My faculty have impish ways. One is jovial, spouting sarcasms and light-hearted ribbing. Another is a clandestine wit whose laugh-line missiles cause a 2 second delay in explosive glee. Still another lies in wait for the listener to fall into his word traps, a sly smile then dawning on his face. We spend half our time in meetings, laughing. I love it. What joy, then, to read Between Heaven and Mirth! One knows a book will be good by how many smiley faces are applied! James Martin knows how much The Church needs levity and he encourages the purpose of lightheartedness throughout the pages.
Laughter helps to lighten the load we carry. “Humor is a path to an open acceptance of reality” (162) is a statement that resonates with me! Life is messy, hard, difficult, and dangerous. Depending on the circumstances, laughter helps to defray the high cost of hardship in the life of another. A jolt of levity breaks Icelandic conversations or the logjam of disagreements. Over and over Martin opens his humor file (he must have one!) to prescribe the medicine of delight to those in need. Martin does not sidestep the difficulty of asking “Do I have to be happy all the time?” or “Where do I find joy in the midst of sadness?” A spiritual mentor, Martin gives cool water for the desert heat of life. Sometimes the awfulness of a circumstance can be tempered by the hilarity of hyperbole: don’t miss the roach story in the chapter “My Life Stinks” (185).
But for the Christian, Martin’s intended audience, we are reminded of textual situations in Scripture which focus on joy. As a Catholic priest, Martin’s ecumenical approach asks a wide array of scholars what they think of certain sections of The Bible. The rabbi, for one, will tell Martin that The Old Testament is “earthy” (which is quite an understatement!). The New Testament researcher will show how much the English reader misses in Jesus’ parables if they are not careful. Historical theologians—ancient and modern—center on a theology of humanity; our laughter, is tied to the human nature of Christ. Catholic and Protestant, Episcopalian and Baptist, or Calvinists and Arminians will all find ways to laugh at themselves. Not taking ourselves too seriously would be a key component to Martin’s approach.
During Advent, it would be good to rehearse Mary’s joy. The Greek term in Luke 1 suggests such excessive gladness that words are linked with actions. Dancing, shouting, and leaping for joy is linked with the joy of salvation (Is 61.10; 65.19; 66:14; Acts 2.26). Joy is caused by our hope in Christ (1 The 2.19). Exultation marks response to Scripture (Ps 119.162). Joy-soaked-salvation brings a cheerful response in serving and giving (Rom 12.8; 2 Co 9.7). The community joins the individual to rejoice over honor bestowed (1 Co 12.26). The Hebrews used a word meaning “circle in around” indicating human exuberance over creation, a wedding, or a father delighted in his son (Ps 118.24; Ps 45.15; Pro 23.25). Ultimately the strength of connection to the character of God as the basis for humor, His presence (30), is Martin’s underlying purpose.
Humor can shock and sneak. Isaiah 44:6-20 suggest the hilarious condition of the idolater fashioning his totem out of a tree while cooking his dinner from the fire of the same wood. Isaiah’s question? What happens if he burns the wrong half?! In this sense, Martin amplifies cultural knowledge as necessary for every joke. Martin encourages that the threads of humor be pulled from the fabric of the text. How often, for instance, have we said, “God must have a sense of humor”? That The Almighty might not find anything funny strikes against the Hebraic-Christian view of imago dei. If we bear the mark of our Maker why would we doubt our funny bone?!
Affective (mindset) directives are derived from happiness in chapter four. Self-deprecation is as important in humor as it is in a humble life. Humor pin-pops pomposity: hot air needs to be exploded. Medicinal benefits ought not be dismissed. Researchers confirm that calories are burned during laughter as much as distemper is limited by our guffaws. If nothing else, Martin’s work could serve as a joke book for a sermon series on joy. Each page is packed with the banter of a friend, sharing a few moments of conviviality. The last two chapters study the book of 1 Thessalonians focused on the command to “rejoice always” and how prayer life could be enlivened by our commitment to feel the pleasure of God. What was quite beneficial was Martin’s connection to books in the text which deal with the issues of laughter, both theological and purely pedestrian. In that way it was good to see Elton Trueblood’s The Humor of Christ mentioned. The reference list is chuck-full of further books on the subject. Martin’s commitment to a non-academic approach to the theme allows him to identify reading that will take those interested to another level.
One could wish for a bit broader approach at times. While mentioning lament forms in The Psalms Martin could have accessed the time honored Jewish tradition of galgenhumor: “gallows humor.” Further, it was a bit distressing that a priest would have relied upon Webster’s Dictionary for definitions of biblical concepts (see above for a corrective). But Martin did identify base line differences between pagan and Christian views of happiness versus joy (25-26). Martin’s connection to story after story was also a boon. So often story gets to the heart of a funny situation; jokes are not always necessary.
I might be put off by the obnoxious joking of some but not with Mike. We mercilessly tease each other whether by text or in person. I’m not sure why that happens except that laughter for us is the cement of our friendship. Not unlike married couples who “poke fun at each other’s foibles” representing an “act of love” (112), friends too enjoy life’s amusement. Whatever the state of one’s relationship with another, Between Heaven and Mirth would go a long way to discourage frowns. I cannot imagine the next life without the intentional goodness of this one, laughter included. And if we’re not good at increasing the level of levity, James Martin points us in the right direction.
Mark often plays straight man at faculty meetings. Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life by James Martin, Harper One, 2011 (proof copy). Reviewed by Mark Eckel, Dean, Undergraduate Studies, Crossroads Bible College, Indianapolis.