The Lighter Side Of A Spiritual Life

Father James Martin believes there may be a levity deficit in religious life. Host Scott Simon speaks with Martin, associate editor of America Magazine, about the importance of humor in a religious lifestyle, and when that humor can go too far.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, Mapping Main Street, America. But first, we want to turn to Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, an associate editor for America magazine, who's finishing up a book about humor and the spiritual life called "Excessive Levity." Father Martin believes that there are actually maybe a levity deficit in religious life.

He joins us from recording studios at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Father James, thanks very much for being with us again.

Father JAMES MARTIN (Associate Editor, America Magazine): My pleasure.

SIMON: And how do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Father MARTIN: Practice, practice, practice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I knew I couldn't throw you.

Father MARTIN: Someone, you know, someone actually asked me that on the street corner a few years ago. And I used that line and they looked a little dumbfounded. I don't think they knew the joke.

SIMON: You wrote an essay on this topic recently, which attempts to ask really an age-old question, which is: did Jesus laugh?

Father MARTIN: Well, yeah. And I think we are so used to thinking about the passion and Jesus suffering that we forget that he must have laughed. And, you know, he was somebody who told clever stories and parables. And so it would be very unusual if he didn't laugh. And also there still are some traces in the Gospels of his sense of humor, I think.

SIMON: Can you give us a for-instance?

Father MARTIN: Well, sure. There's a wonderful story in one of the Gospels that talks about Nathaniel. And Nathaniel is sitting under a tree and someone says, There's the Messiah, he is from Nazareth. And Nathaniel says, Can anything good come from Nazareth? Which is a bit of a diss on, you know, Jesus's hometown. And, you know, rather than castigating him, Jesus says, Now, there's a guy, you know, without deceit, there's someone I can trust. And he welcomes him into his band of disciples.

So I think it's an indication that Jesus not only was humorous but appreciated someone else with a sense of humor.

SIMON: So I was not familiar with that. That Nazareth remark is very much like a Cleveland joke, isn't it?

Father MARTIN: Well, it is. You know, can anything good come from Cleveland - nothing against Cleveland.

SIMON: Why do you believe that humor has to be an important component of spiritual life?

Father MARTIN: I think because it's an important component of being a healthy human being and having a healthy emotional life. I think we tend to take ourselves too seriously in the religious world. There's the expression, the frozen chosen. There's also the expression, if you're deadly serious about religion, you're probably seriously dead.

I think it really leads ultimately to humility, to a sense of the absurdity of the human condition, of the silliness sometimes of what we do. And, you know, especially for religious leaders, you know, who tend to get puffed up, I think humor can serve to bring them back down to Earth.

SIMON: I want to draw you out on something more serious that I read about in your magazine recently, where you like The New Yorker magazine, like -specifically love humor in The New Yorker magazine, but not just in The New Yorker - you noted some instances in popular intelligencia culture - if I might refer to it that way - that has to your mind some stains of anti-Catholicism.

Father MARTIN: Yeah, now, I think it's important to keep it seriously. It's not as grave as anti-Semitism or racism or homophobia. But you know, there are traces of anti-Catholicism in our - in the United States. And it pops up from time to time.

There was a piece in "The New Yorker" by Paul Rudnick, a writer who I really like, who was writing about his experience writing the movie "Sister Act." And it was really over the top, I mean the kind of things that he said about sisters. He compared one of them to monkey. And it's just - I found it pretty anti-Catholic. And I think the kinds of things he was saying about sisters would never be tolerated for any religious - other religious organization or any other group.

SIMON: Now, you know, people will overhear a conversation and say, well, that's just what the church gets when local diocese have to bankrupt themselves to pay off some of these suits. They've got to expect some anti-clerical humor.

Father MARTIN: Yeah, but I mean I don't think that makes a lot of sense, because you're basically stereotyping a whole group. I mean it would be like saying, you know, just because there are sexual abuse scandals that you should make fun of nuns and call them monkeys. I mean they had nothing to do with the sexual abuse scandals.

And I think what happens is that we're so used to anti-Catholicism in the United States because we're in a largely Protestant culture, that it really gets a pass from some people who - you know, once again, were it sort of directed to any other group would be up in arms.

SIMON: Father James Martin, associate editor of America magazine and author of several books, including "My Life with the Saints."

Always nice to talk to you. Thank you.

Father MARTIN: My pleasure.

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