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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. Stella

    Great and awesome God, I praise You for being such an awesome God who has a marvelous plan for Your people. I thank You for saving me and allowing me to be numbered among Your people. I thank You for allowing me to be among those who You have called to do great things.

    November 13, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I read that God ordained praise (for him). Why is that necessary?

      November 14, 2012 at 12:03 am |
    • Stella

      you make no sense, and you are misguided.

      November 14, 2012 at 12:05 am |
    • Simran

      Great and Awesome God,
      I thank you for the Crusades, the witch-hunts, the Inquisitions, Hitler and his likes, the Talibs, the World Wars, Vietnam, Iran-Iraq.
      I thank you for the kids dying of cancer, of plague, tuberculosis and now AIDS.
      I thank you for ....

      November 14, 2012 at 12:08 am |
    • Stella

      That is the devil's doing. Can't you see??? JOIN US!

      November 14, 2012 at 12:09 am |
    • Simran

      I thank you for blessing only one-fourth of human race with your endless wisdom. Now wait a minute, again Lord, just why did you forget the 75% of your creation?

      November 14, 2012 at 12:10 am |
    • Simran

      God, can Ijust thank you for creating the devil too... COz your eternal war with the devil sure does keep me entertained!

      November 14, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • fintastic

      God does the good things, the devil does the bad things............... how convenient.

      November 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  2. ak

    Christian prayer is a reference to a Christian communicating with God, often by way of talking or thinking. Every Christian ought to make time to pray.

    In Nehemiah 4:7-14, the people of God had made progress on rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem. Sanballat and others rose up with negative comments. And even among the people of God there were negative comments.

    It used to be a popular expression among young people ("young people" change so quickly, especially in the eyes of "old people" – smile) in describing those who were talking negatively about them to say that the negative commentators were "hating" on them.

    In spite of the negative comments or "hating" in our text, Nehemiah urged the people to prayerfully keep on working.

    November 13, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • Val

      "Thinking" Ha, good one!!!

      November 13, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • I wonder

      Prayer never lifted a single brick.

      November 14, 2012 at 12:09 am |
    • NatL

      I wonder
      But belief in God has thrown a few ... at people, windows, ...

      November 14, 2012 at 12:21 am |
  3. ak

    The way you should deal with your haters in life is to ignore their behavior and pray for them.

    November 13, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • NatL

      So, how do you deal with with people who merely find what you believe humorous?

      November 13, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • Stella

      you are silly, and bothersome as a flea.

      November 14, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • NatL

      Stella
      Kinda insulting, aren't you?

      November 14, 2012 at 12:19 am |
  4. Stella

    Lord I come to you as humbly as I know how to pray for the haters in my life,

    Yes Lord please bless all the haters so they to can get a life and stay out of mine, bless them Lord so they to can have some business and stay out of mine, bless them oh Lord that they get some common sense and stop talking nonsence Amen

    November 13, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • Jennie

      I am new to this site, but I read your prayer and Loved it! If you don't mind I would like to adopt that prayer as well, memorize it and recite whenever necessary.
      Thank you!!!!!! PRAISE THE LORD. REJOICE!!!!!

      November 13, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
    • Athy

      It's "too", not "to". You religious dolts do have a problem with simple English, don't you.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • Stella

      I guess when you have nothing else, you will pick on a grammatica error. I will pray for your soul.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • Stella

      grammatical (Sorry, oh you perfect one)!

      November 13, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • Athy

      What's a "grammatica" error? You should have learned the difference between "to" and "too" in about the fifth grade. Is that when you started spending too much time groveling on your knees worshipping your sky fairy?

      November 14, 2012 at 12:01 am |
    • NatL

      Stella
      We keep praying for Christians to stay out of our lives, so is it any wonder that we don't believe that prayer works? And "common sense"?!? What part of Christianity appeals to anyone's common sense? How three different beings are actually the same God, ... but still different? How an immortal God sacrificing a short existence as a human before going back to being immortal is somehow significant? How a guy who never once mentions gays in the gospels supposedly really thought they were bad people? How the creator of the universe chose a backward desert shepherding people as his means to communicate with the rest of the cosmos? Please tell me, what part of this makes any "common sense"?

      November 14, 2012 at 12:09 am |
  5. Stella

    I love my haters. I send kisses of mercy to all my Judases. I bless those who’ve tried to curse me.
    I forgive those who’ve wronged me.

    To those who’ve rejected my gifts I declare the abundance of gifts to you.
    To my enemies who are really my friends but don’t know it yet.

    November 13, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
    • MaryMac

      Have you tried to make amends to those you've wronged?

      November 14, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • /o\

      @Goddwin I know she does. Ummm, she's good at it.

      November 14, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  6. Goodwin

    Stella sucks.

    November 13, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • /o\

      @ Goodwin. I know she does, and she is very good at it. Ummm.

      November 14, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  7. Stella

    I know there is something out there.

    November 13, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I know what you mean. Keeping a little light on at night helps.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • JamesK

      I've known that something is out there since 1977. (Shiver!)

      November 13, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
    • Stella

      that's funny. I will pray for you too.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • JamesK

      Stella
      If you found it funny, why pray for me specifically?

      November 14, 2012 at 12:13 am |
  8. hiyaall

    Have any of you looked up the definition of hate speech, hate websites and anti discrimination and thank you Stan The Man, after you look up the definitions just fill in the blanks with any discriminatory word you like. Have fun kids.
    Thanks for your insight. The fact is, this nation – the USA – was founded at least in part to allow freedom of speech from the __________ of groups that might gain political power. ALL _________ groups claim their authority is the _____. This excludes them de facto from writing their opinion into legislation. But we have to ask: why is it that the last bastion of resistance to the expansion of human rights always seems to be people armed with ______ ?

    November 13, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • Stella

      I will pray for you

      November 13, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
    • Ken

      I'll think for you.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • Stella

      I will keep you in my prayers for sure.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
    • I wonder

      Stella,
      "I'll keep you in my prayers"

      Is praying a difficult task for you? Are you going to a lot of trouble doing it? Will you remember Ken from the Belief Blog for more than a day or so, if that? Perhaps you mean well, but you are full of empty plat-itudes and hot air.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • ak

      I will pray that you get crushed by a truck

      November 13, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • ak

      @ wonder, not Stella.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • JamesK

      Stella
      And I'll hope that history won't judge you too harshly once Conservative Christianity declines out of all influence.

      November 14, 2012 at 12:17 am |
  9. gt

    TechMediaNetwork is a publisher of high-quality original content with owned and operated brands and an advertising partner network that combined reach 98 million unique readers monthly, plus millions more through syndication to major media partners.

    November 13, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Isn't that a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ramjack corporation?

      November 13, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
    • gt

      I say buy tomorrow. you will be rich, and you will thanks me, or not. you may be too busy counting your millions

      November 13, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Or was it the Rimjob corporation?

      November 13, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • gt

      TechMediaNetwork Raises $33 Million For Acquisitions

      November 13, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  10. hiyaall

    Ahh thanks Alfredo bless your heart

    November 13, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • Alfredo

      You are evil spewer of hate

      November 13, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
  11. fred

    I heard justin bieber broke up with selena gomez

    November 13, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
    • JamesK

      Eeeek! It's the END TIMES!!!!

      November 13, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
  12. Stella

    I belive in God and Jesus!

    November 13, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • Ken

      You probably believe in Santa Claus and elves too. Some of us grew out of that.

      Seriously, why do you believe? The evidence is all counter to the divinity of Jesus and it all looks to be one big meme/storywith powerful marketing, nothing more.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
    • Stella

      ken-why not believe? It is not harming you.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • Ken

      bullcr@p, Stella. Religion promulgates a lot of misconceptions that impact us all negatively, via errors in fields such as disease control. Relgion needs to be stamped out if we are to progress in a lot of medical specialties. And that is just one example.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
    • Stella

      well, I disagree. I am not political. When I go to Church I just do it for me.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • Ken

      What is the basis for your disagreement? Can you counter what I said with anything of substance? If not, you are demonstrably a dishonest coward.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
  13. Martinis

    May the Flying Spaghetti Monster touch you with His noodley appendage.

    November 13, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  14. Fartman

    Deut. 25: 11-12

    When two men are fighting and the wife of one of them intervenes to drag her husband clear of his opponent, if she puts out her hand and catches hold of the man by his privates, you must cut off her hand and show her no mercy.

    November 13, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Sounds like that came out of some personal experience.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • Martinis

      Tom, will you give me a hand

      November 13, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • Martinis

      job?

      November 13, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      No, man. They cut your hand off for that sort of thing. Says so in the Bible.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Stella

      LOL

      November 13, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • Joseph

      I love when atheists take the bible word for word and cannot comprehend its meaning. I thought you peeps could think? guess not.

      November 14, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Damocles

      @joseph

      Well good grief man! Get on with the explanation on how that is taken out of context and doesn't mean what it is clearly saying and that people of no faith can't possibly know what the passage is really saying and how some passages simply MUST be taken literally and others are more fluid and change to suit the purpose.

      November 14, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  15. Trish in Liverpool, England

    this is not much of a lively discussion, is it.

    November 13, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
  16. Trish in Liverpool, England

    hello out there–how are you blokes doing

    November 13, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Doing my bit to make the world properly atheistic. You?

      November 13, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Trish in Liverpool, England

      very quiet here.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Trish in Liverpool, England

      As a Christian I get piece of mind from opening the bible and doing something that most Christians don't do: I read it. When I do, it isn't long before I'm met with powerful evidence that this was a book written by the creator of the universe.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Evidence? No believer has come up with that before.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Ken

      Trish: circular reasoning is circular. You dig? Yet?

      November 13, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Athy

      "Piece" of mind? Hm.

      November 13, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
  17. Arthur Terrence Johnson

    or the almighty Drakma, or Lire or pound

    November 13, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
  18. Arthur Terrence Johnson

    Religion is about the almighty dollar

    November 13, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  19. Alfredo

    I believe in GOD.

    November 13, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
  20. hiyaall

    Coalition Members of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
    http://www.civilrights.org/about/the-leadership-conference/coalition_members/

    November 13, 2012 at 11:17 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.