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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. Catholic Soldier

    So what do all of you believe?? It must be a sad and hopeless existance thinking that when you die that's it– GAME OVER!

    November 11, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
    • fred

      it's over for all of us. Nothing. all religions are a joke. They all claim that their religion and their god is the only real one. pathetic.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • Answer

      Poor baby.. can't handle the "game over" aspect that is death. Pity for you.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      Well I wasn't conscious for the first 13.7 billion, so you tell me if it was a problem?

      November 11, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What's truly sad is that nitwits like you, CS, live only in hopes that something better comes after death, instead of making sure that THIS life is the best one it can be.

      Idiot.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • TR6

      Given my choice between game-over or spending eternity in church, especially if it’s full of people like you, I’ll take game-over

      November 11, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • A

      Why would that be sad? Once I am dead I won't care anymore because I will have no mind.

      Think about it. Even if I was wrong and you existed after death without a brain how would that be different from being brain dead while still alive? You could not think, feel or react.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Is that the best you have? Honestly, is that the best you have? Is your entire life based on your fear of death? What a pathetic coward you are, catholic "soldier".

      November 11, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • Catholic Soldier

      And so we all roll the dice of life.... Gentlemen, may we find out who the winner is later rather than sooner for the sake of all of you to enjoy this short non-eternal time you have....

      November 11, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Tally, I believe this azzwipe is none other than Soldier of Conscience. Stupid is as stupid does.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
    • Answer

      "While I'll be sitting fine in heaven."

      You forgot your tagline. XD

      November 11, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
  2. fred

    What is the difference between a roll of toilet paper and the Koran?

    One is great for wiping your butt and the other comes in 2-ply.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  3. Aezel

    Why did Jesus cross the road?

    Because he was nailed to the chicken!

    November 11, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  4. fred

    I am trying to prove a point that all religions are a joke. They all claim that their religion and their god is the only real one. pathetic.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • Catholic Soldier

      Read JPII crossing the threshold of hope– demonstrates the sensitive and considerate catholic view of other religions. yes and perhaps a shock– non catholics can go to heaven in our faith

      November 11, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Sure they can. But only if they're Christians, right? Otherwise, off to the lake of fire.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
    • Catholic Soldier

      nope== even if their athiests or anything else.... all can enter

      November 12, 2012 at 12:45 am |
    • Catholic Soldier

      read the parable of the good thief– at the last moment of his life he entered heaven.

      November 12, 2012 at 12:47 am |
  5. fred

    How do you get a Muslim out of a shower?
    Turn the water on.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • Eliminate hinduism, Atheism, Secular ism. way of animals, not human.

      hinduism, sense less.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  6. Chris

    In the name of Jesus give me money, I will live in a mansion, pastors?

    November 11, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
  7. fred

    Why do Arab men wear dirty bed sheets?
    Because a camel can hear the sound of a zipper from a mile away.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      and why do your mama is so fat?

      November 11, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
    • Eliminate hinduism, Atheism, Secular ism. way of animals, not human.

      hinduism ,stupidity of a hindu, ignorant from hindered gutter of hinduism, incest called india.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      @Eliminate shut up you dumb fvk, and come up with something new.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
    • derf

      why do the sheets have to be dirty?

      November 11, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
  8. fred

    What is the difference between the Prophet Muhammad and Michael Jackson?
    One is a pedophile child rapist and the other recorded six platinum albums.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • Eliminate hinduism, Atheism, Secular ism. way of animals, not human.

      only in hind filthy mind of a hindu, lair.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
  9. fred

    Mohammed is so ugly cartoonists are afraid to draw him

    November 11, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  10. Independent

    Making fun of Jesus is just another day in the life of liberals. They never seem to make fun of Mohammad or Buddha though. Bill Maher even said that he wasn't afraid of making fun Christians but was afraid to make fun of Mohammad.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • fred

      Mohammed is so stupid, I told him to makeup his mind and he put lipstick on his forehead.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • Observer

      Muslims don't claim this is THEIR country and try to set up laws here to discriminate against others.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Tom H.

      No one should make fun of Buddha, as his teachings are more philosophical, less controversial- and anyway, I know many conservatives who make fun of Jesus.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • Aaron

      No, Observer. Muslims have their own countries to do things like that.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
  11. I support the troops

    You are fake

    November 11, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • I support the troops

      Charlie fred and john. What a mc trio No hope. No idea. Boasting and observer fake as the quackerton. Human beings growing old and thn to vanish from earth Still claiming to be th makers of truth. When the trials of life knock at your door just come to this blog. Sur e you will fix all things mc duck. But you will not be abl to say. I did not know! Now you know. Repent and be saved. It is one word away. Christ Jesus is Lord.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
  12. fred

    The three wise men approached the manger where the newborn messiah
    rested. One of them tripped as he neared the infant, and in great pain
    yelled, "Jesus Christ!"
    Mary responded, "That would be a great name for the baby."

    November 11, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  13. fred

    Jesus Christ scurried into the carpenters shop and asked,
    "Father, did you call me?"
    Joseph replied, "No. I just hit my thumb with a hammer."

    November 11, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  14. Charlie

    And- you get to the last paragraph of the article, feeling insulted because these media goons just got paid to state the obvious in an over-glorified manner.
    My faith is a personal one at which I never preach to anyone, not rather tell anyone that there's is wrong.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
    • I support the troops

      It must be very personal then. Or fake.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
  15. fred

    What did Jesus say before he fell on his face?
    Get away from here you damn beavers!

    November 11, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  16. McDuck Quackerton

    Considering the idea of jesus is a joke itself, why not make a joke out of the fictional character?

    November 11, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • I support the troops

      You are a joke. Mc duck.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
  17. fred

    Why was Jesus born in a stable?
    Because Joseph belonged to an HMO.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
  18. fred

    What did God say to Jesus?
    "I don't care if you are my son, drop that cross one more time,
    and you're out of my will."

    November 11, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • I support the troops

      Gos is listening fred. Be reverent.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • fred

      god has internet access? Do you happen to have his email address?

      November 11, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  19. fred

    If Jesus got killed with an axe, would the christians run around
    with axes around their neck?

    November 11, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • I support the troops

      Fred do you really want God to answer you?

      November 11, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  20. fred

    Jesus Christ walks into an inn. He hands the innkeeper 3 nails and
    asks, "Can you put me up for the night?"

    November 11, 2012 at 9:52 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.