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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 • My Take • Opinion

soundoff (5,750 Responses)
  1. MagicPanties

    athena 8:41
    See Jesus run. Run Jesus run.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  2. gbasketball

    Jesus took insults before, and then returned the favor with sacrifice, forgiveness, and love. If that is not worth respecting I don't know what is.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • MagicPanties

      Yes, and if you don't love him back you will be horribly tortured for all eternity after you die.

      Gee, what's not to like?

      November 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • gbasketball

      The soldiers who killed him didn't love him, and he still asked God to forgive them.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • pithy me

      But he didn't actually die,now did he?It's complicated isn't it?Trying to explain the circular logic of christian teachings can give one a head=ache.

      November 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  3. Beasty-Dar

    Look at that freakazoid Jesus eye-ing some of that lamb tail boy.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • JJ

      I know what you mean. I think that's creepy too as a lot of Christian imagery is. I just wonder what his right hand is doing to that lamb.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  4. MagicPanties

    cthulhu 5:12
    Well, it's a groove thang

    November 11, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Christopher Walken

      Well, groove, move, you can go here, you can go there. Jesus, if that is his real name, was rocking his rubber boots.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  5. MashaSobaka

    I guarantee you that if the Western secular world did not keep Christianity on the tight leash that it does then we would have as many murders over disrespect to Christ as the Middle East does over disrespect to Mohammad. This doesn't have anything to do with the religion. It has to do with the secular, progressive society around the religion.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Christians are tollerant.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • LinCA

      @John P. Tarver

      You said, "Christians are tollerant."
      Correction. Some christians are tolerant.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Ok

      John no they're not, gay rights is a great example does that strike any bells in that empty head of yours?

      November 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      John the history of christianity is not one of toleration.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  6. Answer

    @Ken Colwell

    Hey tool .. who gave you permission to stop?

    November 11, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  7. MagicPanties

    Centaurs 7:33
    The tooth fairy spread her wings and did beget the easter bunny, and santa said it was good.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Is that from the book of Mormon?

      November 11, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • LinCA

      @John P. Tarver

      You said, "Is that from the book of Mormon?"
      What difference does it make which fairy tale it's from?

      November 11, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Lin-Can't take a joke, eh?

      November 11, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • LinCA

      @John P. Tarver

      You said, "Can't take a joke, eh?"
      Your reply was supposed to be mildly insulting? Funny? You may want to hang on to your day job. You don't appear to be much of a comedian.

      I'll let you in in a little secret. For it to be insulting, I would have to be a believer. For it to be funny, you would have to not be one.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  8. Answer

    –quote–
    Karakaye

    Find comfort in scripture through these times. Psalms 1 helps us deal with the mockers.
    –end–

    I love that.. sweet sounds of the insecure. It reeks of "I'm being attacked."

    Everyday should be like this when the tools are forced back into their happy bubble and have to chant their psalms and crack pot bible. It is indeed sweet. XD

    November 11, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  9. MagicPanties

    Unicorns 3:27
    And lo the leprechaun found a pot of christians at the end of the rainbow.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Christian Stew what a load of soiled soup in a pot! :-)

      November 11, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  10. God's Oldest Dreamer

    Ken C.,

    A scattering is upon us in these trying days and Age. Leave your wantings behind and never take wind of one's longings for the weightiness of one's longings will smite even the most influential. Carry away nothing and leave. Head to the places inside one's being and do not keep ajar your door for many will want to enter in and should not. Your loving this Life is for the world to have and you should not heed the rumors from others as to just what is truly right. It is therefore best for mankind to simmer in their juvenile pottages never rationalizingly 'assaying' one's diffuse detriments, the very smallest of life's grains. As smitten breeds, our splendors reveal one's characters to be traitorous to one's analogous fold. Where then does Life end and living begin?

    Who before this day's Age is found worthy of Goodly praises? Who after us will find peace set before them? Who in today;s timeline is this "son of man" that many should fear him for his worthiness stance? Who above can see the below? Who that is below can see what be above? From the very smallest crevice to the most high chasms, the Sea of Nothingness is the Holy Spirit. May the elemental Gods find favor in this found son of man that he may not be afflicted with this world's power but rather he should carry upon him the angst from his manhood till his natural death.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  11. Ken Colwell

    ames 3:10
    From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Ken Colwell

      James 3:10
      From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

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

      Luke 17:21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is INSIDE you.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Answer

      I wonder if you can keep this up and fill it to 5000 posts. Do continue.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  12. Ken Colwell

    Colossians 3:8
    But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Parrots away Ken,

      John 18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world"

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

      November 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  13. Ken Colwell

    Ephesians 4:29
    Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  14. Ken Colwell

    Romans 3:14
    “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

    November 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

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

      November 11, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  15. steve

    If you mock Jesus, but think it's wrong to mock Muhammad, you are a bigot and a hypocrite.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Answer

      Are we now in the Middle East?

      November 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Mohammed was a pedophile....feel better Steve?

      November 11, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  16. Blessed are the Cheesemakers

    So john you are saying EE are the most easily deluded into believing unfounded supersti.tion? That is not something I would brag about....

    November 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      I am claiming an advanced EE can understand Relativity as a set of equations, due to Relativity having been derived from Maxwell's Equations describing electromagnetic waves. I also claim that most EEs have a large amount of education with respect to Quantum Mechanics, as that is the scientific basis of the science we apply to your every day. Hard science is different from the soft science of Darwin and numbers rule my world. Creation is only one of the three scientific notional hypothesis today. There is Dr. Gould's baseless assertion that man and dog share a common ancestor and the Nasa Notional hypothesis that retro-viruses are passengers on the source of the Ir24 layer between eras; causal to the mass extinction. However, Darwin's notional hypothesis that species are an outcome of evolution is completely false.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      John P. Tarver,

      Evolution is an understanding regarding the plains of fractal geometrics in thermo-dynamic quantum physics where regulating the causes and causalities of principia fundaments becomes a sound judgement for nowadays' brevities.

      November 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  17. Ken Colwell

    Luke 6:45
    The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  18. Ken Colwell

    Matthew 15:18
    But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  19. Ken Colwell

    Matthew 15:11
    it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”

    November 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      What about what one sticks into children, because Catholic priests don't seem so sure on that one?

      November 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  20. palintwit

    It must be hell to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and realize you're Sarah Palin. If it was me I'd drive over to the nearest hardware store and guzzle some Drano.

    November 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Hmmmmm!

      What has Sarah Palin to do with this article anyway?
      Maybe it is just that you are envious...
      She IS very good looking....Not so bright, but very good looking!

      November 11, 2012 at 1:23 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.