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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. fred

    nobody out there?

    November 11, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • FreeFromTheism

      god

      November 11, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
    • lou

      god is nobody

      November 12, 2012 at 12:29 am |
  2. fred

    Blasphemy is a victimless crime.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • Catholic Soldier

      disagree– it insults the followers. what if I insulted your mother?

      November 12, 2012 at 12:07 am |
    • fred

      followers of invisibility?

      November 12, 2012 at 12:09 am |
    • Athy

      Followers deserve to be insulted. You certainly can't praise them.

      November 12, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • Catholic Soldier

      if your mother is dead she's invisible and won't be bothered by my words

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

      @Athy: so the nobel peace prize goes to Mother Theresa– you say she shouldn't have been praised? Bet you haven't done as much for this world...

      November 12, 2012 at 12:16 am |
    • Athy

      You'll never know, soldier.

      November 12, 2012 at 12:19 am |
    • Catholic Soldier

      There's been about 30 nobel laureats since the 80s, and, with all due respect you weren't on the list....because otherwise why would you be wasting time on this blog site....

      November 12, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • Athy

      Why not? You're wasting yours.

      November 12, 2012 at 12:27 am |
    • Cal

      Catholic Soldier
      Mothers are real people and, unless you're talking about liable, mere insult isn't a crime, is it?

      November 12, 2012 at 12:32 am |
    • Catholic Soldier

      i'm not a nobel laureate, and i'll never be as good as Mother Theresa.... and, at least I can say I'm not wasting my time– I'm evangalizing, eh?

      November 12, 2012 at 12:32 am |
    • Catholic Soldier

      freedom of speech isn't freedom to slander, as I posted prior.

      November 12, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • Cal

      Catholic Soldier
      Can you slander a character that may be purely fictional?

      November 12, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  3. fred

    What is so ironic about atheists?
    They’re always talking about God

    November 11, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • Carl

      Nice try, but FAIL. Atheists wouldn't be talking about "god" (the concept) if lunatics weren't always using it as an excuse to run the government.

      November 12, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  4. fred

    "Sometimes I think I should have stayed a carpenter. The money was good, and I was my own boss. And I was the Nailer, not the Nail-ee."
    JC.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
  5. fred

    what Jesus is thinking: Go back? Oh sure, that sounds like a great idea. It’ll be fun to see what they nail me to this time.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  6. fred

    What's the difference between your job and a dead Jesus?
    Your job still sucks!

    November 11, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
  7. fred

    In the interest of equal time, I must now switch to Jesus jokes. Sorry.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  8. fred

    Muhammad walks into a bar, the bartender looks at him and says, ” We got a drink named after you.” So Muhammad says, “You got a drink called unrepentant pedophile?”

    November 11, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
  9. fred

    What do you call 1,000 Mohammeds at the bottom of the ocean?

    a good start

    November 11, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
  10. marco

    How about drawing a picture of Muhammad being sodomized by Barbara Streisand?

    November 11, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  11. marco

    It’s time for everybody to make fun of Muhammad.

    Okay, here goes. And I’m not making this up. It really happened: Muhammad lost to Leon Spinks in 1978.

    Remember that? Leon Spinks! Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Yes, Muhammad won the rematch, but still… he lost a match to Leon Spinks! That’s worse than losing to Buster Douglas. Leon Spinks. *snort*

    Silly Muhammad.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I knock mutha f.uckas out.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
  12. Christian

    Here is another video to consider:

    http://www.heavenvisit.com/Young_Moon_Park.php

    November 11, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Christian

      Here is a better link to the video:
      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVG8QZLzg7I&w=640&h=390]

      November 11, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • Dave

      Why should anybody bother with considering that load of melodramatic garbage?

      November 11, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  13. marco

    I’m willing to make fun of Muhammad. I will draw a picture of him flying the Red Baron’s triplane. Everyone loves triplanes. Zoom zoom! Ratta tat tat goes the machine guns! Whee!

    Instead of shooting at a dinosaur, I’ll draw him shooting at a giant Preying Mantis. I hate those things!

    November 11, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  14. Catholic Soldier

    It sadly appears that many viewing these pages tonight have experienced horrific personal tragedies which are unimaginable and infathomable to most. I can't imagine losing a young child, but, in having seen many young children die as a part of the service I do it does offer me a small glimmer of hope that in the next life they are happy, they are without pain or infusions, they can run and jump. Christ, came to this earth for one reason– to show he loves us each to the magnitude of experiencing human suffering to the point where he also forsake God on his cross.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • FreeFromTheism

      You must be confused... we are not cats or w/e. People have 1 life, and that is it.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • Catholic Soldier

      something we agree on– people do have one life, so use it wisely....

      November 11, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  15. fred

    While gays are stoned to death, tribal elders in Afghanistan regularly take young boys off to caves, ostensibly to teach them about Mohammed discovering the Koran in a cave, or something. Which begs the question: How is it that Sandusky never came up with a religion?

    November 11, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  16. fred

    Jokes about Muslims and Christians?
    There are no jokes. The truth is the funniest joke of all.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
  17. fred

    An Afghan woman was driving her buggy to town when a highway patrol
    officer stopped her. "I'm not going to cite you," said the officer. "I just wanted to warn
    you that the reflector on the back of your buggy is broken and it could
    be dangerous." "Thank you," replied the Afghan lady. "I shall have my husband
    repair it as soon as I return home."
    "Also," said the officer, "I noticed one of your reins to your horse is
    wrapped around his testicles. Some people might consider this cruelty to
    animals, so you should have your husband check that too."
    "Again I thank thee. I shall have my husband check both when I get
    home." True to her word, when the Afghan lady got home she told her husband Rasheed
    about the broken reflector, and he said he would put a new one on it immediately."Also," said the Afghan woman, "The policeman said there was something wrong with the emergency brake."

    November 11, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  18. nobodycares

    Why is it that some people can't keep their beliefs to themselves? It's like they must go out and force their beliefs down other people throats when most of the world does not give a c*** what they believe or don't believe.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
  19. fred

    Muhammad goes to a doctor and said.
    Doctor,I'm married for 3 years but still don't have a child
    Doctor: Hmmmm, Ok I'll check her,bring her inside.
    Muhammad : Zahir brother,come in. Doctor's calling you.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  20. Plumbline

    Isaiah 53:3-5.......3 He is despised and rejected by men,
    A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
    And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
    He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
    4 Surely He has borne our griefs
    And carried our sorrows;
    Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
    Smitten by God, and afflicted.
    5 But He was wounded for our transgressions,
    He was bruised for our iniquities;
    The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
    And by His stripes we are healed.

    November 11, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • FreeFromTheism

      cool story

      November 11, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Carl

      Illiterate people don't notice how much of Isaiah was written in PAST TENSE. Kind of hard to call it a prophecy when he was apparently talking about something he thought already happened.

      November 11, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Cj

      It's past-tense for a vision Isaiah saw of the future. Learn to look at context.

      November 12, 2012 at 12:06 am |
    • Carl

      That's just a post-hoc excuse which could be said about anything. He's talking about the future because he is even further in the future looking at the past!

      No, it's just a load of bunk misused because Christians have to either claim it as a prophecy or else admit that their story isn't that different from the others.

      November 12, 2012 at 12:16 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.