Father James Martin’s Sublime Silliness

Need a break from the ongoing religious wars? Of course you do.  Father James Martin can help. He’s official chaplain to The Colbert Report, culture editor for the national Catholic magazine Americaand bestselling author, mostly recently, of  Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.  Buddha-killer Becky Garrison got to sit down with Fr. Martin to talk humor, evangelism, and the ministry of Monty Python. —KtBniks

Becky: Why do you say laughter is a great gift from God?

Fr. Martin: I think it’s important to recover a sense of a Jesus with a real sense of joy, which is really the fundamental message of the Good News. For example, Jesus’s parables show a great sense of humor, irony and even wit. The problem is that we’re so far away from them—they’re from a different culture and a different time—that we don’t get a lot of the inherent humor.

What are the challenges of serving as the chaplain for The Colbert Report?

The main challenge is not to laugh too much when I’m on the show! It’s a very enjoyable “ministry,” and I like going on the show. The staff and the crew are a lot of fun, too. Plus, it’s a great way to evangelize, since it’s right where the church should be: I can speak to people that I would never reach during a Mass.

How do you see Between Heaven and Mirth as a tool for evangelization?

I hope it reminds people that joy leads to faith. And that even religious people need to be invited not to take themselves not too seriously.

Speaking of taking oneself too seriously, why do you think religion keeps coming up in election years?

One of the reasons that religion is brought up again, in this 2012 Presidential election, is that it’s being used as a weapon against people. Who’s a Mormon? Who’s not a “good Christian?” Who is not a “serious Catholic?” Religion should be a lens through which you come to understand somebody. Knowing that Mitt Romney is a Mormon is not a reason to condemn him; it’s a way to understand him.

In this book you out yourself as a major Monty Python Fan. Why is Monty Python and the Holy Grail your favorite movie?

It’s a great mash-up of a surprisingly erudite presentation of the legend of King Arthur with sublime silliness. There’s just something about Graham Chapman’s elevated speech colliding with these moments of silliness that can’t be beat. In the new book I talk about the meeting between God and King Arthur, when God talks about how depressing he finds the psalms, which I think is hysterical.

What was your reaction then when Graham Chapman assumed the role of Brian in The Life of Brian? After all, this is a film that was condemned by the Catholic League… 

While I’m very amused by Life of Brian, I’m more of a Holy Grail guy. On a scale of 1 to 100, Holy Grail is 100 and Life of Brian is maybe 95. Most of Life of Brian, though, isn’t about Jesus. It’s about someone being mistaken for Jesus. So I think it’s perfectly legitimate to laugh at Brian. You’re not laughing at Jesus, you’re laughing at Brian. The only scene that bothers me is the crucifixion at the end. I found that cut a little too close to home. That was a little out there for me.

Picking up on this “out there” theme, how do you respond to those people who take Stephen Colbert seriously?

A lot of people ask me how I can go on TV with that “crazy person.”  Quite a few people don’t realize he’s playing a character. So you have to be careful of equating what his character says with what Stephen thinks. His character has to be completely over-the-top and provocative and sometimes offensive for the sake of satire. The real Stephen Colbert doesn’t approach his Catholicism the same way that the character does. But I wouldn’t want to say where one ends and the other one begins.

So how do you advise people who act like the character Colbert plays?

At one point Stephen Colbert said, “When you’re on the show, treat me like I’m an idiot.” So when I meet someone who is not particularly well versed in religion, I just have to be very patient with him or her. The more difficult thing is dealing with an intelligent person who is completely opposed to religion, to helping the poor or to the spiritual life, and is very aggressive about these beliefs. What I normally do in these situations is rely on my experience. I spent a couple of years in East Africa and can usually respond to what they say about the poor. Now, I’m not going to be able to convince someone of the existence of God: that’s something only experience can do. All I can do is be the best Christian I can be. The most attractive way of drawing people to God is just being holy, or as holy as you can be.

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).