It shouldn't but it does! We're so used to thinking of prayer as serious—not simply in the sense of serious-important but serious-somber—that your observation can seem shocking. The other day someone asked, "How am I supposed to be contemplative if I'm not serious?" And I thought that this was a fascinating question, because it revealed the person's conflation of contemplation with an overriding seriousness. So I said, "Well, have you ever contemplated God's creation on a beach or in a sunrise?"

When he nodded, I said, "And were you doing it with a frown on your face?" We both laughed!

There is, you say, both the "good" laughter, which is joyful, warm and self-aware, and then there is the "bad" laughter, which is ungenerous and involves laughing at others—mockery and jeering, and such. Is there an idea worth exploring here, of good laughter opening us up—physically, emotionally and spiritual—to good influences and bad laughter doing the opposite?

That's an interesting question. Good laughter definitely opens us up—physically (by releasing endorphins); emotionally (by lightening our spirits) and spiritually (but enabling us to share in a God-given gift). And yes, bad laughter would do something of the opposite—it closes us down to other people, it moves us further away from God and it belittles someone. It's sinful, I believe.

You write convincingly that, in the context of how Jesus would have been understood in his time, the New Testament suggests he displayed a sense of humor, that he did not hide it under a bushel. Can you give an example of that?

Scripture scholars have told me that the humorous elements of some of Jesus's parables and stories are largely lost on us, because we are so far removed from his time and culture. (And therefore may not "get" some of the humor.) One scholar said that he expected that people of the day found some of Jesus's stories "hilarious."

Just look at his image of having a plank of wood in your eye while criticizing someone with a speck of dust in theirs. It's a rather silly image, isn't it? Really over-the-top. I quote one author in the book who said that his four-year-old son once laughed uproariously when he first heard this. Which points to another reason we downplay Jesus's humor. Not only do we not "get" some of the humor; the humor that we do "get" we may have heard too often—like this story—and so have become rather deadened to the joke.

I've always thought of the exchange between Jesus and his mother to be something warmly humorous—Mary, like many of us mothers, seeing something that needs attending to and using the son at her disposal to see to it. Can you expand on how that might be seen in a humorous and yet spiritual way?

As we believe that Jesus was fully human (and divine) and Mary was human, as well as very open and loving people we must assume that they had a sense of humor. Not having a sense of humor would mean that they weren't human! And you can see some traces of this. (Why we don't see more traces is something I cover in the book.)

For example, there are two ways of reading the story of the Wedding at Cana, where Mary asks Jesus to help the crowd that has run out of wine. Jesus says, "Woman, what business is this of yours?" And Mary says to the steward "Do whatever he tells you." Her comments are usually said in very somber tones. Often it's used as an indication of Mary's desire for us to follow Jesus, which is true of course.