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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 • Opinion

soundoff (5,750 Responses)
  1. tony

    My god is funnier than your god.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  2. James

    I don't get mad or upset when I read these comments, I don't bash or call names, I simply just try to share my side. You can look at it like this: Either Jesus was a man who knew he was lying and purposely deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and a self-deceived lunatic, or He was, in fact, Divine. It has to be 1 of the 3. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. I personally choose the very latter based on everything that I've read and the logical conclusions I've come to that form my belief. I'll be happy to answer any questions.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • tony

      All men are some of each three. You just have to note the percentages. The last is unlikely at over 30%

      November 11, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Or 4. – It's all made up. Just ancient mythology.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • snowboarder

      james – or choice #4 he was a man whose life was incredibly embellished by writers after his death.

      this is the most likely answer.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • L.L.L.L.

      James,

      Yes, there is a 4th option - liar, lunatic, lord ... or legend. There is not a shred of verified evidence for any of the supernatural characteristics which have been attributed to this man (if he existed) by his groupies.

      November 11, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  3. gary

    jzeus christ is a figment of imagination.he never existed.made up by catholic church to take power away from creator to make money and spread lies for ages.His name who died on the tree was Yahushua !true messiah.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  4. Woww

    This article is laughable at best. First off, this is america. You can make a joke about anything. ANYTHING. Freedom of speech is only convenient until it gets to people sensitivities. But just because you worship jesus doesnt mean others dont find the entire idea laughable. Sorry I dont worship a higher power, but to me its mainstream religions fault. This article completely misunderstands agnoticism. To me agnostics like myself are the only ones who think logically about it. Atheists and christians are sure. Thats not believing. Thats knowing. I know 2+2 is 4. I have faith theres a higher power, but i see no organized religion that I wanna be a part of. Just money hungry people that are positive they know that not only is there a god, but also the way i want to live my life.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  5. What???

    It just goes to show that we modern Christians can still love our God's son after all these jokes (as offensive as they are) and not kill anyone. Hmmmmm seems like other reiligons need to follow suit.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • akka

      jokes? what jokes. I'm quoting bible verses! those are NOT jokes. they are from your bible.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • What???

      akka.. I am reffering to the jokes in the article.. and pointing out that we have daily situations that would be deemed offemsive to our or one's modern religion and it seems from a common stand in the news that only one religion has authorization to commit murder defending theirs. I care not what you have posted earlier. I was just making a point and not contesting your ideals.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  6. Red Pison

    True peace-loving religious people turn the other cheek when their deity is insulted. The ones that don't and end up rioting and killing bring shame to the God they claim to love and worship.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • akka

      ok, switch it up, spin doctor. if you believe in the bible, you need to believe in the whole bible. not only the little parts that suit you. and by the way, today is sunday, and if you see anyone working, you must kill them, per your precious bible.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Historical John the Baptist started a riot that killed 120,000 Magis and that is the reason he was in jail. A directed riot that did not devolve into looting.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  7. akka

    Exodus 32: 27

    He said to them, "The Lord God of Israel has said: Arm yourselves each of you with his sword. Go through the camp from gate to gate and back again. Each of you kill brother, friend, neighbor."

    November 11, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • sybaris

      Such a loving god

      November 11, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  8. GAW

    How many atheists does it take to put in a light bulb? None for right now they're wasting their time posting on the CNN belief blog.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • akka

      I'm only trying to show you that YOU are wasting your time. Dolt.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • GAW

      Typical response. btw Where is your sense of humor?

      November 11, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Luis Wu

      How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb?

      Mormons: 5 – One man to change the bulb, and four wives to tell him how to do it.
      Lutherans: None – Lutherans don't believe in change.
      Pentecostal: 10 – One to change the bulb, and nine to pray against the spirit of darkness.
      Amish: - What's a light bulb?

      November 11, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Damocles

      So it takes no atheists to change a light bulb?

      November 11, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • snowboarder

      luis – witty

      November 11, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  9. NoTags

    Thanks to all the atheists and non believers for their negative posts and jokes on Jesus, Christianity and the Bible. By your posts and jokes you are in fact proving the Bible correct.

    In the past 50 or so years there has been a falling away from the Christian faith which we see today in so many posts and jokes, on many discussion boards and blogs.

    The Apostle Paul told us in his epistles to Timothy (I Timothy 4:1-2 and II Timothy 3:1-5 & 7) that in the latter days there would be a falling away from the faith and Godlessness which many posts and jokes tend to verify.

    Atheists and non believers hate the word of God and the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Christians do not fear the words and jokes of atheists and non believers any more than they fear the words of a false prophet.

    Save your snide remarks and jokes, you can't dampen my faith any more than the Romans could dampen the faith of Perpetua and Felicity.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • GAW

      Boy you must be fun to be with.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Run

      Run......Run......The sky is falling....the sky is falling....again....Run Chicken little Run!

      Yawn.....do you know how many hundred of years delusional people have been saying the same stupid crap. You're cult is not welcomed in our society.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • sybaris

      Christian Fallacy #216 – Atheists fear the word of a god

      Uh, you don't fear something that you don't believe exists.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • 0_0

      you're stupid.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • snowboarder

      tag – if i had a nickel for every time some nutjob invoked the "end of days" over the past 2000 years, i would be an incredibly wealthy man.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  10. TheTraveler

    Ah yes, another Sunday "filler" story for the "religion" section of CNN ... Nothing brings out the worse in people than to discuss religion. Anyone's.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  11. Ray Gunn

    Someone below commented that believing in something for which there is no evidence is called Faith.
    But the medical community defines "believing in something for which there is no evidence" as "Delusional."

    November 11, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Michael Wagner

      True. However, the real point is what is evidence. If one claims Jesus is "the Son of God" this is considered a sign that one is Christian, and thinking this is a sign of proper mental functioning. The person is professing a belief congruent with a common worldview and therefore deemed sane. However, if one claims he is "Jesus the Son of God" this is delusional as it is in-congruent with any coherent worldview. The medical community does not consider religious positions without "scientific" (modern use = measurable) evidence as delusional as they recognize mental operations as having a different type of know-ability. Rather they considered religious beliefs as part of the bio-psycho-social make-up of an individual that can often be used to increase mental health of persons. Numerous articles point to religious convictions providing psychological stability and being correlated to improves well-being.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  12. akka

    Exodus 21: 20-21

    When a man strikes his slave or slave girl with a stick and the slave dies on the spot, he must be punished. But he is not to be punished if the slave survives for one day or two, because the slave is his property

    November 11, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  13. Luis Wu

    One has but to read Numbers: 31 to see what kind of a god the Christian god really is, ordering the murder and enslavement of thousands of women and children. And of course, allocating a large percentage of the virgins to the priests. I guess he forgot they like little boys more than women.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Slavery is a natural social order, havn't you read "Origin of Species"?

      November 11, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  14. John P. Tarver

    May favorit Jesus joke of late: Jesus is my neighbor's gardener.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  15. akka

    Exodus 21: 7

    When a man sells his daughter into slavery, she is not to go free as male slaves may.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      All regular slaves were released every 7 years and all debts forgiven every 50 years. Seems like a good system. The other common religion in the world is Ba'al worship, where the most popular person in the community was burned every year; unlike our elections.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  16. Chad

    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?

    Excellent question..

    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

    That says nothing about why Jesus is mocked while it is taboo to do so to central figures in other religions. Christians are the only religious people that have engaged in mockable behavior? Please…

    If we pause to consider why we’re laughing, we find that the comic bits delve into some of our tho rniest and unresolved problems. The jokes reveal much more about us than they do Jesus.
    Now you’re getting very close to the real issue…

    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
    That says nothing about while it is taboo to insult central figures in other religions in the US where Christians make up the vast majority of the populace.

    The real answer is simple and twofold:
    1. Why do people do it: Christ is real and everyone knows it deep down, making jokes about it is an attempt to deny to yourself that it is true. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”. All one has to do is look at some extraordinarily spare postings on the Muslim posts on this blog to know that fundamentally, non-believers just don’t find these other religions threatening.
    2. Why do they get away with it: Christians don’t kill people for insulting Jesus

    November 11, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • TrollAlert

      "Ronald Regonzo" who degenerates to:
      "Salvatore" degenerates to:
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      "truth be told" degenerates to:
      "Thinker23" degenerates to:
      "Atheism is not healthy ..." degenerates to:
      "another repentant sinner" degenerates to:
      "Dodney Rangerfield" degenerates to:
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      "Chad" degenerates to
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      "nope" degenerates to:
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      "fred" degenerates to:
      "!" degenerates to:
      "pervert alert" is the degenerate.

      This troll is not a christian, but a troll.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Damocles

      @chad

      To be clear, I do not fear the religion, I fear what is done in the name of that religion. A fanatic is a fanatic.

      Stop showing your stupidity and refrain from saying things like 'Christians don’t kill people for insulting Jesus'. It may not happen as often, but it does happen.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Mikey B

      The spectacle of the religious right mot certainly answers the questions. The sanctimonious have a tendency to get knocked around a bit in this country, and using Jesus is one way to do that.
      Secondly, to the faithful, this is also a way to make Jesus more real and relatable, that Jesus is one with whom one can have a personal relationship. Not so much "mocking" as "needling" as one would do to a friend. I've heard so great Jesus jokes from priests.
      It appears, Chad, are coming from this notion that Christianity in the country is somehow "under attack" and this current of jokes about Jesus is a symptom. In my hometown, they removed one on those 10 Commandment monuments from the courthouse grounds, much to the consternation of some. On those same grounds, you could, and still can, look out into the surrounding and count eleven churches of various denominations whose congregations are as strong as ever.

      My advice: take a pill.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Chad

      @Damocles "Stop showing your stupidity and refrain from saying things like 'Christians don’t kill people for insulting Jesus'. It may not happen as often, but it does happen."

      =>such as.. when?

      November 11, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  17. El Flaco

    Those jokes are merely a technique used by global media corporations to punch up the reaction to their material. It's controversial and controversy is profitable. There is no such thing as bad publicity.

    These jokes are not a product of our society or our culture. They are a marketing technique used by media corporations to get some press.

    Global corporations don't give a crap about Jesus one way or the other, but their focus groups tell them that the subject of Jesus is just one of our hot buttons.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  18. Blasphemy

    God is a control freak.

    The religious try to emulate that.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  19. akka

    Genesis 19: 8

    "Look, I have two daughters, virgins both of them. Let me bring them out to you and you could do what you like with them. But do nothing to these men because they have come under the shelter of my roof."

    November 11, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      These same daughters later had their father's children.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  20. GAW

    Jesus came across an adulteress crouching in a corner with a crowd around her preparing to stone her to death. Jesus stopped them and said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

    Suddenly a woman at the back of the crowd fired off a stone at the adulteress. At which point Jesus looked over and said, "Mother! Sometimes you really embarass me!"

    November 11, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Reason Able

      Yeah, haw – the old Mary line – no sin, conceived without sin, not other kids, and didn't die – taken directly to heaven to be crowned "Queen of Heaven." That's not faith, that's credulity. Last problem – she is not God, so she is not all-knowing and is not everywhere present – so she cannot hear your prayers or know your thoughts. Only God can.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:50 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.