Between Heaven and Mirth
A priest walks into a bar ...
Whoops, old habit. Let’s start that again.
Ahem. A priest in walks into an office—the study of a respected spiritual leader. Mike, a priest known for his sense of humor, is burdened by his behavior in Mass earlier in the day: He had been unable to stop laughing at something that seemed endlessly hilarious. And now he is looking to unload his guilt to his leader.
“Father,” Mike says. “I confess excessive levity.”
The elderly leader, known for his serious nature, glowers, pauses, and then says this: “All levity is excessive!”
This anecdote opens James Martin’s Between Heaven and Mirth, a study of levity in the spiritual life. Through personal anecdotes, stories of biblical characters, insights from famous spiritual leaders and actual jokes, Martin calls believers to reclaim joy, humor and laughter as the spiritual gifts they were designed to be.
From first to final chapter, readers can tell they are in the hands of a reverential funnyman—a witty spiritual leader who jokes and teases, but who also laments and confesses. I now understand the wide appeal of this Jesuit priest, who has been crowned “unofficial chaplain” of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report and has also authored books on saints and modern theological heavyweights such as Merton and Bonhoeffer.
Naturally, Martin often pulls from his own Catholic tradition to highlight harmful attitudes toward humor in spirituality. However, he also uses several examples from other Christian traditions, as well as a few from other religions. By doing so, he emphasizes that a lack of levity is a nondenominational and even interfaith problem. In each of these spheres, one encounters individuals who believe lightheartedness is immature, irresponsible and even immoral.
Martin wisely offers definitions of joy, humor and laughter before moving into their role in the religious life. They are interconnected, of course—a “trio of gifts,” as Martin calls them—but do differ even in their common, secular definitions. Joy, for example, is a state, while humor is a quality or attribute. Laughter, meanwhile, is an expression or response to either of these. From a spiritual vantage point, joy holds the most depth, because “it is always about a relationship. Joy has an object and that object is God.”
This distinction of joy highlights Martin’s central argument: that true joy allows itself to be expressed in laughter and humor. And what so puzzles and saddens him is that those who claim to be in relationship with a loving, joy-giving God often act so … dour.
By consistently including both modern and classic views on humor, Martin prevents readers from blaming believers of a certain time period for taking lightheartedness out of the spiritual life. He shares sentiments from curmudgeonly early church leaders and saints (e.g. Saint Basil’s warning that Christians “ought not to laugh or even suffer laugh makers”). Alongside these cranky legacies, though, are examples of ancient spiritual leaders who lived with boisterous and brave joy—such as Saint Lawrence, a martyr who famously cracked a joke while being roasted alive.
In past and present, there have been believers who have gotten the gift of levity wrong and believers who have managed to get it right, reveals Martin. Whose testimonies bear better witness to the God being served? He does not have to tell you; you easily see it.
So, how do we do the hard work of reconciling good humor with faith? Martin’s language is not of creating levity—as if it’s something we must make up ourselves—but of recovering and cultivating what has already been given us.
One of Martin’s most practical and fascinating prescriptions is revisiting Scripture with a sense of humor. Most readers will likely be surprised by the ancient humor we modern Christians can especially miss.
With an eye for joy, Martin reflects at length on the ridiculous stubbornness of the Old Testament prophet Jonah. He describes his “favorite story of biblical laughter”—that of three holy visitors telling Sarah and Abraham they were to have a child in their old age. He devotes whole chapters to the theme of joy in Psalm 65 and 1 Thessalonians, artfully blending his own witty insights with the thoughts of other scholars.
Martin also embraces “the comic Christ”—a Savior with a fully developed sense of humor. This Jesus told parables using intentionally absurd illustrations (a plank in an eye, a camel through a needle) that likely had His original audience chuckling. This Jesus who may very well have been playfully remarking on Simon’s angular personality when He renamed him Peter, which means “rocky.” This Jesus wept, yes—but Martin has no doubt that He also laughed.
If I were to describe this book to a friend, I might first pull from the chapter called “Happiness Attracts,” as I believe it best sums up Martin’s philosophy. This chapter helped me come up with my own "four H’s” to explain Martin’s philosophy: hospitality, humility, hope and holiness. As I read beyond this chapter, these words lingered helpfully in my mind as the virtues of a more mirthful spiritual life. Joy, laughter and humor are to be tools that help us welcome (and witness to) others, humble ourselves, stay hopeful in a sin-twisted world and experience a holy God as fully as we can on Earth.
Between Heaven and Mirth should attract a wide readership precisely because Martin’s approach encapsulates these ”four H’s.” His writing style, both whimsical and wise, welcomes. He humbles himself by sharing vocational moments of grumpy and prideful ill humor. And, most crucially, Martin always ties joy back to its source: resurrection hope.
Martin’s book is not radical or controversial in nature; it has a "preaching to the choir" quality to it, as I suspect most of its readers will already be appreciators of humor in faith. It is also repetitive in theme, vocabulary and structure. For me, these were not true problems, though.
I believe the book’s repetitive quality enhances Martin’s message, as it allows him to move from historical stories and academic quotes to casual anecdotes and jokes with ease. I also appreciate that Martin addresses seemingly joyless people of faith in a spirit of invitation. It is not his intent to merely rouse guilt in them and leave them there, condemned. Instead, I hear him calling them back into the fold of playful reverence, where joy, humor and laughter are no longer excessive but essential for a healthy spiritual life.
Here is an entertaining study that shows us good humor is hard work—yet also assures us it is holy work. Here is an enlightening read reminding us that we do not have to choose between heaven and mirth as if it is an either/or. It recognizes Ecclesiastes' refrain of “a time to weep and a time to laugh.”
Here is a book you will wish Mike could walk back into that office with, a smile on his face.