Monday, January 30, 2012

“Excessive Levity”: Review of James Martin’s “Between Heaven and Mirth”


A book that promotes joy—and humor—without offering steps to simply “think positively” and wait for results of unfettered, constant happiness.

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Image credit: LeVan Fisher Design & Anita Kunz. Courtesy of HarperOne

Jesuit priest and best-selling author James Martin (“My Life with the Saints”) instead makes the argument in his latest “Between Heaven and Mirth” (HarperOne), that “God seems to be in favor of excessive levity.” Martin makes his case in a way that provides readers with real advice that allows them to be human. This includes allowing them to feel the whole gamut of human emotions: grumpiness, silliness, uncontrollable laughter, and downright clinical depression. (For the latter, Martin does not shy away from advising the counsel of a trained professional.)
In this fun book chock full of things to learn and passages to underline, Martin takes readers on a ride of exegesis and jokes likely to be enjoyed by Catholics, Protestants, and the nonreligious alike.
Citing big names in the church world and such secular notables as Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Bryson throughout, Martin wryly quips that religious stuffiness is “not just a Catholic problem” and addresses the lack of a “Protestant play ethic.”

Readers will leave “Between Heaven” with insight into why the church seems so gloomy and with a debunked myth that the saints were a grumpy lot. St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, used to break into spontaneous dance. One example of the saints’ sense of humor that gives pause is the story of St. Lawrence, a martyr who was burned to death over hot coals. During his execution he said, “This side is done. Turn me over and have a bite.”

Additionally, readers will look differently at biblical parables after reading Martin’s book. Whereas habituated Christians today are likely to go straight for the serious moral takeaway in a Scripture passage, their original audiences probably found humor in the stories’ hyperbole. Jesus’ mention of a camel through the eye of a needle, while meant to teach a real lesson, also probably caused listeners to laugh.

Martin makes clear that he is not advocating for mindless, maniacal happiness to simply brave life’s downer seasons. Yet he does makes a case for the truth to such clichés as having an “attitude of gratitude,” an idea recently explored in The New York Times.

With a stance similar to that of “Jollytologist” and therapeutic humor expert Allen Klein (“Learning to Laugh When You Feel Like Crying”), Martin adds God to the discussion of joy in one’s life. While focusing primarily on the Christian faith and Scriptures _ and noting this bias upfront _ Martin also looks at such faiths as Judaism, Buddhism, and Sufism.

Martin takes plenty of time to characterize particular nuances of humor and joy. He explains to readers the difference between healthy sarcasm among loving friends and jokes that are hurtful. Further, he makes very clear the distinction between deep sorrow and tragedy and making the choice to focus on the negative in an otherwise healthy, comfortable, and OK life.

If these descriptions make Martin’s book sound like one of cheesy advice, it’s certainly not. Martin brings his immense scholarship and natural charisma to the page to entertain and educate readers, but to first and foremost be real with them.

If perhaps just 10 pages too long, the rest of this book is an interesting, jovial delight for all kinds of readers eager to learn and laugh.

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