Meet James Martin SJ, bringing laughter back to church

FATHER JAMES MARTIN SJ. Photo courtesy of Martin and his publisher.Father James Martin SJ, best-selling author of an earlier book on world-famous saints, now is focusing his attention on the millions of living saints who fill the pews in our houses of worship each week—often with the grim resolve that going to church is the right thing to do. Martin argues that our real goal, far more often than we allow it in church, should be joy, not somber duty. And that joy should include bringing more humor and outright laughter back to church.

(MAY 2012 UPDATE: James Martin’s earlier bestseller, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, is now available in paperback from Amazon.)

Earlier this week, we reported on Martin’s new book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.
To spark your interest, we even published the first Q and A from this interview on Monday.
AND—psssst!If you jump back and check the Monday story, you’ll find that we also shared several amusing stories from his book.

Now, meet the Jesuit priest, journalist and best-selling author who prefers that people simply call him “Jim” in our interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm …


DAVID: 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?

JIM: 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.

DAVID: Lots of people are interested in this new book. For example, you’ve already appeared on the Colbert Report, talking about this with Stephen Colbert. We will provide readers a link to that video clip at the end of our own interview. I was impressed that Colbert calls you “The Chaplain of the Colbert Nation.” Hey, that’s a great responsibility, right?

JIM: Yes, it is! I’ve been on the Colbert Report a number of times over the years. I was on once talking about Mother Teresa, once about the pope’s visit to the United States, once talking about poverty. I’ve been on the show maybe four or five times.


DAVID: In this new book, you give individual readers—and book-discussion groups—lots of choices of material within a single volume. First of all, as we’ve already told readers, there is a lot of humor in the book. It’s simply fun reading. But then you give us various chapters on, for example: reading the Bible with a fresh eye for the humor. In other sections, you address direct questions readers may have like: “I’m not a funny person. How do I learn to tell jokes?” And, here’s one that especially caught my eye: You write about humor in the Visitation—and you urge readers not to miss the entire version of Mary’s hymn of joy after hearing the message from the angel. We just featured an interview with the Bible scholar N.T. Wright who made a very similar point about Mary’s hymn of joy. Wright says too many Christians miss the full version of that text at Christmas.

JIM: There are so many examples of people missing the joy that’s right there in our tradition. I went to a parish in New Jersey that had a statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, this very sweet-natured young nun. But, when I looked closely at the statue, there stood this 10-foot-tall image of her outside the church glowering down at me.

DAVID: Our home office is in Michigan where there’s a major shrine to St. Therese, so I know her story very well. She was the Little Flower and she loved life. I think of her life as tragic, because she died so young of illness, but she squeezed a lot of joy out of her short life.

JIM: Yes, of course! She was charming and lighthearted and humorous. How can you read about her life and not see the joy? Yet, so many artists depict her as gloomy.  This is a problem with so many figures. St. Philip Neri was known for his wit. He used to go around Rome with half of his beard shaved off to encourage people to poke fun at him. And, I just got a letter from a priest in India who read my book and who used to work with Mother Teresa. When they were working on the constitution of her religious order, she talked about the candidates needing a sense of humor. He asked her: “Why?” And she said: “If they don’t have humor, they won’t be able to persevere. Our work is far too difficult. They need joy to last.”


DAVID: You include Cal Samra in your book, the guy who has produced, for many years, a newsletter about church humor. I’ve reported on Cal Samra’s work a number of times over the years. He promotes an all-humor-themed Sunday for the weekend right after Easter, each year. He calls it Holy Humor Sunday. In churches that have tried this, they really enjoy the response from churchgoers. But it sounds like a dangerous idea to many readers.

JIM: Part of the problem is that humor and even the idea of laughing in church is frowned upon in so many places. I even titled one chapter in the book “Laughing in Church” so people would notice this point. As Christians, we are people who proclaim Good News and joy, but this idea of laughing seems anathema to so many people. Catholics say that we “celebrate” the Mass. It’s supposed to be a celebration. Of course, the Mass is not a laugh riot, but some parts of the Mass should be joyful.

I was talking with one man who complained that, if we get too joyful, then: “How am I supposed to be contemplative?” When he asked me that question, I thought: Wow. Is that an interesting assumption about contemplation!?! Then, I asked him: “So, how do you contemplate something like the ocean or a beautiful sunrise? Do you do it with a big frown on your face?”

DAVID: Well, I suspect people who are so serious-minded will find themselves tested, now that you have written this book. I can envision lots of clergy buying this book and immediately swiping all the good stories to use in their own preaching.

JIM: Point that out! I totally support your desire to get people to buy this book and, if the way to do it is to remind preachers that they can use these stories, then do it. But we should say: Each chapter is chock full of material not only for preachers, but also for your own individual spiritual life as a reader.

DAVID: It’s obvious in this interview that you do focus quite a bit on your own Catholic church. But, this book is far broader than any one denomination. These basic ideas, really, apply to all kinds of spiritual journeys. As a Protestant myself, I’ve got to say: We do quite a heavy-duty number on the Bible ourselves.

JIM: Oh yes! Go into a Protestant church and find the images of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane or at the Last Supper. Look at the main images of Jesus inside a Protestant church and you’ll find he’s looking pretty dour. I find this ironic because a number of the great Protestant leaders, like Martin Luther, used humor all the time. Luther thought of himself as quite a wit! I’ve talked about this with Martin Marty and he says this is not just a Catholic problem. This runs across Christianity.


DAVID: You make an important point both in the opening and the closing of your book. Joy isn’t optional in a spiritually healthy life. In our own ReadTheSpirit Books, we just published a book called Guide for Caregivers that makes this point from a very practical standpoint: Humor leads to spiritual health. But, even more than that, you point out that Heaven—this great hope for millions of us—is a place of supreme joy. If we’ve lived our lives joylessly, then we’re not well equipped for heaven.

I love it that, in the final reference to this central issue, you quote Rabbi Burton Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. You point out that the rabbi says: “Laughter and humor are ways to prepare oneself for the ecstasy in the world to come. In fact the Talmud says that in the world to come we will dance a hora with God in the middle!”

JIM: If part of our life on earth is a preparation for heaven, and if heaven is a joyful place, then part of our life on earth should include joy. But more to the point, joy shows your true faith in God. If your life is oriented toward a place where you’ll be in union with God, then why shouldn’t you be happy? And for the Christian, Christ is risen! I can’t think of any more joyful reason for living than that. The fundamental orientation of the Christian should be joy.

That is not to say you must be happy every day. You’d be a robot if you weren’t sad at times of loss or natural disaster, and so on. When Jesus is crucified, the disciples mourn. But, we have to assume that the disciples are very happy on the first Easter Sunday. They run to the tomb; they don’t mope around. And, remember, the final events in Jesus’ life represent one week, compared with several years of his ministry. What was he doing the rest of the time? His life was full of table fellowship, dining with visitors, hanging out with his friends, preaching the good news, telling playful parables, healing people and going to wedding parties. His first miracle was to make more wine for people at a party!

DAVID: Close this out with some humor, Jim.

JIM: OK. So, Jesus comes down for the Second Coming and he calls the Pope. Jesus says, “I’m back!”
The Pope says, “This is fantastic!”
Jesus says: “Yes, I’ve decided it’s time for me to come back to the seat of the One True Faith, but I have good news and bad news.”
The Pope says, “What’s the good news?”
Jesus says, “All sins are forgiven and and everyone is welcome into heaven.”
The Pope says, “Fantastic! Fantastic! But what’s the bad news?”
Jesus says, “I’m calling from Salt Lake City.”

REMEMBER, it’s a great Chrismas gift: Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life is available from Amazon right now.

Want see FATHER MARTIN on COLBERT REPORT? This link takes you to the Colbert Nation website where a 6-minute clip of the interview about Jim’s book will play, after a short commercial message.

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, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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