Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life by James Martin, SJ (New York: Harper One, 2011. 272 pp)

Rev. James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America Magazine, and bestselling author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, and Between Heaven and Mirth. Father Martin has written for many publications, including the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and he is a regular commentator in the national and international media. He has appeared on all the major radio and television networks, as well as in venues ranging from NPR’s Fresh Air, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, and PBS’s NewsHour to Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. Before entering the Jesuits in 1988, Father Martin graduated from the Wharton School of Business and worked for General Electric for six years. In 2017, Pope Francis appointed him to be a Consultor for the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication.

It’s Good to Laugh

I love a good laugh. The pure joy of humor shared with friends represents some of the best times in life. Laughter embeds a story in memory. As I write this review, I think back on the idea of laughter and vivid moments spring to life. A joke long forgotten still links to the memory of a jovial encounter at a restaurant in Lake Chelan. A self-deprecating, or more likely a family deprecating costume earned many a laugh during a Halloween party in high school. These moments link to innate elements of our human experience. The joy of relating to others and building humor out of shared experience develops deeply held memory.

So then why do our spiritual lives often feel so dreary, mundane, and serious?

Father James Martin explores this idea in Between Heaven and Mirth, arguing for levity, humor, and joy as clear foundations for a spiritual life.

While following the Jesuit tradition, Martin expands Between Heaven and Mirth in an ecumenical manner. These ideas apply no matter the faith tradition.

At its root, Martin suggests that the lack of joy occurs from a misreading of the core faith texts and a misapplication of spiritual disciplines.

Scriptural Precedent

Regarding Scripture, Martin suggests a deeper, truer reading of the text, specifically in its cultural context, opens humor, absurdity, and satire in the Bible.

“Indeed, the very incongruity of the parables—the topsy-turvy, seemingly absurd nature of their message (the poor are rich; the rich are poor; the blind see; the sighted are blind)—is the stuff of comedy. The absurdity is even richer when listeners realize that Jesus’s insights are, in fact, true” (32).

Deeper exegetical and hermeneutical work opens a world of humor. If the sacred text operates with a funny bone. Should we not also?

Adding to Your Spiritual Discipline

Secondarily, Martin argues for mirth as a bedrock of joy and an important element of our spiritual disciplines.

“First, joy springs from gratitude. When we recall things, events, or people for which or for whom we are grateful, our joy increases. Second, prayer supports the other two virtues. A contemplative awareness of the world and an attitude of prayerful attentiveness make it easier to see life’s blessings. Finally, joy moves us to gratitude. Our gratitude over good news can lead to joy. Joy can also move us to pray. In our joy, we want to be with God, to share our joyful life, gratefully, in prayer—just as we would share joy with a friend” (216).

Humor and mirth develop joy in our lives and the expanding of joy links to these spiritual disciplines faith-minded individuals so often want to master. In other words, mirth and levity beget a robust spiritual life.

Ultimately, these ideas convict the rigidly pious amongst us and suggest a life lived with a bit more humor is closer to the life God likely wants us to lead.

However, Martin’s argument functions in a thinly developed manner. The length of the book doesn’t sustain the argument in a way that leaves a rewarding experience for the reader. To me, this argument would function optimally at an article length. Nevertheless, it speaks to core truths around joy and humor and how they link to deeply held experiences in our lives. For this reason, the book holds value.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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