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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. Joe

    "..and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows" -Mark 13:8.

    "When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah's day.In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat." -Matthew 24:38

    I dont wonder why these things happen about Jesus in these days

    November 11, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Damocles

      For pete's sake, Joe, do you not understand that floods, earthquakes, 'bad things' have been happening for a really, really long time?

      November 11, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • PerceivedReality

      Damocies,

      These are as stated the "birthing pains" meaning that they will happen with increasing frequency, which if you will look at natural disaster frequency over the last 50 years they are increasing in frequency.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  2. Lori

    thinking about rioting, raping, and pillaging over this article.

    YOU HURT MY FEELINGS, THEREFORE I WILL SODOMIZE YOUR AMBASSODOR'S CORPSE AND YOU WILL TELL THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES, ALL THE FREE WORLD, TO STOP PRINTING THIS FILTH REGARDLESS OF FREE SPEECH, because my feelings are hurting.

    9/11/2012 official statement from our embassy in Cairo, Egypt.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Shlebs

      Really – can you cite your source?

      November 11, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • Lori

      yes, I have the source downloaded from our Embassy's Cairo web site. The night of 9.11, my source was posted. The next morning, my source was removed from the embassy's web site. BUT I HAVE A .JPG OF THE 9.11 EMBASSY'S POST – MY SOURCE, THE EMBASSY WEBSITE.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Lori

      hinking about rioting, raping, and pillaging over this article.

      YOU HURT MY FEELINGS, THEREFORE I WILL SODOMIZE YOUR AMBASSODOR'S CORPSE AND YOU WILL TELL THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES, ALL THE FREE WORLD, TO STOP PRINTING THIS FILTH REGARDLESS OF FREE SPEECH, because my feelings are hurting.

      9/11/2012 official statement from our embassy in Cairo, Egypt, in so many words.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  3. Shlebs

    I'll mock whomever I want. Also – when does a joke involving somebody = mocking them.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  4. Aaron Smith

    Isn't it nice to have a religion that tollerates jokes like this. Make those jokes about Muhummed and you might lose your head.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • LakeRat1

      Although, I don't believe in any prophet, those that do, should certainly realize that the last thing someone as great as that would need, is ordinary people protecting them from jokes. Especially, when killing is against the teaching of their prophet. (Boy, are they going to get a surprise, when they go before their God!)

      November 11, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  5. Black Seven

    So we can joke about Jesus but whisper a word about alla al lalalalalalala and the whole world goes to he ll. Way to Impose Islam on the US C N N and Obama, both enemy sympathizers and traitors.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Kevin

      It's a testament to Christians that as silly as we think they are sometimes, at least they are not violent (except for the occasional bombings and assassinations). I'll take our religious nuts over theirs any day of the week.

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

    This article represents all that is terrible about CNN's coverage of religion: it is entirely unsourced (what evidence is presented to support the statement that jokes about Jesus only began in the 1970's? That is entirely false). Additionally, most of the examples they give are not jokes about Jesus, but examples of God referenced in the media. The article conflates the two and makes a pseudo-argument about religious values in America. In short: this essay does not even come close to "earning its conclusion." Instead it argues a point from false statements and generalizations. Thus it is anti-educational and rhetorically suspect. Bad form, CNN.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Too bad your assertions are entirely unsourced.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • pomass

      That's a good summation...

      November 11, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  7. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    If horses had a Jesus .. their Jesus would be a horse. This joke has lasted longer that Jesus (Xenophanes 500 BC) and has now been updated for the times. Laughing at religion has been around as long as religion.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • LakeRat1

      Horses are smarter than that!

      November 11, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  8. Lou

    If a man commits adultery with another man's wife both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death
    Leviticus 20:10

    November 11, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • LakeRat1

      Spoken by a true "pro-lifer"!

      November 11, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • LakeRat1

      If there was a couple that performed adultery, and then put to death, I'd bet serious money, they they had contributed more to humanity than you will, during your life!

      November 11, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  9. Rainer Braendlein

    Mock people which use religion as a smokescreen for their malice, and which are only greedy for honor, power and money: pope, Muhammad, Jewish leaders, etc., but don't mock the holy Jesus who died for the sake of your soul's health.

    I guess when people mock Jesus today they actually only mock a distorted image of Jesus they have. Probably this image rather resembles people like the pope, Muhammad, Jewish Scribes and Pharisees, etc. than Jesus. I guess no reasonable man would mock the real Jesus because the real Jesus was the most loveable man which has ever lived on earth.

    If you would meet Jesus today, I guess that you would love him. Only criminals would not love him because he could get in their way when they want to implement their evil plans.

    Hence, let us mock the pope, Muhammad, people who behave like Scribes and Pharisees, etc. but don't mock the real Jesus who is indeed sacred, and can make you new through the rebirth out of Water and Spirit (sacramental baptism).

    I am a Protestant.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Rainer – exactly WHY do you believe what you do? Obviously you appear to be sincere in your beliefs. But this is a serious question – why?

      November 11, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • SixDegrees

      There is no 'real Jesus' in the sense that you're using, because there is no god.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      The kingdom of God has a marvellous gate: the sacramental baptism. Enter God's kingdom, and you will become able to talk about it because you can watch the things from inside.

      Baptism was insti-tuted by Christ himself, not by the lousy pope.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • Donnie

      It's interesting that you would make that statement, even in the Bible Jesus was mocked by people who had direct involvement with him, and the twelve people with him? Well, one of them sold him out to his enemies for a handful of change.

      It's human nature to do such things, it would seem.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Donnie

      By 'that statement' I meant the one about mocking Jesus, not your reply to others ;-)

      November 11, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • SixDegrees

      "Enter God's kingdom, and you will become able to talk about it because"

      Nice. Translation: "Anyone who doesn't agree with me can't say anything."

      Thin support for your position, indeed.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  10. Lou

    Children who curse their father or mother must be put to death
    Leviticus 20:9

    November 11, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  11. Lou

    Kill everyone who works on the Sabbath
    Exodus 31:15
    Isaiah 40:8
    1 Peter 1:24-25
    Psalm 19:7

    November 11, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      Dear fellow, you have no idea.

      Only gainful work was prohibited at Sabbath. Actually someone who did usually earn money at Sabbath proved that he was not ready to worship the God of Israel. We can imply that such people God admonished very many times, and were only stoned when they did not want to repent.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  12. LakeRat1

    I love humor, and I seriously doubt that Jesus has any devine attributes, I think he was likely some sort of extraordinary man, and I don't feel that he has done anything to make it appropriate to joke about. However, a lot of the people that create and believe in the religious fairy tales based on his life, then look down their noses at those who don't believe them, are just begging to be ridiculed. Eliminate the "middle-man" with your jokes, and go straight to the wack jobs that are trying to use religion to attain power, and control the lives of normal, good, people. Heard any good Michele Bachman jokes lately?

    November 11, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  13. Lou

    Kill everyone who does not believe in God
    Deut 17:2-7
    Deut 13:13-19
    Lev 24:16

    November 11, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • LakeRat1

      Now, THERE's a good Republican!

      November 11, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  14. Aldo

    Rainer, Your fairy tale creature must surely be the only REAL fairy tale creature? You are delusional.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  15. Lou

    1 PETER 1:20 Despite God’s failed experiment in the Garden of Eden, the mass execution of Noah’s flood and the final solution of Christ’s sacrifice, Jesus was predestined to be crucified all along. "He was chosen before the creation of the world,"

    November 11, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • LakeRat1

      Heard any good "Lou" jokes lately?

      November 11, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  16. Atheist Life

    Why is this religious baloney on the front page?

    November 11, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Because CNN knows that it will be good for thousands of comments and thousands of page views, resulting in more ad revenue

      November 11, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • Sane Person

      Some people give magical properties to the 7th day of the week. In one of many earth creation fables, a supreme being was all tuckered out that day. (Well, actually Saturday, but..whatever) So, because he decided to take a nap on that day, we now must deal with the irrational rantings of his fans every 7 days.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • LakeRat1

      Got your attention, didn't it? (Don't forget to read all the ads!)

      November 11, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  17. marci

    Exactly. Denialism. This world is so sick and twisted, If people would just sit back and really look at what's happening (all jokes aside), everyone would be killing themselves. The bible said people would have "a form of Godly Devotion, but prove false to its power". Its a disgrace to see people talk about the greatest man who ever lived with no respect. But he was not treated with respect while still here on earth. He died after a trial that broke all jewish judicial law. It was even in the middle of the night. I mean, come on; who gets killed for healing people. Wow. And another thing, when did Jesus ever claim to be God? Here are the facts, Jesus is Not God, and never claimed to be. Another thing this world has promoted that's false.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Damocles

      The marked and unmarked graves of doctors around the world should be ample evidence of people who get killed for healing others.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • LakeRat1

      Marci, lighten up! Humanity is what it is. And that's better than any alternative I've seen so far. A sense of humor, is one of the better attributes of humanity. "Here are the facts"? Well, that puts a smile on my face!

      November 11, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  18. Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

    You realize that if Jesus had lived, and died, in the southern United States in during the 1900's,the symbol of Christianity would have been an electric chair?

    November 11, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • SixDegrees

      More likely a noose. Jesus was pretty swarthy for southern baptist tastes, and his message wouldn't have set well with any of them.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • JJ

      True, but Jesuf followers have somehow looked past al the gore of a man hanging on a torture device. Can you imagine them walking around iwith an electric chair with a man strapped down inside.around their neck instead of a crucifix?

      November 11, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Very good point, Six – sad but true

      November 11, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Kevin

      Actually a gas chamber, at least in Mississippi. For official executions anyway. Had Jesus been driving through Philadelphia, Mississippi in the 1960s he may very well have been shot and buried at the bottom of an earthen dam, not in a cave.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  19. pomass

    This article states that in the 70's we started hearing jokes in our sitcoms. And I have always been interested in what does the media know about mass psychology and how are they using it. It's obvious to me that it has been used to "evolve us" out of our religions and beliefs. So there, you've all been nannyed into thinking you are superior to people who put their faith in anything other than themselves. And someone said it earlier, are we better off without Jesus? You know, Jesus gives a lot of people a reason to live more compassionately than they otherwise would. I'd say that deserves some respect.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Mirosal

      You DO realize that your entire "New Testament" is nothing but pure unadulterated hearsay, don't you? No one wrote down a single word your jesus ever said. The authors of your little book only heard 3rd 4th and 5th hand accounts, and even from 2nd and 3rd generations after the "fact" (if you can even call it that) from no one who was there in the first place

      November 11, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • LakeRat1

      Yep. So what's the bad news? Actually, it is bad that those you refer to, have to believe fairy tales in order to be decent to others. However, It seems that religion has the opposite effect on many.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  20. Bibletruth

    Truth......that is the issue with only one thing being more important, and that is a love for the truth. And there is only one way that can come to a person...by the Holy Spirit. There is only one way a person can be lost and that is not having a love for the truth, according to Jesus. And this makes perfect sense..i.e.it is perfectly logical. And what does having a love for the truth result in? Acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Atheist Life

      Lie.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Bibletruth

      put "Joyful" in front of the word acceptance.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Damocles

      What you have here is an opinion. Opinion does not equal truth.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • SixDegrees

      There is no god.

      November 11, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Hey, Bibletruth – what about the millions of people who lived and died before Jesus supposed lived? What happened to them, since they could not have known and loved your Jesus? What about the millions of people who lived far away from the Middle east and had no way of hearing about your Jesus – what happened to them?

      November 11, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Blasphemy

      You are only allowed the truth of the earthly church?

      November 11, 2012 at 8:51 am |
    • John Not the Baptist

      I have some snakeoil for sale, intrested?

      November 11, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • LakeRat1

      Which translated, means: "The only way you can believe that crap, is to believe this crap"

      November 11, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • Fernando

      No you are not perfectly logical. The vessel of my soul is filled much greater than yours with the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is I who bring you Truth through the Love of Jesus and not you so much. I am perfectly logical and all powerful through the Holy Wisdom that the Lord Almighty has imparted unto me. I beseech thee to bow unto my countenance and kiss my relic ring for it is I who reflects the true and one God for He has told me so in my prayers.

      November 11, 2012 at 9:14 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.