What Jesus-jokes tell us

cnn@tri-statedefender.com | 11/15/2012, 2:53 p.m.

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.

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.

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.