebration time from another pagan holiday, it has nothing to do with your Christ it's all made up.
yes yes we know that December 25th was the Festival of the Sun. Have you heard of 'syncretism' – I know it's a big word, look it up. Some people would even call the mixing of beliefs tolerant and pragmatic – isn't that what multiculturalism is all about, the mixing of beliefs? Or is it just ok when you do it?
Excuses...excuses...oh....that's what faith is about....excuses.
There's no such thing as dogs!!!!!!!!
Depends upon whether you believe Jesus removes your accountability for your sins or you believe that you will be held accountable for them. But that depends upon who defines and redefines sin.
And then there are those that:
Believe that there being no God is their Heaven.
Have a simplistic belief that Heaven is a cosmic orgasm.
Do social engineering so that human social evolution leads to classes of humanity where one class becomes Supreme and reigns above the elements and the simply mortal. Eugenics anyone?
I put my failings squarely where they need to be, on me.
If people believe heaven is one long orgasm it is no more or less valid than any other view.
I think you are going a tad bit overboard with the eugenics thing, but I would fight against that as strongly as I would fight against a theocracy, which does, by the way, promote the idea of a supreme being governing over the lesser beings.
Damocles – The idea of a Supreme Being ruling over us is Lucifer's plan. Those of us who believe that we are Sons and Daughters of God recognize that we are students that are free to choose to mature and progress to develop Celestial Character and govern our stewardship with Benevolence.
What did Jesus say when they took him down from the cross?
Jesus' name and life are sacred to me - so please do not mock him.
Nothing is sacred. It's a delusional concept. It doesn't exist.
Now is the great day of Lucifer's power; of 'Collective Salvation'. Trouble is that 'Collective Salvation' is very selective. Just see what the Mohamadist and Secularist are doing to purge the believers that believe in a God that is Personal. They know that a 'Public Square' must be dominated by them and all others purged from it.
The day will come that those who oppress the faithful in a God that is personal will be swept away.
Luis Wu – Then you give yourself license to abuse and disrespect others?
It is interesting what this article draws from readers. Personal faith and scientific advancement have often been beautifully combined as in the lives of Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur or more recently Gorgio (scientist working in Cern). Each have given moving witnesses to the awe they have felt following the verification of novel discoveries. I attended a lecture by a physicist who told the audience that he is amazed at how reality continues to reveal itself as identical to the ever improved models generated by human ingenuity. He, along with Einstein, thinks that this is an elegant proof of a divine principle responsible for the creation of both the human intellect and rest of the measurable universe. The measure and measurable corresponding and thus pointing to beyond themselves to the creator of both.
However, it is clear that many of those opposed to Christianity are not honestly looking for the truth as these scientist have. Perhaps the skepticism with which "Quid est veritas" was originally spoken resonates more profoundly with them. They may have suffered at the hands of those who call themselves Christians or rebel against the truths of reality that hold them accountable. Know that true followers of Jesus desire your peace and consolation.
In an interview, Einstein was asked if he believed in God. He replied that he didn't believe in a "personal" god, but in something more along the lines of "Spinoza's God". Spinoza was a pantheist. He didn't believe in a separate, intelligent god, he believed in a "life energy" that permeates the Universe and manifests itself not only as living things but in inanimate objects as well. But not intelligent nor conscious. So do some research and get your fact straight before posting ignorant nonsense.
I would say that those "opposed" to christianity are doing science, nothing more. You can be a scientist and be a christian but science is agnostic, it doesn't care either way. If a christian bakes a cake is it a christian cake? Is everything a christian does have a christian tinge to it? Because that's not how you honestly approach any conclusion, you are saying I already know the answer now I just need to bend the facts to prove I'm right. You've never truly questioned your beliefs and it shows.
It's acceptable to make fun of jesus b/c there's no proof that he's real unlike other figures.
lol really? Wanna go down that road buddy? Grab a history book – he's real. We can disagree about who he was but to disagree about his existence is stupid. There are more literary accounts of Jesus' existence than there are for Julius Caesar
Real? Jesus is about as real as the tooth fairy. Only gullible, ignorant people believe that nonsense.
Hahaha.... Yeah, that's not true....
mmm...I wonder why characters in the Hewbrew or Muslim religion are not mocked?
I don't about Hebrew but doesn't the Muslim faith more strongly forbid this? I believe it doesn't even allow for images, even positive ones. I don't recall Christianity having such strong statements forbidding it (aside from not taking the name in vain).
The is a racist article:
it ranks the Irish, Mexicans, and Koreans to some small extent
and all black shows look alike to this guy
So god made man in his image. Lets see, maybe two white arms, two black legs, a redish aboriginal head, an asian yellow caste torso or maybe he was all purple like a Kolobian god. Don't you love sending BS to the religious to counter their BS.
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.