By Rev. Dai Morgan
Recently, while surfing the net, I came across a blog entitled, “What all those Jesus jokes tell us.” It captured my attention. I read the article and then, interested to read more, began following a trail of web searches based on names and titles from the article.
The Internet blog that originally caused me to stop and look might, at first, appear to indicate a light subject, perhaps even being frivolous. But, the source, as it turned out, was a serious investigation on race and the usage of the image of Jesus in American history—not at all where I expected the trail to lead!
“What all those Jesus jokes tell us” led me to a newly published book entitled The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2012). The authors are Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey. Professor Blum is a historian of race and religion at San Diego State University. Professor Harvey is a historian at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and coordinates the scholarly blog “Religion in American History.”
The subject of Jesus Jokes is actually the epilogue to The Color of Christ. It is a very small part of the book. In relation to the rest of the content of the book, this might even seem to come out of nowhere. I don’t know, maybe it was one of those gems that was worthy of mention, but did not fit as its own chapter. Whatever the case, however, it is not inappropriate to the overall subject.
I have not read The Color of Christ—I would like to (it covers two subjects in which I am highly interested, the power of the visual arts and religious expression—furthermore, I am the pastor of a multi-racial congregation); however my reading list is already unrealistically too long and I’ll probably never get to it. But, based on what I am able to gather from other sources, the authors conclude that America is still deeply in the process of struggling with issues of race.
The way Christ has been depicted in America is not a simple matter and reflects the nation in its beautiful complexities, terrible tragedies and hope for making the world a better place. According to Blum and Harvey, the occurrence of Jesus jokes, developing only in the last 40 years, reveals how tangled our religious, racial, economic and political positions have become. When people don’t know what else to do, they make jokes.
Following is an excerpt from an interview with Blum and Harvey on the website celucienljoseph.wordpress.com (the website gives permission to reprint the interview when book title and authors are credited, as above)
QUESTION: When did jokes about Jesus and his body first appear? What purpose do they serve?
ANSWER: The first mainstream jokes about Christ’s body came in the 1970s. Two of the funniest television shows ever toyed with Jesus jokes: “All in the Family” and “Good Times.” The 1970s were that weird time after the Civil Rights movement had been in full force but before political correctness made Americans fearful of racial jokes. It was the time between the economic growth of the 50s and the 60s and the unregulated Reagan 80s.
Both shows played fast and loose with jokes about racial, gender, and class stereotypes, and both of them included jokes about the body of Jesus. In fact, the second episode of “Good Times” was all about what Jesus looked like and whether it was okay for J. J. to use “Ned the Wino” (a local black drunk and prophet) as his artistic inspiration for a black Christ. The poor black family had to decide whether the white Jesus of their past would stay on the wall, or would the new black painting replace it.
Then in the 1990s and 21st century, jokes about Jesus and his body went into overdrive. In part, this was because of new arenas for humor—like Comedy Central—and in part this was because of how religion animated the culture wars. Some Americans wept as Jesus was brutalized in “The Passion of the Christ,” but others laughed as a paltry, silly white Jesus who fought the devil on “South Park.” Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert routinely use the image of Jesus as white for comedic effect, whether an animated white Jesus is defending Easter by shooting at his liberal foes on the “The Colbert Report” or an image from “The Passion of the Christ” is mocked in Stewart’s book Earth: A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race.
Jesus as black is also a big part of American humor culture, but less for subtly and more for shock value. Films like “Dogma” joke about Jesus being black when bitterly laughing about racism in America. For black Americans, Christ’s body is used as a joke for a bunch of reasons. Sometimes it’s used to make points about generational gaps; sometimes it’s used to pick on church people for being passive or hypocritical.
Turn just about anywhere in today’s comedic culture, though, and you’ll find jokes about Jesus and the jokes rely on concepts of his body. Perhaps the jokes are there because the problems of race and racial antagonism have not been fully resolved by the civil rights movement, by the government, or by Jesus.
When I first found the blog to which I referred at the beginning of this article, I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe that’s why I stopped to read it. As I noted, I was surprised to be led to the book The Color of Christ. Of course, the book is not about humor. But, the authors can’t help but recognize that sometimes the most serious subjects are most effectively breached with humor—for better or worse. I can’t say that I totally agree with their conclusion about the meaning of Jesus jokes. However, their examples of humor focused on Jesus does support the observation that comedy is no joking matter.
The Rev. Dai Morgan is pastor of Living Spirit Ministry-Swissvale United Methodist Church.