The Jesuit Jester

By Cathleen Falsani 11-16-2011
Between Heaven and Mirth by the Rev. James Martin
Between Heaven and Mirth by the Rev. James Martin

For years, I've called the Rev. Jim Martin, author of the new book Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, "my favorite Jesuit."

I'm certainly not alone in my fondness for Martin and his wry spirituality.

Stephen Colbert is so enamored of the exceptionally clever cleric's wit and wisdom that he made Martin the official chaplain of the Colbert Nation. (Click HERE to see some of Father Jim's past appearances on "The Colbert Report.")

Martin, culture editor of America magazine and a prolific writer whose previous books include My Life With the Saints, A Jesuit Off-Broadway and last year's The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, has an uncommon gift for making faith — and even religion —  accessible,  genuinely hip and if not fun, exactly, at least enjoyable.

"Jesus was human, so he laughed," Martin told Colbert in an appearance on the Report earlier this month, "He also shows a sense of humor in his parables and a lot of the stories he tells, the problem is we don't get some of the jokes because we're far removed from first-century Palestine," and so we miss some of the irony.

For instance, Jesus' story in Matthew 7 about removing the "plank" from your own eye before taking "speck" out of someone else's, would have been, according to one biblical scholar, "hilarious" in his day 2,000 years ago, Martin said, adding, "but I know it kind of falls flat in 21st-century America."

Jesus also showed his "playfulness" in giving his disciples nicknames. Take brothers James and John in Mark 3:17, where Jesus calls the brothers boanerges, which means "sons of thunder."

It could have been a critique of the brothers' personalities, Martin said, "about being kind of loud-mouths," but it also might have been a "playful way of talking about their mother," who was known for being kind of ... pushy. (In Matthew 20, she asks Jesus to promise that her boys would be seated at his right- and left-hand in the Eternal Kingdom.)

The Bible is loaded with humor, Martin insists, you just have to know where to look for it — even in Hebrew scriptures. The story of Abraham and Sarah is loaded with laughs, the told Colbert.

When the elderly couple hears that they're going to have a baby, the book of Genesis says that Abraham "fell on his face laughing," and that when Sarah overhear's it, she gets the giggles, too, Martin explained. When their child is born, Abraham and Sarah named him Isaac, which means "he laughs" in Hebrew.

"So you could say that three great monotheistic religions began with 'a laugh,'"  Martin said.

"Wow," Colbert responded, quickly adding, "They don't giggle much together, though."

Kim Lawton of the PBS program "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" recently caught up with Father Jim when he spoke at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. earlier this fall, and managed to persuade the Jesuit jester to tell some of his favorite (religious) jokes.

Martin's comic timing is divine. (Oy, with the puns! I know. I just couldn't help myself.)



Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. She is the author of several books, including The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers and her new release, BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @godgrrl.


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