It’s one of the busiest seasons of the year and you know what you need… a book recommendation. (Insert derisive snorts, patronizing chuckles and semi-hysterical giggling here.) In the midst of worship planning, family activities, other people’s emotional baggage, your emotional baggage, the unavoidable calories, the avoided gym and everything else, Christmas needs joy! Thus I bring you a quick review of James Martin’s new book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of Spiritual Life. (The letters “SJ” should follow Martin’s name since he is a Jesuit priest. I didn’t, however, know where to put the apostrophe, so I’m making this note.)
If you are too busy to read a whole review, here’s the upshot: Good book that brings together lots of research and writing on laughter, spiritual health and joy. Definitely church book club material. Mainly Roman Catholic writers mentioned, with some Protestants. Luther makes an appearance, Calvin and Wesley do not. Skip down to the comments and share a joke.
Back to our regularly scheduled programming: Martin begins by pointing out that people don’t usually associate humor, light-heartedness and joy with Christian practice. Even though joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, Martin says that religious people often view God as a “joyless judge” and are thus more concerned with sin and seriousness, than playfulness and celebration. (9) The popular conception of religious people in much of contemporary culture is dry and humorless, with a side of disapproving glumness. All of that AND self-satisfaction!
Okay, so I know (and you know) that NO Rev Gals or Blog Pals are like that, but we might know someone who is. Or, if you’re like me (or James Martin), people from within and without the church often comment on how surprising your sense of humor is for a pastor/priest/sister/lay leader/Christian/Sunday School teacher/church musician/etc. Somehow our joy has to bubble up more loudly and drown out the droning chorus of judgment that attempts to speak for Divine Desire.
Martin discusses the psychological significance of joy in bringing us to a deeper place of gratitude and awareness of God’s work in the world. In his discussion of Jesus as the Savior, he skims through the way the Savior is portrayed in the gospels. Just because there is not documentation of Jesus’ laughter and joy doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, Martin stresses again and again. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
In fact, Martin posits that to deny that Jesus laughed and rejoiced is to commit a kind of heresy. “If Christians truly believe that Jesus was ‘fully human’ [as well as fully divine], they must also believe he had a sense of humor.” (54) There are many puns and plays on common scenarios in the parables that are often lost on the modern reader. The careful preacher draws them out and explains them, but it is work to explain and work to receive.
In some of the best sections of the book, Martin covers how to find joy in your vocation (the situations to which you are called), in service and in relationships. He talks about how the joy we draw from each of these scenarios brings us closer to God, the source of all joy. In a written Q & A, Martin writes:
What can I do if I live or work in a joyless environment? First, remember that your environment doesn’t define you. One of the most difficult things about living in an environment (home, workplace, religious community) lacking in joy is that you may gradually assume that (a) you should not be joyful; (b) you are not naturally joyful, since you’re experiencing so little joy; or (c) the world is a joyless place. Joy-free persons sometimes seem to be joy vampires, sucking the happiness out of everyone’s life as well.
In these situations, it’s important to remind yourself that (a) it’s okay to be joyful; (b) you do in fact experience joy in other areas of your life; and (c) there is joy in the world, though it may be outside of this house, workplace, religious community… Hang on to your joy as you would hang on to your belief in God. (165)
This is a good reminder when we all feel swamped by to-dos that seem to suck the joy out of life. We should cling to our joy as tightly as possibly. On the other hand, I'm not crazy about the fact that Martin does not suggest that being in an environment with joy vampires may not be God's desire for you.
Does Martin acknowledge that there are times of mourning, darkness or deep frustration? He does. He stresses the importance of finding support, someone who may bring joy to you when you feel it is absent within yourself. Most of us have experienced periods wherein we were afraid or certain that the light would never return. This happens from personal events, as well as our reaction to local and world events. Martin writes,
As I’ve said, sadness is an appropriate and natural response to suffering. God desires, I believe, that we be honest about our sadness and share it, in prayer, with God. But even in the midst of great tragedy, knowing that God accompanies us can lead us to a deep-down joy that can carry us through difficult, and sometimes unbearable, times.
Likewise, “rejoice always” does not mean that we should simply “look on the bright side” in the face of injustice. The anger that rises in you over an unjust situation may be a sign that God is moving in you to address that injustice. That is, God may be speaking to your disgust over what you have read, or your shock over what someone has told you. (How else would God move people to action?) (188)
We need to reclaim joy as our spiritual inheritance. Joy isn’t about silliness (most of the time), but about truly celebrating what we believe God has done for the world through Jesus the Christ. I am deeply saddened by the idea that many people would say they don’t see most Christians living this way. I’m not convinced that’s true, but perception can become reality.
In truth, Martin’s insights are great, but the concepts here were not new to me. However, I could see many people whom I know who would be fascinated by this book. The concepts of the difference between joy and happiness, the truth about humor in Scripture, and the jokes in the book would go over well in almost any church book club I can imagine.
Throughout the book, Martin quotes many Roman Catholic theologians and saints, as well as other religious scholars and historical figures. For people who are unused to reading summary non-fiction (in which an author summarizes other works), it may take some adjustment to get used to the quotations and, possibly, to not knowing some of the persons quoted.
For the next few days, take a moment and remember that you are not the Savior of the world. Furthermore, you’re not a superhero because superheroes wouldn’t need a Savior. You’re a person going forth, with the help of the Spirit, to share the good news of great joy! You are not alone. You will not fail.
And if that doesn’t bring you joy, consider this: For about 1900 years, Christians have debated the Virgin Birth, but accepted the idea that a woman who was 40 weeks pregnant rode 100 miles on a donkey.
Share your joyous Christmas memories in the comments!
Martin, James, SJ. Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of Spiritual Life. HarperCollins, NY, NY: September 2011. All quotations taken from the EPub Edition.
Copy purchased for review.