Can Religion Be Joyful?

Back in my public junior high school choir, one of the songs even us snarky kids loved was an adaptation of Psalm 100. It was really rousing, and decades later I can still remember how much fun it was to not only sing "Make a joyful noise" but to also do that, and how exciting it was at the end to return to "come before his presence with singing, with singing, with singing." As our voices went up the scale and soared, it was a moment of transcendence.

Though we would never have put it that way. We were just goofing around, having fun. And anyone getting serious about the class or the music would probably have been mocked and fake-punched in the shoulder.

I loved to sing. I was happy to be part of a group, safe from bullying, free of classes that either bored me (English) or stumped me (Chemistry). And free of worrying about zits and my parents and fighting with my brother and that whole stinking stale bouquet of teenage angst that's only gotten worse with Twitter and texting.

Of course, the words I sung in that song were just notes and phonemes, and what I felt through and in them had nothing to do with religion. Those words were no more real than "Hit the Road, Jack," or any of the other tunes we listened to on our transistor radios with their leatherette covers and hand straps. Pretty and maybe even fun, but remote.

In my own religion, I associated joy mostly with Jewish holidays letting me off from school. I certainly never heard any of my Jewish friends express anything positive about going to synagogue -- it was something their parents made them do.

I also never heard any of my non-Jewish friends talk about being happy to go to church. That was an obligation, too. If anyone had told me joy could be intrinsic to worship of all kinds, I wouldn't have believed it then, though I've found much joy in learning about and observing Judaism when I began exploring it deeply in my late 20s.

Watching preachers on TV, which I did sometimes as a kid out of morbid curiosity, I remember faces and voices that were anything from doleful to angry. As Tom Wright puts it in "Luke for Everyone," "Much that has called itself by the name of Jesus seems to have believed instead in a gloomy God ... whose only concern is to make life difficult."

That's why I was so fascinated when a friend pointed me to James Martin's entertaining, humorous new book, "Between Heaven and Mirth." Martin tackles a major split that speaks to this whole question: There's so much joy expressed in the psalms and throughout the Bible, yet much contemporary worship, especially in the Catholic church (but not only there), seems anywhere from dour to grim.

With a hearty smattering of jokes, some at his own expense, Martin makes the case that joy is more than words. It's a central part of worship -- or should be -- and many figures in many different religions have urged this message. Martin's reach across the religious aisle and makes this a book for all kinds of readers. He weaves together stories from various faiths and utilizes his own fascinating biography to illuminate the subject. Even if you're phobic about organized religion, his book will still be worth reading because Martin is such a wonderful raconteur. It's truly a joy to read him.

My interview with James Martin has been published on, where this blog originally appeared.