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Review | Between Heaven and Mirth By James Martin

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on November 18, 2011

Between Heaven and Mirth by James Martin

ISBN-13: 9780062024268
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/4/2011
Pages: 272

A Catholic priest, a Baptist preacher and a rabbi are chaplains at a Midwest college…

For the punch line to this joke about evangelizing bears... read Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life by James Martin.

A Jesuit and chaplain to The Colbert Report, Martin writes in his provocative book that humor and laughter might seem excessive and inappropriate among the religious.

“From somber devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us,” he quotes St. Teresa of Avila and spares no joke or humorous endnote to separate the gloom from the divine.

Certain stories and proverbs in the Old Testament would have been hilarity to original audiences. And a close reading of the Book of Jonah uncovers “irony, comedy and moments that are laugh-out-loud funny.”

Psalm 65 is joyful and Ecclesiastes 8:15 is essentially an appeal for more mirth under the sun. Even grumpy St. Paul called for early Christians to rejoice in his First Letter to the Thessalonians.

“So why is there so little humor from Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels?” Martin puts this question to New Testament scholars as well as cognitive psychologists.

Martin finds the Gospel focused on the virtues of Christ and his disciples. Much of the wit may have been left out. The result? Christians associate religion with seriousness rather than levity.

Christians are also more familiar with the Passion, the narrative around the Cross. The suffering of Christ seems to diminish the joy of his preaching and healing. A witty and gregarious Jesus would have certainly “lived it up,” visiting nearby towns, attending celebrations and welcoming strangers to his own table.

Martin proposes that thinking about a humorless Christ “may be close to heresy.” Two bitterly opposed camps arose in the early church over the question: Is Christ human or divine?

To unite the church and maintain order, Constantine convened bishops at the Council of Nicea. There they settled on the idea that Christ was both fully human and fully divine.

Martin writes about humor and Christ:

If Christians truly believe that Jesus was fully human, they must also believe that he had a sense of humor, which is a constituent part of being fully human.

The author looks far for humor in Eastern traditions and Islam and finds a number of saints who were veritable comedians.

Martin Luther, St. Philip Neri, Mother Teresa, St. Francis of Assisi, Pope John XXIII and St. Teresa of Avila laugh it up on the book’s cover art. All were known for their sense of humor.

Hear the one about Pope John Paul II, who canonized an unprecedented number of saints? Mother Teresa was asked by one of her sisters how she could become a saint.

The sister most likely was expecting a pious answer on living a holy life, serving the poor, and praying frequently. Instead, Mother Teresa laughed and said, ‘If you want to be saint, die now. The pope is canonizing everyone!’

Martin concludes that Christians spare humor to the detriment of their evangelical and service vocations. Who enjoys the company of a person with no sense of humor?

He quotes St. Katherine Drexel:

We must attract them by joy in order to lead them to its source, the Heart of Christ.

A hilariously paradoxical concern comes up frequently in his talks at parishes, colleges and conferences: What can I do if I live or work in a joyless environment?

Devoting a chapter to the challenges of living joyfully, Martin insists that stand-up comics have the jokes covered. “You don’t have to be the one who’s funny. You can enjoy the humorous people around you.”

Martin, a superb joke teller, advises three gates to go through before delivering witticisms: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind?

A good joke “reveals a truth… helps to increase understanding, to lighten a difficult situation, to self-deprecate… and is neither harmful nor destructive.”

One more cautionary tale about levity. The words in I Thessalonians, “rejoice always,” do not mean you can never be angered. Good works have historically sprung from outrage over injustice.

Martin’s book is ultimately a call for Christians to appreciate all of “life’s absurdities, incongruities, and general ridiculousness.”

Between Heaven and Mirth by James Martin is a worthwhile read with a respectable canon of jokes and spiritual advice for living joyfully.

Category: Nonfiction, Religion, Humor

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