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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. Danko Ramone

    What about a joke like the one in this video? I've seen people react with near-outrage to it, yet it seems more, to me, to be making fun of ignorance and language nuance than ever making any joke about Christ himself.

    November 12, 2012 at 4:22 am |
  2. Jim

    A Christian lady who lived next door to an atheist
    There was a Christian lady who lived next door to an atheist. Every day, when the lady prayed, the atheist guy could hear her. He thought to himself, "She sure is crazy, praying all the time like that. Doesn't she know there isn't a God?"

    Many times while she was praying, he would go to her house and harass her, saying "Lady, why do you pray all the time? Don't you know there is no God?" But she kept on praying.

    One day, she ran out of groceries. As usual, she was praying to the Lord explaining her situation and thanking Him for what He was gonna do. As usual, the atheist heard her praying and thought to himself, "Humph! I'll fix her."

    He went to the grocery store, bought a whole bunch of groceries, took them to her house, dropped them off on the front porch, rang the door bell and then hid in the bushes to see what she would do. When she opened the door and saw the groceries, she began to praise the Lord with all her heart, jumping, singing and shouting everywhere! The atheist then jumped out of the bushes and told her, "You ol' crazy lady, God didn't buy you those groceries, I bought those groceries!" At hearing this, she broke out and started running down the street, shouting and praising the Lord.

    When he finally caught her, he asked what her problem was. She said, "I knew the Lord would provide me with some groceries, but I didn't know he was gonna make the devil pay for them!"

    November 12, 2012 at 4:06 am |
    • Mirosal

      Your joke (if you can call it that) is way off track. We help people because we want to. If someone needs help, we help. Not because "god" wants us to, but because others really do need help. We do it because it's called "being human". No deity is ever required to show a little compas'sion towards others. All your little old lady in your story had to do was ask her neighbor if he'd be willing to help. No prayers were ever needed in the first place. All she had to do was simply ask him face to face.

      November 12, 2012 at 4:23 am |
    • Dooomed

      Ha ha ha ha ha nice one Jim.

      November 12, 2012 at 4:53 am |
    • Nelson

      Just goes to show that a lack of a sense of humor isn't confined to Christians. We'd be a lot better off as a society if we learned to laugh at ourselves a little more than we laugh at others. I agree with the comments that the jokes – and responses to those jokes – say more about us than they do about Jesus, God, or whatever other deity (or lack thereof) is the subject of that joke.

      November 12, 2012 at 5:53 am |
    • mk

      If atheists are the devil and have no morals as christians like to claim, that means you, Jim, are so out of touch that you have no idea how to behave unless you have that list of ten rules or a church or a priest to tell you. How about using good old human COMMON SENSE?

      November 12, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  3. Jim

    A Rabbi was walking and a arrogant atheist approached him and declared "I am a atheist and free thinker". To which the Rabbi repleyed "Do you think God Cares?"

    November 12, 2012 at 4:05 am |
  4. Jim

    Did you hear that Science disproves God?

    –Sure, just take Boyle’s law, multiply it against Bernoulli’s Principle, divide by the second law of thermodynamics, add in General Relativity and Mendel’s laws of inheritance and you’ll find a dead god in the bottom of your test-tube every time.

    November 12, 2012 at 4:01 am |
  5. Jim

    Why are atheists more virtuous than theists?

    –Guilty conscience.

    November 12, 2012 at 4:00 am |
  6. Jim

    Atheist: What’s this fly doing in my soup?
    Waiter: Praying.
    Atheist: Very funny. I can’t eat this. Take it back.
    Waiter: You see? The fly’s prayers were answered

    November 12, 2012 at 3:56 am |
  7. Jim

    Q.What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with an atheist?
    Ans.Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason

    November 12, 2012 at 3:55 am |
  8. Jim

    Q.Why does an atheist wear red suspenders?

    Ans.To keep his pants from being taken up to heaven during the rapture

    November 12, 2012 at 3:54 am |
  9. Jim

    How many atheists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
    None. Atheists don't see the light.

    November 12, 2012 at 3:54 am |
  10. Jim

    Why did the atheist cross the road?
    He thought there might be a street on the other side, but he wouldn’t believe it until he tested his hypothesis.

    November 12, 2012 at 3:53 am |
  11. Jim

    How many atheists does it take to change a light bulb?
    Two. One to actually change the bulb, and the other to videotape the job so fundamentalists won’t claim that god did it.

    November 12, 2012 at 3:52 am |
  12. Les Rosin

    This generation with their mocking God is about to come to end. The following link is HARD CORE PROOF with much more to follow, since this is a mock Jesus thread. Here is your response, IT IS in accordance with ACTS 2:19. I think you should SEE.

    http://www.examiner.com/article/white-orbs-and-ufos-the-double-taboo-continued?CID=examiner_alerts_article

    November 12, 2012 at 3:19 am |
    • Mirosal

      Your "god" is as powerful as Zeus, and we all know Zeus does not and never did exist. From Star Trek III ..."Nothing unreal exists."

      November 12, 2012 at 3:26 am |
    • JD

      Trying SUPER hard to make a religious connection to possible UFO's?....LOL...Shouldn't you be at church drinking toxic Kool-Aid?

      November 12, 2012 at 3:27 am |
    • The Truth

      Calm down Les and please tell me you do not have access to any explosives...

      November 12, 2012 at 3:29 am |
    • Leif

      I bet Jesus is busting a gut right about now.

      November 12, 2012 at 3:32 am |
    • sam stone

      les: many people paint god as a vindictive, petty pr!ck. this is not mocking jesus. this is mocking humans. learn the difference

      November 12, 2012 at 5:13 am |
  13. Logan

    People think Jesus was weak. He was described as 6'2" and he had been a carpenter his whole life. H threw the money changers out of the temple by force, he made a cat of nine tails and whipped their sorry behinds for them.

    When he said turn the other check he was talking about verbal insults not physical. Jesus endured far more torture than any man has ever had to deal with. Jesus would not be offended by your jokes, His father created you. He did so many miracles, raised the dead, healed lepers and gave sight to the blind. He rules from heaven wether you believe in him or not. I have had a near death experience from a diabetic coma and I have met Jesus, he is real and can and wil save your life.

    November 12, 2012 at 2:58 am |
    • Mirosal

      Would you like another glass of Kool-Aid? Coming out of a diabetic coma is nothing new, physicians are well-versed on how to treat and monitor those in such a state. I'm glad you recovered, but don't take it as a sign that "god" did it. It was a trained professional who worked on you.

      November 12, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • JD

      ...And Jonah really did get swallowed and lived within the body of a whale... Just because it was written doesn't make it a fact, actually most religious Americans don't even believe in half of the stories written within the Bible, which is ironic in itself for a book used as a holy guide...

      November 12, 2012 at 3:29 am |
    • The Truth

      "When he said turn the other check he was talking about verbal insults not physical. "

      " But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." Matt 5:38 – Sounds pretty physical to me...

      November 12, 2012 at 3:34 am |
    • sam stone

      Really, Logan? You've met Jesus? Did he shake your hand? What sort of hand grip? Or did he just high five you? What color hair did he have? Was it straight or curly? What color eyes?

      November 12, 2012 at 5:16 am |
    • UncleBenny

      There is absolutely no physical description of Jesus in the Bible. We have no idea what he looked like, except he probably didn't resemble all those Scandinavian-looking Jesus portraits that you see everywhere.

      His father was a carpenter. We surmise that he followed in his father's profession, but again,there is nothing in the Bible to support this.

      November 12, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • mk

      There was no way Jesus was 6'2". The average man at that time was 5'. Is the bible telling stories again?

      November 12, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  14. captnavenger

    "Good Times" was not a spin-off from "All in the Family." "The Jeffersons" was the "All in the Family" spin-off.

    As to jokes in general, they always say more about us than they say about their subject. Otherwise, we would all laugh at every joke. We don't. We laugh at the ones that seem funny to us, personally.

    As to when it became "acceptable to joke about the Lord," whose lord? Do the authors assume that is my lord? It was capitalized, and my right to joke was questioned. That's mighty presumptuous, and says everything that is wrong about CNN having a "Belief" blog. All the writers/bloggers begin with the assumption that what they believe is right, or granted.

    Needs to go away. Stick to news, CNN.

    November 12, 2012 at 2:50 am |
    • Mirosal

      "Good Times" was a spin-off from "Maude", which was a spin-off from "All in the Family" .. Maude was Edith's cousin. Florida in "Good Times" was Maude's maid.

      November 12, 2012 at 2:52 am |
    • Logan

      Anyone that has been to war will tell you that there are no atheists in foxholes. When threatened with death somehow you find room for God in your life. It might not be until you are dying on your deathbed, but it will happen just the same. Remember if you were born you are going to die, that is a fact of life, no one cheats death. Death comes after evryone of us and death always wins the fight. we are all going to die, maybe tonight while you sleep, tomorrow on your way to work, but soon enough. One day you will no longer be alive!

      November 12, 2012 at 3:05 am |
    • Leif

      I could not disagree with you more. If you can point to a single statement where the authors of this article insist that they are right and their readers are wrong, do so. For the most part they are asking questions. I am an atheist, and I enjoyed
      hearing their point of view. Dogmatic atheists are just as bad as dogmatic religious zealots.

      November 12, 2012 at 3:14 am |
    • Jeff

      Logan what you said about foxholes is just another myth. As an atheist I am simply unafraid to die. I know there is no hell to be scared of. Worst case scenario there is nothingness, in which case we will never know we just blinked out. Or there is the next stage of existence. In my experience as a nurse the more religious a person the more fear they show as death approaches. Strange for people who are so convinced they are right that they feel the need to shove their beliefs onto everyone else.

      November 12, 2012 at 3:23 am |
    • Nii

      jEFF
      Been in a foxhole lately?

      November 12, 2012 at 4:10 am |
    • Mirosal

      Nii and Logan ... are you veterans? If yes, then you should know better. If not, then shut the hell up about telling us what YOU think about those who proudly wear a uniform. I am a retired veteran, and I have met, and worked with, a variety of others, from hard-core born-agains to Atheists. They all have ONE purpose... to do the job at hand.

      November 12, 2012 at 4:28 am |
    • NoTags

      There are plenty of news stories on the CNN homepage and other websites. Did someone force you to come to this blog? If you don't like the belief blog simply don't come to it.

      November 12, 2012 at 6:07 am |
    • UncleBenny

      I'm a veteran, too. Know who most wounded and dying soldiers call out to? It's not God, it's Mother. That "no atheists in foxholes" business is a myth.

      November 12, 2012 at 6:40 am |
    • Nii

      Uncle Benny and Mirosal
      I am not an active serviceman for my country and I am not sure our armed forces is going to war soon. Though I am a Reservist. Also I will like to say that my question was not an insult but to get Jeff to explain himself better. Thanks for your explanations. I am from a religiously diverse society and I believe that it will surely not be a person's version of God they would seek unless they have experienced a level of love higher than maternal love as charitable love is very close to maternal love. thanks for the insight.

      November 12, 2012 at 6:52 am |
  15. What about George?

    It's strange there's no mention of George Carlin, he was the ultimate atheist in comedy. His views on Christianity really revealed how twisted it is.

    November 12, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • James A.

      It is even more strange that there is no mention of Sam Kinison. In one of his most well known monologues, he makes a very convincing case that “there was no way Jesus could have been married”. He could get away with telling Jesus jokes easier than most other people because he used to be a preacher, before he became a comic.

      November 12, 2012 at 4:34 am |
  16. Dooomed

    Another trolling article from CNN. I bet Atheists are all over this one too. You just have to mention the word God or Jesus or even religion, they next thing you know, atheists are jumping on this like a bunch piranhas. It also reminds me of movies about satan, they just say the word Jesus and he goes completely nut.lol

    November 12, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • tallulah13

      As an American, I am simply enjoying my First Amendment rights. Surely you can't object to that!

      November 12, 2012 at 2:10 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      That was the cause, but yet per accidens;
      For when we hear one rack the name of God,
      Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,
      We fly in hope to get his glorious soul;
      Nor will we come, unless he use such means
      Whereby he is in danger to be damn’d:
      Therefore the shortest cut for conjuring
      Is stoutly to abjure the Trinity,
      And pray devoutly to the Prince of Hell.

      Christopher Marlowe

      November 12, 2012 at 2:13 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheese makers

      So Jesus can dish it out, but he can't take it?

      Awwww

      November 12, 2012 at 2:26 am |
    • Leif

      Jesus must have had a sense of humor. How else could he put up with the uptight pseudo-Christians who abuse his teachings.

      November 12, 2012 at 2:59 am |
  17. Inbetween223

    So now CNN has to do an article on what all those Mohammad jokes tell us.

    November 12, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • tallulah13

      Why? Because you want them to? Is it difficult for you to understand that since Christianity has the highest percentage of followers among religions in this country, it will get the lion's share of articles?

      November 12, 2012 at 2:13 am |
  18. justme

    *marvel not if men hate you, for thus they hated me before you.* There is always the comfort of the Holy Spirit in the words of Jesus. And people just can't stand it. It's the words that men hate, because they are the power of God.

    November 12, 2012 at 1:40 am |
    • MoveForward

      Not.

      November 12, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • tallulah13

      Christians love to play victim. Now we know where they get it from.

      November 12, 2012 at 2:14 am |
    • Jeff

      The vast majority of hate in this country is spewed by so called Christians who fail to learn what Jesus had to say as a whole. Not what a man who lived generations later said he meant. Not what your preacher says he meant. Not bible verses out of context used as sound bytes.

      November 12, 2012 at 3:29 am |
    • sam stone

      The words have the power of god?

      Because it is written in a collection of edited, translated stories?

      November 12, 2012 at 5:21 am |
  19. Frog

    21 Jump Street was forgettable? These writers are forgettable. Sorry guys, but the movie was a hit among young teens and the generation of adults around early 20s to early 30s and that isn't even noting that the older crowd still enjoyed it.

    I get you are using an example, but saying that it was forgettable shows how closed minded you truly are.

    Oh wait...that's right. I just remembered what the article was about.

    November 12, 2012 at 1:24 am |
  20. mike

    christianity

    ^^^best joke ever

    November 12, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • MoveForward

      Or worst.

      November 12, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • Leif

      Over all, even though I am an atheist, I think the world is a better place with Christianity.

      November 12, 2012 at 2:54 am |
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