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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. Jim

    CNN has been in a campaign for years to ridicule, mock and dismiss Christianity because as a Democratic party news media, CNN try to debilitate the Republican party, we are going to read worst and worst against Christianity through CNN.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • Atheist Life

      Bull.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Howie76

      What is worse is conservatives like you deforming the Bible to fit your needs. After all it was God's will Obama won!

      November 11, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Christianity SHOULD be mocked. It's utterly stupid and ignorant.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • Howie76

      FOX tv is owned by who???

      November 11, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  2. Truth

    Respect.

    Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. Albert Einstein.

    Albert Einstein

    Out of My Later Years

    November 11, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Einstein never said that. Look it up. When asked in an interview if he believed in God, Einstein replied that he didn't believe in a "personal god" but in something more along the lines of "Spinoza's God". (Spinoza was a pantheist) LOOK IT UP before you post ignorant nonsense that you pulled out of your posterior.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Not Your Average White Guy

      Yup! just another smart jewish guys whose mother thought he was god

      November 11, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Atheist Life

      Fake quote, nice try Jesus! ;)

      November 11, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Not Your Average White Guy

      Its a real quote taken from thr NY Times in 1930

      This article appears in Einstein's Ideas and Opinions, pp.41 – 49. The first section is taken from an address at Princeton Theological Seminary, May 19, 1939. It was published in Out of My Later Years, New York: Philosophical Library, 1950. The second section is from Science, Philosophy and Religion, A Symposium, published by the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc., New York, 1941.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Silly how folks question the author, without challenging the thought. Yes, science and religion are separate domains, each with its own traditions and values. One does not invalidate the other, except among those lacking insight.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  3. Taskmaster

    One Morning there are going to be a lot of surprised people when the are face to face with the living Son of God and realize that He isn't a myth and that He can't take a joke.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • UncleBenny

      Is that a joke?

      November 11, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Luis Wu

      He is definitely a myth. All the gods that have been worshiped throughout history would fill 10 football stadiums. But of course, YOURS is the only one that's real. It's just ancient mythology, written thousands of years ago by ignorant primitives. Grow a brain.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • forgotthisone

      You are more likely going to face an alien. There is at least a strong likelihood that they exist.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Harry

      Taskmaster,I couldn't of said it better but what can you expect from an ignorant world.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • TE Reynolds

      AMEN... And i hope its soon

      November 11, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • Skeptimist

      Don't underestimate the Divine sense of humor.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Atheist Life

      What a joke you are!

      November 11, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • TheFarSide

      God created the platypus...he clearly loves a joke!

      November 11, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  4. Mike

    Good comment 1234.....hopefully we wont have too continue too deal with this countrys stupid people and ways for much longer. Im 38 and i just cant believe the way this country is becoming extreme liberal. Im in the middle with things but this is just pathetic, but let the libs have their moment pains a coming.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • Atheist Life

      And here come the threats from the religious freaks, right on schedule!
      lol

      November 11, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  5. Debulator

    It will be interesting to see how many Jesus jokes you can rattle off on your death beds.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • Luis Wu

      I probably won't be in a joking mood at at that time, but I won't be chanting ritual mumbo jumbo to an imaginary, invisible sky fairy either.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Atheist Life

      Dude, you and your religious wacko pals are twisted!
      lol

      November 11, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  6. Fladabosco

    I'll give you two shining examples of how easy it is to punch holes in American Christianity. Many lawmakers in the bible belt want the 10 Commandments posted in every public building, saying that it is the cornerstone of American law or values. Did you know the 10 Commandments forbids you from drawing a fish and from cutting stars out of paper? Don't believe me? Try reading the actual 10 Commandments (just google it). Surprise!

    And one of the all time best bits I have ever seen on TV Stephan Colbert said this, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”

    Oh yeah, and don't you love guys in $8000 suits with $300 haircuts telling you that it's easier to get a camel through the eye of needle than for a rich man to get into heaven? "Oh, but wait, I can explain why that doesn't apply to me" or "I'm not rich, this Ferrari belongs to the church..."

    November 11, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • yared

      Were in the bible does it forbid cutting a paper fish..

      November 11, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  7. Mirosal

    Anyone remember the "Married ... with Children episodes wherer Sam Kinison was Al's guardian angel? Sam said that for Christmas, he, Jesus and some friends would all gather at Moses' house and lounge by the pool. A new kid would dive in and Moses would part the water just before the kid hit.
    Then Sam said "Now THAT'S Christmas!!"

    November 11, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • Pete

      No, but I do remember the one where Al got knocked out, and saw god in a vision, and it inspired Al to start sew socks into the shoes because that is what god did. It went something like this:

      AL: Where did you get those socks?

      God: I don't need em there sewn in.

      November 12, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  8. Bruce Wilhite

    Fortunately, Jesus is strong enough to bear the jokes. He's not as thin-skinned as Mohammed.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • n8r0n

      Either that, or neither of them exist (outside of your imagination).

      November 11, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  9. Dan

    These jokes are made by Jews who want to disrespect Christians - that's all it is.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  10. forgotthisone

    What does the "H" in Jesus H. Christ stand for? Haploid.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Jimi

      Horatio

      November 11, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Probably H0M0. I says in the bible that there was a young boy that Jesus was particularly fond of...

      November 11, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • Atheist Life

      "Hello Sailors!"

      November 11, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  11. dr. livingstone

    As surely as the devil is fraud, so the Christ is God is God is God

    November 11, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • forgotthisone

      I followed you up to the 2nd "is god."

      November 11, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Atheist Life

      Get enough gods in there?
      lol

      November 11, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  12. Jimi

    You know what I.N.R.I stands for? I'm nailed right in.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • ComSenseWiz

      When does a Catholic priest moan, "Oh Jesus"? That would be at the moment his throbber up the poop chute of a 9 year old goes off.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • jane

      Jesus Savior of Man You don't know it now...But you will God bless you

      November 11, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Harry

      He was tortured to save your life...may he have mercy on your soul you ignorant monster.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  13. brad4nyc

    An idiot grows in Brooklyn. And his name is brad4nyc.

    That's me, folks!

    November 11, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  14. Fladabosco

    There are 2 reasons Americans make fun of Christianity. 1) Americans will make fun of anything. Anything. And 2) the Christian right, which has dominated this country's politics is full of people who say idiotic things and who live hypocritical lives. Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggert, Jerry Falwell, Michelle Bachmann – all said and did incredibly stupid things loudly and in public.

    And it's SO easy to punch holes in what they say. Matthew 19!!! Look it up...

    November 11, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  15. ComSenseWiz

    Why does the Catholic Church move pedophile priests from one parish to another? Because the Pope put out a APB for Jesus and he needs more help in actually tracking him down.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  16. brad4nyc

    I just peed my pants. It always happens when I get all worked up on a Sunday morning.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:34 am |
  17. Chedar

    Jesus can take rebirth in many forms to teach us that nothing is impossible if he wants to safe us.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • UncleBenny

      Wha???

      November 11, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Atheist Life

      I guess jesus couldn't save your spelling!
      lol

      November 11, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  18. moosewithaj

    Come on man, Yopu and I both now Jesus was the dude man. All he ever wanted was that holy rug of his.Man. I mean the rug always tied the room together man.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • brad4nyc

      I want some of what ever you are smoking!

      November 11, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • brad4nyc

      Especially if it's dick!

      November 11, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  19. 1234

    All fine and good, but, has anybody been following the stuff going on along Euphrates River and the book of revelations in Bible. People get ready!

    November 11, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • Ssloancoop

      I see it... Hmmm... If you bring that to the attention of others they say you're crazy. You just want to yell, "no other book has predicted so many

      November 11, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • Atheist Life

      talk talk talk, get to it religious murderers.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  20. Algen

    Matthew 24:12
    And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • brad4nyc

      Who cares what the bible says- it is a book of myths and lies.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • Algen

      I care. And my Jesus cares as well. And you should care too.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • brad4nyc

      How evil a monster your mythical "God" and jesus are. Thank god God is imaginary, for the story of God is a story of a cruel mass murderer. If god is all powerful and all knowing and perfectly good, he would not bring people into the world knowing that they would go to hell and be tortured forever- a perfectly good being would never do such a thing.

      If god is all powerful and all knowing and perfectly EVIL, then god would create people knowing in advance they were going to burn in hell forever. Therefore God is pure EVIL, so fortunatley he imaginary too. For proof God Is Imaginary go to http://godisimaginary.com

      November 11, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • brad4nyc

      And now, if you would excuse me, I have to change my panties because I peed a few minutes ago and I'm all wet.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Algen

      Do you realize that the popular teaching about hell and eternal torment is not what the bible teaches? Of course my loving God will not torture people. For the truth about hell and my loving Jesus go to http://www.helltruth.com/

      November 11, 2012 at 7:46 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.