Book Review: James Martin’s Between Heaven and Mirth

Often known as “the Colbert priest” – he’s appeared multiple times on the now-ended Comedy Central show The Colbert Report – James Martin is a Jesuit priest who often attempts to bridge the gap between the church and popular culture.  Between Heaven and Mirth, his 2011 book on humor, God, and Christianity, rests well in that space: it’s an extended meditation on the place and purpose of humor in Christianity written in such a way that it’s accessible to both believers and non-believers.

The great strength of this book comes, for me, in that it provides the two things I was hoping it would: a) an exploration of Jesus, the Bible, and humor, and b) an exploration of what “Christian” humor looks like, what its purpose is, and how it differs from the world’s.

As a Christian I am convinced that Jesus has a wonderful sense of humor and undoubtedly spent some of His time here laughing (Martin is, too), but have always been mildly disconcerted by how absent humor seems to be in some ways from the Bible – and discouraged by the endlessly somber representations of Christ that I seem to encounter in Christian culture.  Martin comes at this issue from several ways – first by discussing the presence and style of Jewish humor in the Old Testament and in Christ’s parables that modern believers might simply miss, and then by explaining why the Gospel writers might have excised humorous bits here and there from the Scriptural account.  If you have trouble seeing any of the humor in Scripture, then this part of the book will help give you a better set of eyes and a stronger appreciation for it as well as for what, precisely, the Gospel writers were trying to accomplish with their accounts.

Beyond that, Martin is also interested in studying the usefulness of humor and the purpose of humor from a distinctly Christian perspective.  While he points out that humor should never be used to harm or to mock others, he muses on how it is a sharp tool for deflating our arrogance and sense of superiority when we are willing to turn it on ourselves.  In that way, he explains, humor can sometimes inoculate us against the self-righteousness that Christians in particular can be prone to.  (And Martin himself is a grand model of this, more than willing to poke fun at himself and his own foibles throughout the text in a way that renders him accessible and humble to the reader.)  More than that, he writes, humor can be healing, and – in an extended meditation on the nature of Christian joy – the evidence of a joyful spirit.  While he makes it clear that not every Christian is going to “get” jokes or even like them, and while he acknowledges that a good sense of humor is not a prerequisite for faith, he demonstrates that humor can certainly be one of God’s great gifts to believers.

Perhaps most amusingly, Martin includes a treasure trove of jokes throughout, both within his text in amusing anecdotes and also in sidebars along the way.  Not only do these jokes illustrate the points he is making, they provide a very real opportunity for believers to laugh together: sometimes at themselves, and sometimes just for the joy of laughing.  I found myself tucking a lot of these stories away for further reference in teaching sessions and even blog posts – some of them are just that funny, or that touching.

Martin writes the book from a distinctly Christian perspective, and his focus is on humor in the Christian faith – however, throughout the book, he draws on examples from other religions and speaks to followers of other religions to illustrate some of his points.  If that turns you off for whatever reason, then you might want to avoid this text, but I found it to be his way of providing an “entry point” for others into a deeper understanding of a particularly Christian perspective by calling out commonalities with other religions where he sees them.    Additionally, if you’re a Protestant wary of reading a book written by  a Jesuit, don’t be.  There’s plenty for you here; though Martin is a priest, he can make “the frozen chosen” jokes with the best of us and references a lot of Protestant thinkers and pastors, too.

All in all, this book was a positive for me.  While I was already familiar with the Christian definition of joy and generally have always viewed humor as a gift from God, the book provided a lot of thought-provoking material for me. Having read it, I can go back to the Bible with a new appreciation of some of the wryly humorous (and absurdly humorous!) scenes therein, and I can continue forward in my confidence that Jesus, fully God and fully man, undoubtedly had a sense of humor – and that He likely laughed often.  More than that, it’s simply comforting to read a book that reminds believers that humor is not antithetical to their faith, but rather a bubbling-up from a spirit of great joy and great hope.





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