Take 5, With James Martin, S.J.

Author of “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life”

Father MartinFr. Martin, who is the official chaplain for Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” sat down with USF Magazine during a visit to campus earlier in the year. Photo by Edward Carpenter.

1. In the book, you write that in some religious circles, there’s a belief that faith and a sense of humor are incompatible. Where did that belief come from?

I think in Christian circles it comes from a belief that Jesus was primarily a man of sorrows. One of the reasons is that the Gospel spends so much time on the passion, death, and resurrection because they had to explain to their readers why Jesus had to have been crucified. That big part of the Gospel tends to overshadow the more joyful parts. … What I’m trying to do is restore a little balance.

2. You also point out that the Bible is actually, at times, funny. Where are some of those humorous moments, and why are they often lost on contemporary readers?

The one I always point to is the story of Nathaniel in the Gospel of John. Nathaniel is sitting around, and two of the disciples of Jesus come by and say, “We have found the Messiah. He is Jesus of Nazareth.” Nathaniel says, “Can anything good come of Nazareth?” That’s a little bit of a dig at Nazareth, which was a backwater. … It’s like a joke [we’ve] heard over and over that we just sort of pass over and forget that it’s funny. So, the first reason is that we’re too familiar with the stories. The second reason is that we don’t understand some of the humor of first-century Palestine because we’re 21st-century Americans, and humor is very culture– and time–bound.

3. What is the difference between a secular and a religious understanding of joy?

The secular idea of joy, if you look at dictionary usages or just common usages, would be an intensified happiness; joy as in “I’m really happy,” “I’m blissful,” or “I’m elated.” But in a religious context, joy is really about a relationship with God. Joy is happiness in God. That’s why people can actually maintain a sense of joy even though they’re in difficult situations. They might not be happy, but they still have that kind of Christian joy.

4. What would you say to someone who is struggling to find a sense of joy in the face of sadness or injustice?

It’s natural to be sad from time to time; you would be a robot if you weren’t sad. Even Jesus Christ wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. So the idea that if you’re Christian or if you believe in God you’ll never have sadness is kind of false. So that’s the first thing—not to feel guilty about it, that you’re some sort of bad person or don’t have enough faith. I think, though, part of it is expressing your emotions to God, being honest with God in prayer about what you feel. But if you’re always sad and always negative, it may be a case of trying to look for things in your life that give you gratitude. So grounding yourself in gratitude, which is a very big Jesuit and Ignatian idea, sometimes jumpstarts people and can move them out of their sadness.

5. What do you read, watch, or do when you need a good laugh?

I find TV shows funny a lot of times. I find “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” pretty funny. I read funny authors like David Sedaris, Fran Lebowitz, Jean Shepherd, and people like that. But mostly my friends make me laugh. Just looking at life’s absurdities, laughing at myself, and hanging out with funny people is a good way of regaining your sense of balance.

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