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. amy

    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.
    Lucius Annaeus Seneca

    November 11, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  2. Eric

    Jokes about anything god, or imaginary religious figure... are a victim less crime... and victim less crimes are no crime at all.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • Mormons are NOT Christians

      Did you hear the one about the priest and the alter-boy?

      November 11, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  3. mel

    It tells me that despite the efforts of the vocal, obnoxious religionists who want to convince Americans that we are a Christian country...we are not. We are a free country, and there are many people in it who really do find their "savior" a joke.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Narrow minded thinking, my friend. The world is not as you define it.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  4. Ollie

    Grow up.Use reason, not out of date, false belief systems.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      You apparently have fallen for the pre-Socratic notions of the Atomists, Democritus, and later the Roman Lucrecio, who exalted reason and dismissed theology. Really, you need to expand your horizons to appreciate the evolution of religious thought in relation to the limits of reason.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  5. Harry

    Do you believe in GOD...what if your wrong...i feel sorry for your ignorant life,or should i say non -life.

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

      what if you're wrong mohammed?

      November 11, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  6. amy

    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.
    Lucius Annaeus Seneca
    Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/l/lucius_annaeus_seneca.html#3uM5OiZMbt1gtVpF.99

    November 11, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Senaca was not wise, nor are those ignorant of the history of religious thought and practice.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  7. deadwrestler

    It is funny at how people change, now they worship government and all
    those perks. link card, welfare check, the joke is actually them. It will all
    come to an end.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  8. David

    How do you know Jesus was Jewish? He thought his mother was a virgin, and she thought he was God.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Shlebs

      That's like asking "how do you know if Bruce Springsteen is from Jersey?"

      November 11, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Sounds typical Jewish to me, no offense. Some question His very existence, but that does not change the story of salvation by means of Divine scapegoat. So silly to pick at trivial details, so pre-Socratic.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  9. Duane

    We may find it hilariuos to tell jokes about something we don't understand, or are afraid to understand. Despite the continued rejection of the truth of Jesus and his life, he still loves and died for mankind...even those who continue to mock him. Interestingly, CNN fits the category of a modern day pharisee sharing continued rejection of real truth and concern for only it's own well being.

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

      Against our ignorant critics, I would not claim to have proof, or to know the absolute truth. The Christian message is a simple one, accepting grace with humility, knowing we cannot undo all the karma we have produced.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Atheist Life

      and here you are hypocrite!

      November 11, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  10. Margaret

    ... knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days...
    2 Peter 3

    November 11, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  11. Atheist Life

    All religions should be mocked off the face of the Earth.
    Christianity is a lie, jesus never existed.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • deadwrestler

      But being a bum never changes for sum.

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

      Jesus is king of kings and has left us the most proof that he lived with us than anyone in history ever stop living for Satan you heathen liar.

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

      here comes the hate from the religious freaks, right on schedule!

      November 11, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  12. TheMagusNYC

    Blum & Harvey here have aired a bunch of ethnic stereotypes. The comments are more illuminating.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  13. John Not the Baptist

    The picture of the stained glass window with jesus and his favorite sheep with the sheep looking lovingly and content, much like a partner would, at his buddy jesus, was it good for you?
    PS: To the fundies wnen you you mumble out "The Lord is my Shepard" does it not make you feel like the sheepies you are?

    November 11, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Peter asked Jesus how the sheep was and Jesus replied, "not baaaaahd"

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

      Are you in therapy or just warped?

      November 11, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • John Not the Baptist

      @The Magus...definition
      Magus,,,a member of a hereditary priestly class among the ancient Medes and Persians.
      You are partly correct, I have not taken my medication yet but from your handle might I suggest that you seek therapy.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  14. Not Your Average White Guy

    The primary reason people in the US started Jesus jokes was to combat those who believe simultaneously in Jesus and also that the earth is 5000 years old. In the 70's most of us never knew that such preposterous unfounded and completely unscientific beliefs existed. Blame the joking on the Evangelicals IMO, who continue to deny evolution and still think dinosaurs and cave people lived side by side.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      There is no basis for connecting Jesus jokes with fundamentalists nonsense. You have just taken a cheap shot to express you own prejudices.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:57 am |
    • Rudy1947

      The silver tongued evangelicals are definitely the downfall of christianity. Just listening to them is a joke.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  15. Howie76

    It appears it was God's will for Obama to win the election. Now that is funny because if it was anything else the right would believe it.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  16. DavidA

    My take is that the jokes simply speak of the character of Jesus as being "safe" enough to explore our questions openly. It's hard to do this with other religious figures. To me, that speaks to the power of grace.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Thanks for one constructive comment among those having agendas.

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

      God is Love & Judgement all in one, and that's what is so dificult for us to discern. The pre-1970s sensibilities saw the later, while modern views on spiritualy, even if they don't invoke Jesus, are certainly more about a God of Love and understanding. Jesus has always been both. By the way, the Jeffersons was the 'black' spin-off from All in the Family, while Good Times was the 'black' spinoff from Maude.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  17. brad4nyc

    Log jam.

    November 11, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  18. John

    How can so many people not believe in Jesus yet vote the anti-christ into the white house?

    November 11, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Not Your Average White Guy

      because not that many believe in jesus

      November 11, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • Howie76

      You obviously are not a true believer. It was God's will that Obama was voted into office.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • Atheist Life

      Because there are many people who don't believe in jesus and the anti-christ.
      That's just baby talk, like Santa and the Tooth Fairy.

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

      ROFL more Lies billions believe in Jesus you fool

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

      You got it all wrong John. The people voted NOT to put the anti-christ in the white house.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Atheist Life

      people believed the earth was flat, that was a lie just like jesus

      November 11, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  19. Gerald

    Sure is a beautiful morning, Oscar is sitting at his window barking at the beauty. I'm going to take the battery out of the mower till spring and be outside as much as possible. Thank you. Soak it in baby!!

    November 11, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  20. Why is it

    Why is it insulting Jesus with jokes doesn't get mobs of people protesting at embassy's all over the world and killing people but an insulting Muslim video seen by a handful of people is justification for murdering innocent people? Where's the video apologizing to followers of Jesus Mr. President?

    November 11, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Tad Pole

      Wow, everything is about the president to you huh? This article was about Jesus, and jokes. You seem obsessed.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Howie76

      It was God's will that Obama won! Do you really believe??

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

      Why expect similar reactions from polar opposite faith traditions?

      November 11, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • John Not the Baptist

      Ah, because people know that jesus is a mythical figure and the bible is a poorly written book of fiction that should be in the comedy section of the book stores. Oh ya, Presidents are not supposed to get mixed up in religious debates, the seperation thing. You could just switch to believing in Brian as in 'The life of Brian", always look on the brighter side of life.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:01 am |
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