“Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life,” by James Martin

November 25, 2011

According to the Westminster Catechism, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Why then, Jesuit writer James Martin wants to know, does Christianity seem to have forgotten the “enjoy” part? This book is his attempt both to answer that question and to inject some joy, mirth and humor into modern spirituality, which he deems entirely too solemn and dour.

The task Martin has undertaken is not easy. Suffering, after all, was what started the Buddha on his quest. At the center of Christianity is a man being tortured to death by Roman legionnaires. Some of the most moving texts in the Hebrew scripture focus on mortality, pain, defeat and exile. These are hardly laughing matters. But Martin argues persuasively that genuine joy does not minimize suffering. Rather it arises from facing it and, with God’s help, overcoming it. Martin regrets that he sees so many long faces at church, but he also recalls how, as a seminarian, he visited an African American Baptist church and discovered that people who bear heavy burdens often worship with exuberance. Joy, he says, is clearly a gift of grace. He might also do well to drop in occasionally on a Pentecostal church, where playfulness and gusto can shake the chandeliers.

Still, there is much murk to dig through before mirth can be revived. Martin might be just the man for the job. An editor of the Jesuit order’s esteemed journal America, he worked for six years after college in corporate finance before joining the order. He is also the author of several books and has an abiding interest in relating spirituality to everyday life. He knows something about mirth, too, and has appeared several times on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.” Martin, who wrote the exquisite book “My Life With the Saints,” might have fun explaining why, with the exception of course of Saint Teresa in ecstasy, the saints are inevitably pictured as in serious funks. Has anyone ever seen an image of a saint laughing?

Between Heaven and Mirth” unfolds in nine short, sequential sections. Martin scatters jokes here and there, and some of them — not all — are funny. He touches on why we need to reclaim humor and laughter in religion, why they have been so downgraded, and what the spiritual masters in different traditions have taught about joy. He ranges through classical and modern Christian writers from Saint Benedict to Karl Barth, quoting their apt remarks on joy. He even cites Pope Benedict XVI, who, to this reader’s surprise, once wrote, “I believe [God] has a great sense of humor. . . . [He] wants to prod us into taking things a bit more lightly.” But Martin does not restrict himself to his own faith. He cites the 14th-century Muslim mystic Hafiz, who said: “What is this precious love and laughter budding in our hearts?. . . It is the glorious sound of a soul waking up!” Might Muslims and Christian theologians hit it off better if they stopped arguing about the Trinity and swapped some droll stories?

In the second half of the book, Martin gets more practical, turning to joy in institutional religion and to how the reader can recover it in personal life, “even if you don’t feel especially joyful.” He includes brief but lucid discussions of three biblical passages. The first is Psalm 65, which ends with a description of how the valleys and hills “shout and sing together for joy.” Next he turns to the first chapter of Luke, and the delight shared by two expectant mothers in the “visitation” scene of Mary and Elizabeth. Then comes First Thessalonians, in which Saint Paul, according to Martin not really the sourpuss he is made out to be, exhorts the people to “Rejoice always.”


‘Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life’ by James Martin (HarperOne)

What about Jesus? Did he ever laugh? Martin insists he probably did, very frequently. Then why don’t the Gospels say so? Martin believes they do. Some of Jesus’s parables are playful and witty and must have sounded like shaggy-dog stories to his hearers. He was a master of hyperbole and of the unexpected ending. The problem, says Martin, is that the Gospels all concentrate heavily on the final weeks of Jesus’s life, the Passion narrative. But after all, he writes, Jesus lived for 30-odd years before that, and is described as attending weddings (at one he replenished the waning wine supply) and dinner parties, allegedly in the company of sinners, where, the writer suggests, wine and laughter must have enlivened the room. The reason the Gospel writers shortchange this part of his life is that they thought they had to explain why the Messiah had been killed, something unthinkable to his contemporaries.

I had my doubts, however, when Martin said that one reason the Thessalonians were so joyful was that in the midst of their persecution, they expected the imminent return of Christ. Most Christians today doubt it is all that imminent, and those who do — the people who savor the “Left Behind” novels about the Earth’s last days — sound more angry and vengeful than joyful.

“Between Heaven and Mirth” is delicious, well-crafted and well-paced. Martin draws on his own experience as a priest and demonstrates both a light touch and an impressive command of his subject. Reading it reminded me that when Dante finally approaches heaven in “The Divine Comedy,” the sound he hears “me sembiana un riso del universo” (seemed to me like the laughter of the universe).

Harvey Cox is Hollis research professor of divinity at Harvard and the author of “The Future of Faith.”

BETWEEN HEAVEN AND MIRTH

Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life

By James Martin

HarperOne. 263 pp. $25.99

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