Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life by James Martin, SJ

Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life by James Martin, SJ

Date Published: October 4, 2011
ISBN: 978-0062024268
Publisher: Harper One
Pages: 272
Genre: Non-Fiction, Spirituality
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Book Summary: In Between Heaven and Mirth, James Martin, SJ, assures us that God wants us to experience joy, to cultivate a sense of holy humor, and to laugh at life’s absurdities—not to mention our own humanity. Father Martin invites believers to rediscover the importance of humor and laughter in our daily lives and to embrace an essential truth: faith leads to joy.

Holy people are joyful people, says Father Martin, offering countless examples of healthy humor and purposeful levity in the stories of biblical heroes and heroines, and in the lives of the saints and the world’s great spiritual masters. He shows us how the parables are often the stuff of comedy, and how the gospels reveal Jesus to be a man with a palpable sense of joy and even playfulness. In fact, Father Martin argues compellingly, thinking about a Jesus without a sense of humor may be close to heretical.

Drawing on Scripture, sharing anecdotes from his experiences as a lifelong Catholic, a Jesuit for over twenty years, and a priest for more than ten, and including amusing and insightful sidebars, footnotes, and jokes, Father Martin illustrates how joy, humor, and laughter help us to live more spiritual lives, understand ourselves and others better, and more fully appreciate God’s presence among us. Practical how-to advice helps us use humor to show our faith, embrace our humanity, put things into perspective, open our minds, speak truth, demonstrate courage, challenge power, learn hospitality, foster effective human relations, deepen our relationship with God, and ... enjoy ourselves. Inviting God to lighten our hearts, we can enjoy a little heaven on earth.

My Thoughts: I was raised in a strict religious Roman Catholic home. My family attended mass every Sunday and every holy day. I went to a parochial grammar school and a Catholic girls private high school. My religious education didn't include the virtues of humor, laughter or joy. My religion classes studied Bible passages and psalms but joy was never specifically discussed. My overall impression as a child was of a stern God with an emphasis on punishment. The priests I knew as a child were more serious . Sure they smiled and laughed but they didn't humor and joy in their lessons about the Bible or God. Not surprisingly, my mother and grandmother frowned on even the most innocent jokes that included any religious figure such as a priest or monk.

I attended a Jesuit college and the priests I met there had wonderful senses of humor and laughed frequently. I'm not very religious, unlike my family. I don't regularly attend church and some of that has to do with life experiences but it's mostly because of my early exposure to religion which, frankly, left a sour taste in my mouth. I've always felt that joy and celebration is a part of religion and God and my childhood religious education should have included discussions about joy and humor. I've never read any books on religion, religious education or Bible interpretation but when I read the book summary for Between Heaven and Mirth I knew I wanted to read this book. I wasn't familiar with Father James Martin before reading this book but, after reading it, I believe had he or a priest like him taught some of my religion classes when I was growing up, I would feel differently about Catholicism.

Between Heaven and Mirth is written in an easy, enjoyable manner that feels as if you're having a captivating exchange or conversation with Father Martin. The first few chapters veer a little bit like a lecture but Father Martin manages to keep his discussion of humor, laughter and joy in scripture light and interesting as he explains why and how these virtues can and should be a part of our religious beliefs. He tells us "they are the heart of that life." Father Martin compares humor, laughter and joy in secular life and in religious life, finding humor and laughter, which can be good and bad, very similar in both . Father Martin believes they should only be discouraged when they are mocking and hurtful. So long as they are used in a positive manner, humor and laughter should be considered gifts from God. He then tells us about joy, an extensive concept that flows through every aspect of the religious life and is considered a result of one's deep connection to God. Father Martin's discussion focuses on joy and his examination of it in scripture and life is truly thrilling and exciting!

Father Martin doesn't belabor his points or write with a heaven hand. He makes his points easy to understand as he explains how, in both the Old and New Testaments, humor may have received it's negative connotation in religion, often illustrating them with a story or personal anecdote make these ideas more understandable. His explanations make sense ultimately providing us with a new perspective from which to view humor in religious reading. Father Martin explains, for example, how at the time the scripture and psalms were written what people considered funny and humorous was different than it is today. When we read the scriptures and psalms in this new light, the humor with which they are written becomes apparent.

Father Martin clearly is not advocating we all walk around with stupid grins cracking jokes. There are going to be times when we are upset, worried and mourning in life. But he wants us to remember that just as there's a time to mourn and grieve, "there is a time to laugh". In a wonderful chapter "Happiness Attracts", Father Martin provides '11 and a half' specific reasons for laughter in the spiritual life because humor not only helps to lighten sad situations, it can deepen our spiritual life. Some of these examples are as simple as the idea that joy, humor and laughter show our faith in God and 'Humor is fun'.. In many of these examples, Father Martin draws us in by sharing personal stories from his own life to emphasize his point. Many of these concepts are one we are familiar with from secular life such as 'Humor is healing' similar to the idea that laughter is the best medicine and 'Humor is a tool for humility', reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously. These are great reminders and lessons for all of us, even those not very religious, because they're reminders of how to live a good, enjoyable life. Father Martin's last example is a 'half' because is not completely spiritual: 'Humor is practical' and, as an example he uses a very funny story about how humor helped his father's cousin Bernie get out of a speeding ticket thereby humor saved him money!

One of the chapters I enjoyed the most in Between Heaven and Mirth is one in which Father Martin 
clearly evidences his understanding that humor, laughter and joy isn't easy for everybody. Sometimes it doesn't feel like it fits in your life. Father Martin speaks to groups of people frequently and relays answers he's given to several significant questions about incorporating humor laughter and joy in our loves, particularly during trying and sad times. He realizes life is complicated and our emotional response can be equally complicated. Father Martin remarks on how ridiculous is the idea that you must be cheerful all of the time in order to demonstrate a belief in God. He also addresses the belief, in some practices, that illness and disease is a result of a person's failure to think positively. Father Martin quotes Barbara Ehrenreich who calls this idea "monstrous". Father Martin differentiates these examples with those of the person who constantly whines and complains. In a rather funny discussion, he points out that for attention-seeking people like the latter it comes down to choosing positive thoughts and gratitude over constant carping.

Father Martin has written an entertaining and interesting book that people of all different beliefs, religious or not, would enjoy, particularly those interested in living a more joyful, humor-filled life. Father Martin details, over several pages, how to bring more humor into your life including advising us on "reading author's who highlight life's comic-side such as Bill Bryson".  Father Martin also explains how humor, laughter and joy are very much part of a well-rounded spiritual life in a way that, I believe, would be interesting to anyone, particularly his explanation of humor in scripture and the Bible passages.  It's Father Martin's varied background and life experience that makes him such a credible and captivating source for the knowledge and beliefs he shares with us in Between Heaven and Mirth. He attended the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and worked for General Electric for several years prior to entering the Jesuit society and  then, years later, being ordained as a priest. He has appeared on The Colbert Report several times to discuss various issues and in 2009 Stephen Colbert promoted him to "The Colbert Report chaplain." Father Martin is also a member of the LAByrinth Theater Company and has written or edited more than 10 books. I highly recommend Between Heaven and Mirth.

Father Martin's website and blog, America and his Facebook page

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review Between Heaven and Mirth and to Harper One for a copy of Between Heaven and Mirth.


  1. This sounds wonderful … and I wish more religious folks would read this. Laughter is a blessed thing … and should be encouraged always!

  2. Amy, this review caught my interest even though I don't generally read books about religion or spirituality. I have to say the cover and infused humor has me curious. Terrific review.

  3. This does sound wonderful - and I love that cover! My husband spent his whole education in Catholic schools - I might get this for him for Christmas!

  4. I think at the heart of God is joy and laughter, so I would love to read this book that seems to validate this theory. It sounds like a great read, and it makes me happy just to know it's out there! Great review today!

  5. Sounds like a great book. My daughter goes to Catholic school and my husband works for our parish, and the priests we've come to know have always had a delightful sense of humor, even during Mass.

  6. I knew a priest as a child who had this kind of sense of humor, and who was also one of the kindest, most personable people I've ever known. If only all the priests I knew were like that!

    I'm glad that this book improved your view of Catholicism, if only a little. :) Thanks for being on the tour.