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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. sybaris

    The jokes have become more prevalent because the country has evolved from a predominately rural less educated citizenry.

    Religion and the worship of god(s) requires ignorance to perpetuate

    People are just not as gullible as they used to be and can see the holes in the christian dogma.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • tony

      Nearly have haven't figured that out yet. They voted republican for GWB in 2004, and the Tea party in 2008 and 2012.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  2. tony

    Oh look! God moved the constellation Orion over to the left 20 degrees last night. . . . . . .

    November 11, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  3. God's Oldest Dreamer

    1Corinthians 3:9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, [ye are] God's building.

    Every 'generation' from the beginning of mankind onwards was built a church for God and of the building of God's churches, the body of a solitary man is to be found being the generationed churches of God within each geneerationed Time and will forever so be until the very end of the unpassable Age of sound reasonings.

    Lettuce Love,
    Let Us Love,
    G.O.D.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  4. jesus morales

    Who cares?

    November 11, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  5. tony

    With no job, who paid Jesus's living expenses? . . . . .

    November 11, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • cielo62

      As a traveling teacher, he was accorded hospitality wherever he went. Anybody who wanted to, could buy him a meal or open their homes to him.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Jesus was born wealthy and worked for a living the last 70 weeks of his life. Only a fake Christian charges you for Church.

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

      Go to any large city and you can find many people who could have been Jesus had they been born 2,000 years ago.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • sybaris

      The alleged Jesus man could turn water into wine, poof a basket of fish into existence, walk on water.

      It's funny how the faithful attribute these fantastic acts to him but then make up ways he met his "human" needs.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  6. Luis Wu

    How many times did young Jesus scream at Joseph, "Yeah, well, you're not my real dad!" ?

    November 11, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • Al

      His real dad was goat farmer.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Luis Wu

      His real dad was probably the mailman.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  7. pame

    God is from Argentina , his name is LIONEL MESSI.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • tony

      Plays with model trains?

      November 11, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  8. Katrina

    “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” John 15:18-20 NIV
    Jesus knew he would be mocked and ridiculed and those who follow him will experience the same.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • MJA

      Odd thing is, the ones doing the persecuting for centuries were the Christians. So I don't think there is necessarily a lot of high ground here.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Any cult would teach the same thing.....

      I love how christians cite this as an "I told you so" when the same thing can apply to any group. You christians just love feeling persecuted and wear it like a badge of honor.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • tony

      That's an obvious conclusion for anyone with any problems. No need to be religious and/or unque

      November 11, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  9. Trailer Park Jesus

    Blessed be the joke-makers.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Wasn't it "Blessed are the cheese-makers"?

      November 11, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  10. HINDUISM SOURCE OF FILTHY QUICKIE MART SQUISHIES

    HOMER SIMPSON, STICKY TOMATO PLANT BAD WEATHER! NO ONIONS SHALL SURVIVE PAPERTOWELISM WITH THREE BAD LUG NUTS ON THE TRANSMISSION. WE MUST STOP FILTHY DIAL SOAP TOOTHBRUSH DINOSAUR AND NOBODY KNOWS WHAT IN THE WORLD IM RANTING ABOUT.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  11. MJA

    "Hill's character is unchurched and agnostic, but wants spiritual power to guide him."

    Not really a committed agnostic then. I think the more passionate agnostics are the ones that have been "churched". I do hear derision behind many jokes about religion. I think they are often insensitive. If you are against religion then the jokes could be considered counterproductive. I don't think religion is necessarily a self-serving conspiracy of the powerful. I think humans just like to join clubs of like minded people, and for any club there are dues to pay (sometimes also Jews), and liberties to surrender.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  12. akka

    May the Lord strike you with Egyptian boils and with tumors, scabs and itch for which you will find no cure.
    Deut. 28: 27

    November 11, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  13. bingo

    I have closed observed people from at least four major religions – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, I found that except Islam followers, all others are quite comfortable when you joke about their gods, or their rituals in front of them. They also join in the laughs most of the times. Only Muslims turn to red face at the first joke about Allah or Prophet.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      All the more reason to do it...

      November 11, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  14. akka

    Mark 14:51-52

    A young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him. But he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  15. Luis Wu

    Why can't Jesus eat M&M's?

    They keep falling through his hands.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  16. Luis Wu

    Jesus Christ walks into a hotel. He hands the inkeeper four nails and asks...

    "Can you put me up for the night?"

    November 11, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  17. Luis Wu

    What's the difference between Jesus Christ and an oil painting?

    You only need one nail to hold up a picture.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  18. Luis Wu

    Why didn't Jesus replace the stone from the tomb when he rose from the dead?

    Well, he was born in a barn.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Jesus was born in a cave under Joseph's familial home in Bethlehem. The word for Inn is identical to Familial Home and Catholics changed the meaning of the story, to make an impoverished Jesus story.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ John: Born in a cave? He was lucky! There was hundred fifty of us livin' in shoebox in middle of the road.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  19. Ben

    It has always amazed me how the far right Christians will use their religion arguments to get what they want for themselves. If they truly believe, surely they must be in some fear about what God is going to have to say about how they used his name in so selfish ways.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  20. Luis Wu

    Jesus dies and goes up to Heaven. The first thing he does is look for his father, as he has never met the man before and is curious as to what he looks like, and whether or not Jesus looks like his mother or father, etc. He looks high and low but cannot find him.

    He asks St. Peter "Where is my father?" But St. Peter says he doesn't know.

    He asks the archangel Gabriel "Where is my father?" But Gabriel doesn't know.

    He asks John the Baptist "Where is my father?" But John does not know. So he wanders Heaven, impatiently searching.

    Suddenly he sees out of the mist an old man coming toward him. The man is very old, with white hair, stooped over a little. "Stop!" Jesus yells. "Who are you?"

    "Oh, please help me, I am an old man in search of my son." Jesus is very curious. Could this be his father? "Tell me of your son, old man."

    "Oh, you would know him if you saw him. Holes in his hand where the nails used to be, he was nailed to a cross, you know..."

    "Father!!!!!" Screams Jesus.

    "Pinocchio!!!!!!!" yells the old man.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Blue Fairy sits on Pinnochio's face, screams "Tell a lie, tell a lie!"

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