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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. Reality

    All joking aside:

    "The Two Universal Sects

    They all err—Moslems, Jews,
    Christians, and Zoroastrians:

    Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
    One, man intelligent without religion,
    The second, religious without intellect. "

    Al-Ma'arri

    o al-Maʿarrī, born AD 973 / AH 363, died AD 1058 / AH 449)
    was a blind Arab philosopher, poet and writer.[1][2] He was a controversial rationalist of his time, attacking the dogmas of religion and rejecting the claim that Islam possessed any monopoly on truth."

    "Death's Debt is Paid in Full

    Death's debt is then and there
    Paid down by dying men;
    But it is a promise bare
    That they shall rise again. "

    Al-Ma'arri

    November 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  2. Ken Colwell

    Proverbs 8:8
    All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Reality

      origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

      New Torah For Modern Minds

      “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob•a•bly
      Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

      The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

      Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

      The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

      The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."

      November 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  3. Ken Colwell

    Proverbs 8:7
    for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  4. Pandora241

    How can any opinion piece about Jesus jokes leave out the Buddy Christ from "Dogma"(and several other Kevin Smith-related films)?

    November 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  5. Bootyfunk

    jesus believed in slavery. how can you worship anyone that believes in slavery? disgusting.

    Luke 12:37-38
    37 "Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them.
    38 "Whether he comes in the second watch, or even in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.”

    November 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Bootyfunk,

      Are we not yet slaves to the worldy conditionings? Though the label has been removed a can of worms is still just that. A 'wormly' can.

      November 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  6. Ken Colwell

    Psalm 144:8
    whose mouths speak lies and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • joe

      It's funny because the religious right has completely lost its grip on western culture and the truth has come out. Of course, it started a long time ago and its been a battle but with the advance of the modern scientific era, Christianity has completely been exposed for what it is-made up. 100% made up, baloney. Same as Islam. Same as Judaism. Same as Mormonism etc. etc.

      Attempting to take any religion as literal or factually accurate is laughable as they cannot withstand even the slightest of analysis.

      November 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  7. Ken Colwell

    .Psalm 141:3
    Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!

    November 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Answer

      Keep up those chants.. I'm sure it'll relieve you of your insecurities. lol

      November 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Bet

      How about setting a guard over your keyboard?

      November 11, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  8. God's Oldest Dreamer

    the Holy Spirit is the vast Sea of Nothingness and God and His Sons were and still will ever be the immeasurable elements accredited nowadays as 'Beings' being quantum in nature.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  9. Humanitee

    What's best way to spend Easter?

    Answer: Hanging Out!

    November 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
    • Humanitee

      What does Jesus do when he gets nervous?

      Bites his nails

      November 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  10. Ken Colwell

    Psalm 73:9
    They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth

    November 11, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Answer

      You can smell the insecurity of the crack pot religious twits. So good to see them being so defensive. XD

      November 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • TopCat

      Blind faith must trample underfoot, all reason, sense and understanding. – Martin Luther

      November 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Bet

      Sounds kinda se_xy.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  11. Sami in Austin, Tx

    A few corrections on the Good Times thing. 1. It was a spin-off of Maude, which was a spin-off of All in the Family. It was The Jeffersons that featured a black family and was a direct spin-off of All in the Family. That's a nick pick but it's true. 2. Thelma, JJ's sister discovers the "Ned the wino" resemblance first. And 3. (most importantly) Michael does read about black Jesus in "Muhammed Speaks" but what the newsletter tells him is to refer to his BIBLE. It is in reading Revelation 1 (not anything from the Nation of Islam) that he discovers the description of Christ as a black man. (or at the very least a "bronze" man with "hair like wool.")

    November 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  12. Ken Colwell

    Psalm 62:4
    They only plan to thrust him down from his high position. They take pleasure in falsehood. They bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. Selah

    November 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  13. John P. Tarver

    all this urge to tax Churches would harm Quakers most.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  14. Ken Colwell

    Psalm 59:12
    For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter,

    November 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  15. Ken Colwell

    Psalm 59:7
    There they are, bellowing with their mouths with swords in their lips— for “Who,” they think, “will hear us?”

    November 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Bet

      Sounds like the average evangelical christian, bellowing with their mouths with swords and all.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  16. Ken Colwell

    Psalm 50:19
    “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  17. Ken Colwell

    Psalm 36:3
    The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit; he has ceased to act wisely and do good.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Bawk Bahhhhawk bawk bawk.

      November 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  18. Ken Colwell

    Psalm 17:10
    They close their hearts to pity; with their mouths they speak arrogantly.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      What a pietous verse of monotonous clamouring to say the leastly.

      November 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  19. Ken Colwell

    Psalm 10:7
    His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  20. Ken Colwell

    Psalm 5:9
    For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
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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.