On Wednesday the history department at my institution hosted San Diego State University historian Edward J. Blum, who delivered an intriguing lecture on "What Humor Tells Us about Race and Jesus in America."
Blum is the author, with Paul Harvey, of the forthcoming Jesus Christ in Red, White, and Black (UNC Press, 2012), which "examines the central roles played by depictions of Christ in racial battles from the colonial era to the present."* Blum has also authored a variety of other books and articles on race, religion, and American culture.
In his lecture here on campus, Blum asked students, faculty, and community members to think about how humor in America has changed since the 1970s. What might have been utterly taboo in previous decades--jokes about Jesus, or cracks about religion and race--are now common.
A reporter from the local paper, Dan McCready, showed up and wrote a brief piece on the event. (See the article here along with a short video.) Blum addressed depictions of Jesus and described how Americans have talked about and represented God over the decades and centuries. Those images and ideas about race in general led to innumerable conflicts in the 1960s and 70s, many rehearsed on TV and the big screen. Said Blum to McCready: "What happens in the 1970’s is [that] Americans tire out from the Civil Rights movement, they tired out from all the struggles and we see a backlash to racial problems." Enter Archie Bunker, Dirty Harry, and Rocky Balboa.
Using episodes from South Park and Family Guy, along with popular films, Blum ably guided the audience through the twists and turns of popular culture and showed how we got from point A to point B. Few topics could get students to think about change over time as this did. And I'm always glad to have that key aspect of history discussed by visiting speakers!