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There is a lot to like about James Martin’s latest book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. Aside from the amusing anecdotes and laugh-out-loud funny jokes (often ones that fry his own Society of Jesus, to his clear delight), Martin makes a fine intellectual, scriptural, and spiritual endorsement of G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” A faith grounded in gratitude and a wider perspective, we understand, can create a solid tarmac from which we may soar.

That’s easier than it sounds, of course, and Chesterton knew it—the fully delicious and playful quote comes from his profound masterwork Orthodoxy, and reads, “. . . solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”

And gravity, as we know, is the law.

Lately I have noticed in some of my acquaintances the development of a very grave and solemn habit, indeed—a tendency to expect niceness in everyone they meet, particularly in professed Christians. When exposed to someone’s overwhelming urge to snark at politicians, headlines, celebrity-sham-marriages, and overplayed cards of indignation—all sound targets deserving a bit of cathartic scorn—these folks turn their heads away and, with a heavy sigh and choked tone, wonder why, oh why, can’t we all just get along?

Snark, they insist, is pointless, lacks charity and tears at the body of Christ. To be a good Christian, in their book, one must be nice.

Well, I concur, to a point; if one is pleasant, kind, generous, interested, or helpful, one may generally be characterized as exhibiting “nice” behavior, and whether the effort is natural or self-conscious, that courts virtue. So does holding one’s tongue in charity, so as not to unduly wound or promote gossip. But does a tossed-off snark of exasperation really warrant the nitpicking of the niceniks? Does Christianity demand “niceness?”

In Martin’s book, he recounts Nathaniel in the Gospel of John, who is encouraged by his friends to come meet the one “about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.”

Nathaniel snarks, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

The niceniks would be all over that. What a mean thing to say about someone he didn’t even know! What a hurtful remark to the people who live in Nazareth!

Depending on one’s leanings, that uncharitable snob, Nathaniel, was either an elitist one percenter or an aloof ninety-nine percenter, but either way, he wasn’t nice!

And yet, Martin found the humor in the question, and declares that the early church for whom the Gospel was written might have chuckled knowingly, as well. Nathaniel’s snark was human and useful and as ironic as a prophecy that a King would be born in Bethlehem, of all places.

Moreover, Jesus didn’t seem to mind the question, or find Nathaniel’s demeanor too uncharitable for his company. Calling the scene “the clearest indication that [Jesus] had a sense of humor,” Martin writes, “Nathaniel’s humor doesn’t bother Jesus at all. In fact, it seems to delight him. ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ says Jesus. In other words, here is someone I can trust.”

Jesus, it seemed, preferred someone who would speak a slightly edgy truth over someone who would be “nice,” but dishonest. Being himself All Truth, dishonesty in the guise of niceness could not serve him.

In fact, Jesus said many things that probably make our modern niceniks squirm in the pews: “Let the dead bury the dead!” (But Jesus, how dismissive!); “I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother . . . ” (You’re so divisive!); “Shake the dust from your feet as a testimony against them!” (Hater!); “Get thee behind me, Satan,” (Jesus! Peter was just trying to be nice!).

But Jesus did not want Peter’s niceness; he wanted Peter’s self-awareness, that he was not nice. Jesus’ prophecy of his denials insured that Peter would, finally, see his wretchedness and so be humbled, the better to be rebuilt in Christ.

The truth is not always pleasant; it is often scalding. In Nathaniel, Jesus saw someone willing to acknowledge what was true, even if it exposed him as imperfect-in-love—as are we all.

If, as is generally agreed, there is freedom in naming a thing for what it is, then there can only be oppression in refusing to do so, all for the sake of being nice. Chiding others for daring to say (with lamentable levity) what many others are thinking is not a productive means of promoting truth or of serving Christ, in whom is our freedom. Quite the opposite; it serves only to shut down those realties that make us uncomfortable, or shake our illusions or stab at our worldviews.

In which case a sanctimonious “shush, be nice,”—far from being an admonishment to charity—equates only to “shut up,” delivered sometimes from the mouths of those who think they’re too nice to ever say something that rude, and often from the self-knowing tyrants who just want you to believe it.

Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.


James Martin, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life

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