James Martin: Faith leads to joy

Despite the pervasiveness of serious, somber Christianity, the heart of the gospel message is joy -- so laugh, says the Jesuit priest and author of a new book on religion and humor.

Theologically, spiritually and practically, humor is an important and all-too-often-missing attribute in church life today, says the Rev. James Martin, author of “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.”

“Humor serves some important purposes,” he said. “First, it can remind you of your poverty of spirit. Laughing at yourself reminds you that you are a human being reliant on God just like anybody else.”

For leaders, humor is essential, Martin said, “particularly in the religious world, where we all tend to think that we alone are doing God’s work.”

“We feel drawn to religious leaders with a sense of humor. It shows us that they understand their essential poverty of spirit and their own reliance on God. It shows humility, which is also essential in the spiritual life. You take God seriously, Jesus seriously and the gospel seriously, but you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously.”

A Jesuit priest, Martin is culture editor of the national Catholic magazine America and the author of several books, including “My Life with the Saints” and “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.” A frequent guest on “The Colbert Report,” he is also the “official chaplain” to the Colbert Nation.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership about religion, humor and his latest book, “Between Heaven and Mirth,” released last week. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Why a book on religion and humor? Don’t you know that religion is serious stuff?

Yes, it’s shocking isn’t it? Too many people think that religion is all about being serious. I wanted to remind people that faith leads to joy. On the first Easter, for example, the disciples were joyful. The Christian message -- life is stronger than death, hope stronger than despair and love stronger than hatred -- is one of joy. Christ has risen, and that’s good news.

Life can’t be sweetness all the time, and everybody has some suffering, but the realization that Christ has risen, that God is with us, is ultimately a joyful message. We’ve lost sight of that. So much of our theology focuses on the Passion and death of Jesus -- which is obviously important -- that we tend to overlook the joyful parts of the Gospels.

Q: You maintain that the Gospels are filled with humor and that Jesus had an extraordinary sense of humor. How so?

First, anyone who told clever parables and made funny asides must have had a good sense of humor. If we believe that Jesus is fully human, as our theology tells us, then that means he had a sense of humor. You cannot be fully human without a sense of humor. That’s a robot, not a human being.

Second, there are residues of Jesus’ humor in the Gospels. One of my favorite passages is the story of Nathaniel, from the Gospel of John. When Nathaniel hears that the Messiah is from Nazareth, he says, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” It’s a funny remark about what a backwater town Nazareth was.

Now, what does Jesus do? The dour, grumpy, depressed Jesus of our imagination would be expected to say, “Make not fun of the poor town of Nazareth.” Or, “It will go worse for you, Nathaniel, on the day of judgment than Sodom and Gomorrah.” Does he say that?

No. He says, “Now, there’s an Israelite without guile.” In other words, “There’s a person I can trust.” And he invites him to join the apostles.

That shows us three things. First, Nathaniel had a sense of humor. Second, Jesus had a sense of humor, enough to appreciate a funny remark so much that he invites Nathaniel to join his group. Three, St. John had enough of a sense of humor to want to preserve that story.

There are also the parables, whose humor we tend to miss. Scripture scholars say that because humor is time-bound and culture-bound, we don’t get some of the jokes.

Take the parable of the talents: a talent is the equivalent of 15 years of wages; it’s a ridiculous amount. Or the idea that someone would have a plank in his eye. Some of these stories are funny and would most likely have struck people at the time as hilarious. But because we’re so removed, we don’t see the humor.

Q: Do you think Jesus’ followers laughed when they heard those stories?

They probably did. If he’s an itinerant preacher wandering around Galilee trying to get people’s attention, a little humor goes a long way. Some of the parables have this sense of playfulness. The problem, scholars say, is that because of the mores of the day, some of the humor was probably leached out by those who wrote the Gospels. So we have to work hard to recover it.

Q: Do you think Pope Benedict XVI has a sense of humor?

I’ll quote you something that Pope Benedict wrote, which I included in my book:

“I believe God has a great sense of humor. Sometimes he gives you something like a nudge and says, Don’t take yourself so seriously! Humor is in fact an essential element in the mirth of creation. We can see how, in many matters in our lives, God wants to prod us into taking things a bit more lightly; to see the funny side of it; to get down off our pedestal and not to forget our sense of fun.”

Q: In the book, you say several popes were funny.

My avatar for holy humor is Pope John XXIII, whose most famous joke came when a journalist asked him, “How many people work in the Vatican?” and he said, “About half.”

Another time, he was at a dinner party, and a woman was seated across from him wearing a low-cut dress, and his secretary turned to him and said, “What a scandal. That woman -- everyone’s looking at her.”

“No one’s looking at her,” John said. “Everyone’s looking at me to see if I’m looking at her.”

There’s a guy who could laugh at himself.

We feel drawn to religious leaders with a sense of humor. It shows us that they understand their essential poverty of spirit and their own reliance on God. It shows humility, which is also essential in the spiritual life. You take God seriously, Jesus seriously and the gospel seriously, but you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously.

Q: We also think of the saints with utmost seriousness, but here too you say many had a great sense of humor.

The saints were often very funny people. Look at St. Teresa of Avila. The most well-known story about her was when she was knocked off her horse and fell into the mud and hurt herself. And she says to God, “Why are you treating me like this?”

The answer she hears in prayer is, “This is how I treat my friends.” And she says, “Well, that’s why you have so few of them.”

St. Philip Neri was known as the “Humorous Saint.” He went around Rome with half his beard shaved just to make people laugh and to remind them not to take themselves so seriously.

Not all the saints were laugh riots, but most had healthy senses of humor. They understood their own foibles and knew their place in the world. They knew they weren’t God, and they knew they weren’t the Messiah.

Why do we tend to think the saints were so serious? Because if we think that Jesus was always serious, then the saints also had to be serious. But that not only removes them from the human realm; it also lets us off the hook, and we say, “Well, we couldn’t possibly be like them.”

Q: You make the point in your book “My Life with the Saints” that these were very human people.

Exactly, and it’s the same with Jesus. There was a famous 14th-century manuscript, “Vita Christi” (“The Life of Christ”), by Ludolph of Saxony, that quoted a supposedly eyewitness description of Jesus: “He sometimes weeps but never laughs.”

Serious religion is pervasive. The early church had to grapple with the question of why Jesus had to suffer and die, so all the Gospels take up the question of the Passion. So almost half of the Gospel of John is about the Passion. But remember, that’s only a couple of weeks in Jesus’ life. He had 33 years before that, and if he had one to three years of ministry, much of it was about doing joyful things: going to wedding parties, healing people, raising people from the dead.

One of his images of himself, in fact, is the bridegroom at a party -- a joyful image. We tend to overlook these things, unfortunately. We focus only on the suffering, which is to our detriment.

Q: “He sometimes weeps but never laughs” -- this is not a guy who would draw such huge crowds.

People who are naturally attractive, someone like Pope John Paul II, have a good sense of humor. Who wants to be around a grumpy person or a group of miserable people? The disciples must have been cheerful.

Q: You say in the book that you’ve known many joyful Protestants. Maybe the grass is always greener, but I always thought Catholics have this rich humor and joy.

Not as much in our services, that’s for sure. Not in Mass very frequently. I generally find more smiles at Protestant services than I do at Catholic Masses. I just do. I don’t know why, though I offer some arguments for that in the book.

It may be a certain degree of egalitarianism. The minister in the Protestant world is not potentially as authoritarian a figure as in the Catholic world. Protestants might know your minister a little better. You know his wife and his children, and that humanizes them. I know plenty of funny Protestants, and there are plenty of funny Catholics, too. But you’re right -- the grass is always greener on the other side of the sanctuary.

Q: There’s a “Simpsons” episode where Lisa goes undercover in a convent to get Maggie back, and the nuns in the day care are singing, “If you’re happy and you know it, that’s a sin.”

Guess what? That’s a Protestant song. There’s another episode where there’s a Catholic heaven and a Protestant heaven, and the Catholic heaven is joyful and the Protestant heaven is full of people looking quiet. Joylessness is an interfaith attribute.

Look how many pictures show Jesus or the saints smiling. Very few. The only two pictures I know of Jesus smiling are “Jesus Laughing” and “The Risen Christ by the Sea.”

People often make fun of them. They are not high art, but I think one reason people make fun is because it’s a shocking image. Why? Why wouldn’t he have laughed? Why wouldn’t he have enjoyed life?

It’s shocking because we have been conditioned to think of Jesus as morose. I hope when I get to heaven that Jesus doesn’t welcome me with a frown. Yet when you see pictures of Jesus smiling, they’re dismissed as saccharine or kitschy. Interesting, isn’t it?

Some scholars I approached when I was working on this book scratched their heads. The ones I quote warmed to the task, but some didn’t really understand the question at first: “What do you mean, ‘Is there humor in the Gospels?’ The Gospels don’t have humor.”

Many of the New Testament scholars with whom I spoke said there are several reasons we think that. First, we don’t understand the humor, so we miss it. Second, we’ve heard the stories so many times that they cease to be funny. Third, some of the stories about Jesus’ humor were probably taken out, because the writers wanted to present him as a wisdom figure, as a wise sage.

But even in the Old Testament, there’s tons of humor. Look at the book of Jonah. It’s hysterical. The other great story is Abraham and Sarah, where Sarah laughs and Abraham laughs. There’s a great line, “Abraham fell on his face laughing.” And they named their son “Isaac,” which means, “He laughed.” There at the beginning of the three great monotheistic religions is laughter. Why do we forget that?

Q: A bishop once told me that he never realized how funny he was until he became a bishop. People always laugh at the boss’s joke. But isn’t humor essential for leadership?

That’s like the line about Pharaoh in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”: “If he cracked a joke, then you chortled for days.”

Yeah, there is that danger, but the bigger danger is taking yourself too seriously. A good leader understands that he is not God. As my spiritual director likes to say, “The good news is that there is a Messiah. The better news is that it’s not you.”

Humor serves some important purposes. First, it can remind you of your poverty of spirit. Laughing at yourself reminds you that you are a human being reliant on God just like anybody else. You’ll get sick. You’ll die. You’ll be judged. You make mistakes. You are not perfect. You rely on God. You are a contingent being.

Humor also puts people at their ease. It’s good for social relations. Humor is essential for leaders, particularly in the religious world, where we all tend to think that we alone are doing God’s work.

Q: Is religious humor inherently self-deprecatory?

It has to be. If it mocks somebody else, it’s sinful. There is humor that builds up and humor that tears down. Even in the Gospels, there’s bad humor, as when the centurions mocked Jesus as “King of the Jews.” That’s a joke, but ironically, the joke was on them.

The humor that Jesus uses is playful. Think of the story of having a plank in your eye or the story of Caesar’s coin. They’re funny.

One scholar pointed out the humor in the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac. The demons’ name is “Legion,” which, of course, is a joke about the Roman legions. And the demons go into pigs and rush down a hill, and then the townspeople are mad. The Gospels have humorous stories because life has humor, and Jesus truly encountered all of it.

Q: You’re the “official chaplain” of “The Colbert Report” and are a frequent guest on the show. You clearly have a sense of humor, but on the show you tend to be Colbert’s straight man. Is that tough?

When you’re on Colbert, they tell you not to try to out-funny him, and I know better than to try to out-funny a professional comedian. So I just try to be myself, and I enjoy it immensely. He’s very funny. He’s also a very religious guy.

Q: He’s probably one of the best, most compelling representatives of Catholicism today.

He is. Have you seen his Catholic throwdown with Jack White? It’s hysterical. That’s a great tool for evangelization. Notice what he’s doing. As St. Ignatius of Loyola said, he’s going in your door and coming out his door, meaning he’s going in the door of humor and he’s coming out the door of evangelization.

It’s a postmodern form of evangelization. He probably reaches more people with his Catholicism than I do in a year of homilies.

Q: But beneath his humor, there is an anger that I assume comes out of Catholic social justice.

Oh, yeah. When he appeared before Congress and talked about the poor, it was riveting.

And on his show, he’s using irony and satire, which Jesus did. It’s very much of a piece with the Gospels.

The thing is, people listen. If you are telling a boring, depressed, miserable story, no one will listen. But good news should put a smile on your face, and too many theologians have unfortunately overlooked this.

When’s the last theology book you read that brought a smile to your face? Why is that? As the saying goes, “When you’re deadly serious, you’re probably seriously dead.”

Q: As you write in the book -- and as Colbert illustrates -- laughter can be subversive, can’t it?

Yes. Joy -- collective joy, especially -- can be a threat. Those in authority have always been afraid of humor, because it pokes fun, and as a result, it’s a threat. So it tends to be tamped down. Some of the response of the political and religious leaders to Jesus may have been in response to his humor.

That Gospel story of Caesar’s coin, can you imagine him saying that? That is very funny. “Oh yeah? Well then, give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” You can imagine the crowd laughing.

They were trying to trap him, and he slips out of the trap with humor. You can imagine people laughing, which may not have gone over so well. I don’t think the Romans had a sense of humor.