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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. solution

    Jesus was + is here to help not hurt...
    To acknowledge and respect our spiritual essence...is to be able to acknowledge and respect our eternal essence...

    It is what it is and it is good to laugh...yet it is also good to respect our eternal progress... Thanks to God...we in our true nature of life, love, truth + trust... will prevail.
    I am...on Gods team always + forever... Sleep on it. the choice is yours...
    In love and trust...

    November 11, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  2. genies

    What is hell, what is eternity? answer this with a strong argument

    November 11, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Dickies

      why? are you a college student writing a paper? Do your own research you dolt.

      November 11, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Blasphemy

      What is hell?

      A Presidential race

      What is an eternity?

      What it felt like for the election to pass.

      A strong argument?

      I will give you the most common one used during the campaigns.

      NANNY NANNY BOO BOO

      November 11, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  3. Matt

    I'm stuck in the future. my time machine is broken. I'm in the year 2076, and just came from 2012. Does anyone know how to fix this thing?

    November 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Dan

      You're not stuck in the future. You're from the future. You're stuck in the past. Maybe Idiocracy was right.

      November 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  4. Prici

    religion and the bible babble. such rubbish

    November 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  5. genies

    Don't tell me you were chosen by a god too , what about the rest of us why are we not chosen so you people are special prove that you are special

    November 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Rasheed El-Faraq

      simple. the rest of you will burn in hell for eternity.

      November 11, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  6. Dog

    Religion is the answer for the people who do not think.

    November 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  7. genies

    @rahseed why do you Muslims look so scary with beard, is your goal to scare us

    November 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Rasheed El-Faraq

      because we are the chosen people

      November 11, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  8. Blasphemy

    Johnny's Mother looked out the window and noticed him "playing church" with their cat.

    He had the cat sitting quietly and he was preaching to it. She smiled and went about her work. A while later she heard loud meowing and hissing and ran back To the open window to see Johnny baptizing the cat in a tub of water.

    She called out, "Johnny, stop that! The cat is afraid of water!"

    Johnny looked up at her and said, "He should have thought about that before he joined my church."

    November 11, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Rasheed El-Faraq

      now-THAT IS FUNNY!!!!LOL

      November 11, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  9. Marl

    So let me get this straight. God created all things, yes? Then didn't he create humor?

    Why so serious?

    November 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  10. Rebeccad

    @beyond very true Christians can't gulp the fact that there are higher beings in the billions of galaxies that itself is pride

    November 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  11. HaHa!

    Q: Why wasn’t Jesus born in Italy?

    A: They had the three wise guys, but they couldn’t find a virgin.

    November 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Tommaso

      vaffanculo, pezzo di merda

      November 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  12. Tommaso

    un ho cazzo molto grande per te. cinquanta mila lire. te lo do nel culo pure, se vuoi. Grazie

    November 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  13. HaHa!

    God said to Adam, "I've got some good news and some bad news. First the good news. I have given you a brain and a penis. The bad news... I've only given you enough blood to work one of them at a time!"

    November 11, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  14. Mayan

    End of the world: Dec 21 2012

    November 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Answer

      You have a backup date I presume? XD

      For the rare occasion that you are wrong... get it -> rare? LOL

      November 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Rudy1947

      I'll reply again dec 22.

      November 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Mexican Jesus

      I no get it. you blanco mierdas

      November 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Rasheed El-Faraq

      there are 23 back-up dates, you infidels

      November 11, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Answer

      "there are 23 back-up dates, you infidels"

      Do tell.. list them all. XD

      November 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • bob

      TinFoil Hats sales peak on dec 21 2012

      November 11, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • JeffCo

      Thing is Mayans never said the world was going to end, this was made up by christians

      November 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  15. Answer

    @Beyond sticks & stones.

    And some people are like yourself ... "I'm not a part of what I stated..because I am better."

    The definition of looking down on others.. you = arrogant. Glorious irony.

    November 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  16. el tartanettalchula

    look; up in the sky. it's an old white man in a robe, sitting in the clouds.

    November 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • pene

      you mean the one with the beard?

      November 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Kat

      Santa Claus?

      November 11, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  17. AlphaMaryYankee

    If Jesus walked into a bar he'd probably sit down and have brew with you.
    If Mohammed walked into a bar he'd turn right around and walk out and five seconds
    later blow the place up.

    Big, huge difference.

    November 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • pene

      isn't drinking a sin too?

      November 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • csa3

      No. Although making drugs/alcohol your life is

      November 11, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  18. Fonicchio

    Vote for Bob Dole

    November 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  19. John

    That picture of the European Jesus and the look on the lamb's face is priceless. It appears to me that Jesus' right hand is giving the lamb a scrotum rub.

    November 11, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  20. Beyond sticks & stones.

    Some find it comforting that a supreme being looks just like them, some find it more comforting to believe no higher being exists- or does not have the creativity to represent themselves in any way. Both are extremely arrogant views. In billions of solar systems no life exists more intelligent than ours, how arrogantly blind.

    November 11, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      And some choose to only believe things for good reasons based on evidence...not faith.

      November 11, 2012 at 2:19 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.