In one sentence we can review—and convince lots of readers to purchase—Father James Martin SJ’s new book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.
Here’s the one sentence: In this book, you’ll find lots of Father Martin’s best jokes and humorous stories that will leave you, your friends and your congregation laughing all the way to joy and inspiration.
(Or, in just 6 words: Buy the book; share the laughs.)
Father James Martin SJ, the Jesuit author and journalist, is widely known nationwide for his America magazine articles, his popular books and his appearances on network TV, providing analysis about the Catholic church or other matters of faith. We also highly recommend his earlier book, My Life with the Saints, which you can order from Amazon by clicking on the title.
Later this week, don’t miss our interview with Father Martin. But, today, in introducing his newest book, we will share our first Question and Answer.
As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I asked: “Of all the many subjects you write about, concerning Christianity and our culture, why did you think a book on using humor in the church was the most important thing to publish right now?”
Father Martin answers: “I traveled a lot around the country, talking to groups about my earlier book, My Life with the Saints. I discovered that what people most wanted to hear were stories about the ways saints led joyful lives. They also were very interested in saints’ senses of humor and jokes they made—how the saints praised laugher. I realized that we are all facing two big problems. First, most Christian groups are rather in the dark about this aspect of the lives of saints. But, second and much more of problem: The idea of being joyful in church is a foreign idea to most Christians! It was almost as though I needed to give them permission to enjoy a good joke with the saints, to show their sense of humor and to laugh out loud in church. If you doubt that this is a problem, just take a look at the artwork in most churches. There are far too many sad and tortured-looking saints. Some of these saints had such a sweet nature and enjoyed a good laugh at the humor of life, yet we have captured them forever in images that glower at us.”
(Later this week, you can read the entire interview with Father Martin.)
WHY YOU SHOULD READ ‘BETWEEN HEAVEN AND MIRTH’
First, there’s a whole lot more than jokes and other humorous stories between these covers. Among many other very smart pieces of advice Martin gives us in this book is: How you can grow your church by using more humor. These days, church growth is the holy grail for most clergy. Plus, Martin also provides a wonderful overview of the history of humor in our faith and he covers the theological importance of publicly expressing our joy.
Second, while Martin obviously is Catholic and is most popular in Catholic circles, this is an ecumenical book—and will even be popular with readers from other faiths. For example, one of Martin’s clergy friends is the Reform Rabbi Daniel Polish, who he includes in one chapter.
BALAAM AND HIS ASS: Rabbi Polish describes for Martin the earthy humor in the story of Balaam and his talking ass in the book of Numbers Chapter 22. In Martin’s words: “Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet with a gift for divination, encounters an angel of the Lord, but fails to recognize him. Instead his donkey, who is miraculously given the power to speak, recognizes the angel. The talking donkey also takes the opportunity to rebuke Balaam for his mistreatment: ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’ Rabbi Polish believes the implicit question in the story is, to make the point in vernacular English, ‘Who’s the jackass here?’”
SOME RELIGIOUS LEADERS ACTUALLY ARE FUNNY, IF WE GIVE THEM A CHANCE: In the book, you’ll read about many real-life men and women in religious leadership who could be quite amusing, given a chance. Martin argues that we deliberately mute the humor. He asks: When was the last time a new bishop was introduced to the news media with the words, “and he has a great sense of humor”? Almost never, Martin says. In fact, many religious leaders have, indeed, enjoyed life’s humor.
New York Catholic Cardinal John O’Connor always had a sly sense of humor. Martin describes a long and dull fund-raising banquet that O’Connor had to endure—including an endless reading of donors’ names by a master of ceremonies who was ill prepared and continually had to check a series of little note cards to recall the names of noted people. Finally, the emcee told the crowd: “And now, Cardinal O’Connor will come to the dais and give us his benediction.”
The cardinal walked up to the podium and said, “Almighty Gody, we thank you for all the blessings you have bestowed on us. And we do this in the name of your Son, ummm … (and the cardinal pulled out his own little note card and glanced down) … Jesus Christ.”
THERE’S HUMOR IN EVERY RELIGIOUS TRADITION
Here’s one last example of the humor you’ll find in this book: This one was given to Martin by a friend who is a Lutheran pastor. This story shows how, whatever your individual religious tradition, there probably are foibles you can—and should—turn to laughter.
A Lutheran pastor is asleep one night when the phone rings. The fire department is calling to say that someone is about to jump off a roof. The pastor throws on his clothes, jumps into his car, and races to the house. When he arrives, a firefighter points to the man on his roof.
“Don’t jump!” yells the pastor.
“Well, I’m going to!” says the man. “I’ve got nothing to live for.”
The pastor asks, “What about your family?”
And the man says, “I’ve got none!”
The pastor asks, “What about your friends?”
The man says, “I’ve got none!”
The pastor pauses for a long while and then says, “Well, I’m sure we could be friends. I’ll bet we have a lot in common.”
“I doubt it,” says the man on the roof.
The pastor thinks. “Well, do you believe in God?” he asks.
“Yes,” says the man.
“See?” says the pastor. “We have that in common! Are you a Christian?”
“Yes,” says the man.
“So am I!” says the pastor, delighted.
“Are you a Lutheran by any chance?”
“Yes I am,” the man says.
“I’m a Lutheran pastor!” says the pastor. “We have so much in common!” Then he pauses and asks. “Which branch? Missouri Synod or Evangelical Lutheran?”
“Evangelical Lutheran,” says the man.
Then the pastor says, “In that case: Jump, you heretic!”
Come back later this week for our full interview with Father James Martin SJ
More on spiritual gifts of humor?
ReadTheSpirit publishes Guide for Caregivers, a new jump-start, start-anywhere guidebook by author and pastoral counselor Dr. Benjamin Pratt. You’ll find that humor, laughter and the joy of good friends and music are key goals Pratt addresses for caregivers, including some practical ways to rediscover your joy even in the midst of a hectic, stress-filled schedule.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.