The ‘Unspeakable’ One Year Later

Posted in America Magazine, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Boston_Marathon_Explosions1_t607It’s difficult to believe that it has been a year since the Boston Marathon bombing. I’m not sure how the rest of the country relates to the event, but living in Boston both during those days last year and now it seems like this is something that remains a constant specter haunting the city. During these last few weeks we have been accompanied by hundreds of stories in the media about the event, about the loss of life, about those whose lives have been directly and painfully affected by the attacks, about what the future holds for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, about what it all means.

Yet, meaning and sense do not always come easily in difficult and tragic circumstances such as these. Is there meaning and sense in the thoughtless slaughter of children in Connecticut? Is there meaning and sense in the terrorist attack in an African mall? Is there meaning and sense in the big and little ways that women and men are daily afflicted by suffering and fear?

Sometimes there are no words to articulate the experience and no meaning that can explain such tragedy. Rather than  offer any attempt to articulate or explain, I thought I might just share an essay I wrote last year in response to the events in Boston we remember this week. We continue to pray for those whose lives were taken, for those who struggle daily to move forward, and for those who afflicted such senseless and needless pain and suffering on others.

The Unspeakable: The Boston Marathon and the Beginning of Christian Hope

There some events we encounter in life for which there is simply no language to describe adequately our experience or words capable of consoling the afflicted. The events last month at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and the siege of the city four days later might rightly fall into this category. Images of the explosions, biographies of the victims and interviews with the witnesses circulated through cyberspace, on television and in print with hypnotizing rapidity and emotion-dulling saturation, only increasing the overwhelming experience of those days. As a resident of Boston, my memory of that week in April will forever be marked by the surreal nature of a scene that seemed closer to an action movie than to the reality playing out in my backyard.

In the initial silence of that Monday afternoon, as confusion ensued and victims were treated, I thought of the renowned
spiritual writer, social activist and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He had a term that seemed to capture this event: the
Unspeakable. There are times when we encounter something so terrible and terrifying, the experience pushes us to the edges of the effable. Such experiences of sin and violence in our world are concrete encounters with the Unspeakable. Merton explains, in part, what he means in his 1966 book Raids on the Unspeakable:

It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said…. It is the emptiness of “the end.” Not necessarily the end of the world, but a theological point of no return, a climax of absolute finality in refusal, in equivocation, in disorder, in absurdity, which can be broken open again to truth only by miracle, by the coming of God…for Christian hope begins where every other hope stands frozen stiff before the face of the Unspeakable.

The Unspeakable is neither a word of comfort nor a greeting of consolation. It is a moniker that is challenging and indicting. It names a reality that most people would rather forget. James Douglass, in his book JFK and the Unspeakable, describes Merton’s concept of the Unspeakable as “a kind of systemic evil that defies speech.” However, it is not simply the object of our fear or an enemy from outside. Douglass continues: “The Unspeakable is not far away. It is not somewhere out there, identical with a government that became foreign to us. The emptiness of the void, the vacuum of responsibility and compassion, is in ourselves.”
To confront the Unspeakable requires that we face the ways we too are always already complicit in a culture of violence present in our world. This does not mean that individuals are exonerated from the particular and egregious acts of violence they commit, but it does mean that to look into the void of the Unspeakable involves looking into the mirror of our own participation in systems of violence.

Our Culture of Violence

One temptation we encounter in the face of violence like the events at the Boston Marathon or in Newtown, Conn., is to objectify the source of the violence and place it as an evil in opposition to the rest of us. This happens frequently, for example, in the use of the phrase “culture of death” (which originally comes from Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae”). There is a sense in which a Christian might claim to be “for life” and therefore make the “culture of death” an exterior enemy to be fought.

Merton’s approach to evil, sin and violence in the world is more nuanced. To begin, we might realize that “death” is not the most opportune word and recall that death is a natural part of life. Talk about a “culture of death,” while the intention is good and the meaning important, could be taken to suggest that death in itself is a bad thing. St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, has a different take on this. In his “Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis praises God for the gift of “sister bodily death,” whom all living creatures will inevitably encounter. As a people of the Resurrection, we also believe that Jesus Christ has “put an end to death” (2 Tm 1:10) and that death does not have the last word. Death should not be feared in itself.

But violence, unlike death, is not a natural part of life. Violence is made manifest in little and big ways, in words and actions, in things seen and unseen. Merton’s concept of the Unspeakable captures the significance of this reality in two key ways. First, violence is not something that is ascribable only to individuals who commit evil acts, like murder and terror. In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton describes how we are often quick to blame others and acquit ourselves.

When we see crime in others, we try to correct it by destroying them or at least putting them out of sight. It is easy to identify sin with the sinner when he is someone other than our own self.

In ourselves, it is the other way round; we see the sin, but we have great difficulty in shouldering responsibility for it. We find it very hard to identify our sin with our own will and our own malice.

It is difficult to accept that all of us are somehow implicated in the finitude and sinfulness of humanity. Merton writes that “we tend unconsciously to ease ourselves still more of the burden of guilt that is in us, by passing it on to somebody else.”

Here we have the second insight about the Unspeakable, which arises from the realization that we are also sinners and participants in an unnecessary culture of violence. What makes the Unspeakable unspeakable is the masking over and avoidance of this reality in which we too are always already a part. Unlike common conceptions of the “culture of death,” which is an outside enemy to be fought, a “culture of violence” exists in the language, presuppositions, behaviors and attitudes of a population. This is what is hidden, what is reflected back to us when we are forced to look into the void or face of the Unspeakable.

Michael Cohen, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, wrote a sobering piece the day after the bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been apprehended and his brother, Tamerlan, killed. He asked pointed questions that shine an uncomfortable light on a society that, in the same week, can shut down a major metropolitan city because of one suspect on the loose, yet fail to pass federal legislation to mandate criminal background checks for gun sales, a reform supported by nearly 90 percent of the population. He asked, with all due respect and sympathy to the dead and maimed in the Boston attack, how a society in which more than 30,000 deaths are caused by gun violence annually could react so drastically to the specter of terrorism when, in the past year, 17 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks.

Cohen’s concluding comments echo Merton’s concern:

It is a surreal and difficult-to-explain dynamic. Americans seemingly place an inordinate fear on violence that is random and unexplainable and can be blamed on “others”—jihadists, terrorists, evil-doers, etc. But the lurking dangers all around us—the guns, our unhealthy diets, the workplaces that kill 14 Americans every single day—these are just accepted as part of life, the price of freedom, if you will.

Part of what makes the culture of violence Unspeakable is our strong desire not to face the reality of our complicity in perpetuating injustice through our economic choices, attitudes, language, behaviors, lifestyles, biases, support (or lack thereof ) of legislation and so on.

It is a lot more comforting to blame the “other”— whether a “terrorist” or an amorphous “culture of death”— than it is to accept our individual and collective roles in perpetuating our unspeakable culture of violence.

The Beginning of Christian Hope

On the day of the attack in Boston, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., archbishop of Boston, wrote: “In the midst of the darkness of this tragedy we turn to the light of Jesus Christ, the light that was evident in the lives of people who immediately turned to help those in need today.” There are times—for example, when those who might otherwise run away from danger out of fear run toward others to provide care and assistance—when signs of Christian hope displace the behaviors and attitudes of the culture of violence. Christian hope is not a belief in a far-off utopia that will come from outside. It is a description of God’s presence in the world now, when, like Jesus, we love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, embrace the marginalized and forgotten and heal the broken and broken-hearted.

Christian hope is a hope that withstands the challenge as it appears to us when we look into the void of the Unspeakable and realize that we can do something about violence in our world and live a different way. It is a hope that proclaims through the incarnate Word of God that what was once ineffable in the Unspeakable can be named and overcome, but it also requires our honest admission of “what we have done and what we have failed to do.” Only then do we confront the culture of violence that we would rather forget.

The Unspeakable culture of violence extends far beyond the city borders of Boston and Newtown. It is perhaps more acutely seen in the communities of Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and in places largely unknown to us. There the experience of the Unspeakable witnessed on a sunny Boston afternoon is an everyday reality: Marketplaces, buses, houses of worship, elementary schools and neighborhoods are all affected by the terror of violence and fear that we in the United States cannot begin to imagine.

In his essay “Letter to an Innocent Bystander,” Merton challenges us with a truth that undergirds the perpetuation of an Unspeakable culture of violence on the local, national and world stage: “A witness of a crime, who just stands by and makes a mental note of the fact that he is an innocent bystander, tends by that very fact to become an accomplice.”

Merton’s challenge for us in Boston and around the world is to overcome the fear that leads us to claim innocence while scapegoating the “other,” to embrace the Gospel and become more human in compassion and to look into the void of the Unspeakable so as to accept our complicity in the continuation of a culture of violence in so many little and big ways. Then we might be able move on to speak and live the word of Christian hope that begins there in the face of the Unspeakable.

This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2013 issue of America magazine.

Photo: Wire

Thomas Merton Conference at St. Bonaventure

Posted in Thomas Merton with tags , , , , , on April 11, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

merton-conferenceThere are only a few days remaining to take advantage of the discounted ‘early bird’ registration for the summer conference on Thomas Merton at St. Bonaventure University (prices go up after April 15). The conference, titled “Merton as Model and Mirror: Coming Home and Going Forth,” is scheduled to take place from June 19-22 and “will celebrate the relationship between St. Bonaventure University and Merton in anticipation of Merton’s 100th birthday in 2015.” This is one of the first of what will likely be many varying celebrations around the United States and world commemorating the Merton Centenary in 2015.

There are many reasons why you should consider coming to this conference, especially if you live in New York, PA, Ohio, or Ontario, Canada, for whom it would be just a couple hours by car. For starters, St. Bonaventure University was the last place that Merton lived and worked — he taught in the English department there before entering the monastery — and it is a place where his discernment to religious life blossomed into what would become his true vocation. SBU in June is absolutely breathtaking, located in Western New York amid the Allegheny Mountains and beside the river. Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and his journals from this time portray his experience walking the campus thinking, working, praying, and discerning. Also, there are opportunities to go out and actually visit the cabin in which he, Robert Lax, and their friends spent two summers writing, talking, drinking, and the like — you’ve likely read about the importance of that place in The Seven Storey Mountain too. You can follow in his footsteps. All this having only to do with the campus itself!

Additionally, and I’m of course biased here, there is a whole host of amazing speakers lined up. For the keynote addresses you have some very familiar names:

    • Dom John Eudes Bamberger, O.C.S.O., Fourth Abbot of the Abbey of Genesee;
    • Christine Bochen, Ph.D., professor of religious studies and the William H. Shannon Chair in Catholic Studies at Nazareth College;
    • Fr. Daniel Horan, O.F.M.,  America magazine columnist, author, St. Bonaventure alumnus, and doctoral student in systematic theology at Boston College ;
    • Michael Higgins, Ph.D., professor of religious studies and vice president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University.

There will also be a number of excellent ‘break out’ or ‘concurrent’ sessions that include some other important folks from the world of Merton scholarship.

For a little overview of Merton’s time in Western New York and its significance, take a look at a 2013 feature article in The Buffalo NewsShadow of a Soul: Thomas Merton’s Spiritual Path Wound Through Bonaventure Campus.”

Check it out and consider coming, it will be a Merton experience of a lifetime! Visit: http://sbu.edu/about-sbu/news-events/events/thomas-merton-conference

Pope Francis on the Idolatry and Dictatorship of Limited Thought

Posted in Pope Francis, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 10, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Pope Francis Visits SardiniaIt’s been a while since I’ve last posted here, my speaking schedule has had me on the road and even out of the country to deliver an invited lecture in recent weeks — I’ll be in Washington, DC, tomorrow to speak at the Franciscan Mission Service annual banquet as well. This has made it difficult to keep up with posting here at DatingGod.org, but I hope to be able to return to the new degree of regularity very soon.

For starters, I want to draw your attention to Pope Francis’s homily today. In his remarks, he reflected on the idolatry and dictatorship of closed minds and hearts. “This is the drama of the closed heart, the drama of the closed mind and when the heart is closed, this heart closes the mind , and when the heart and mind are closed there is no place for God.” 

He was referring to the way in which some of the religious leaders and even ostensibly faithful members of the community in Jesus’s time were unable to accept what God was doing in Christ Jesus, because their hearts were closed and therefore their ability to conceive of what the Spirit was doing was made impossible. This, too, is a real threat and challenge for us today as it has always been for women and men, even those of faith. Instead of having hearts and minds that are open to God and to the the world, we can become entrenched in our own ideas and ways of thinking, limited in the ways we might hear God and calcified in our own positions, opinions, and views.

Pope Francis explains that this way of being closed,

It is a closed way of thinking that is not open to dialogue, to the possibility that there is something else, the possibility that God speaks to us, tells us about His journey, as he did to the prophets. These people did not listen to the prophets and did not listen to Jesus. It is something greater than a mere stubbornness. No, it is more: it is the idolatry of their own way of thinking. ‘I think this, it has to be this way, and nothing more’. These people had a narrow line of thought and wanted to impose this way of thinking on the people of God, Jesus rebukes them for this: ‘ You burden the people with many commandments and you do not touch them with your finger’

On the international level this is a call for people to be aware of neocolonial behaviors and expansionism. The ways in which more-powerful and more-wealthy nations commandeer other nations and peoples with the exportation of ideology and ways of thinking and behaving is a real threat to the human community, rich in diversity and through whom God can reveal all sorts of truth and wisdom.

Often rulers say : ‘I have asked for aid, financial support for this’ , ‘ But if you want this help, you have to think in this way and you have to pass this law, and this other law and this other law…’ Even today there is a dictatorship of a narrow line of thought and this dictatorship is the same as these people: it takes up stones to stone the freedom of the people, the freedom of the people, their freedom of conscience, the relationship of the people with God. Today Jesus is Crucified once again.

Yet, this is not only the case on the macrocosmic level, but a reality for individuals. I, like all people, struggle at times with wanting to impose my ideas and ways of thinking on others. Perhaps you are like me, too. Do you struggle with keeping mind and heart open to how God might be speaking to you through the ideas, cultures, and experiences of others? How might we be like the close-minded people in Jesus’s time who refused to hear his word, to recognize his mission, and who sought to put the Son of God to death? Do we attempt, in order to secure our own way of doing and thinking about things, to kill the worldviews and ideas of others?

Photo: Pool

FMS World Care Annual Benefit and Celebration

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality with tags , , , , , on March 21, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

FMS_Image2014Every Spring, Franciscan Mission Service (FMS), a wonderful organization that provides training and support for lay missioners who serve from two to six years in various Franciscan placements around the world — e.g., Bolivia, South Africa, Zambia, and Kenya — hosts a fundraiser and celebration. The World Care annual benefit and celebration takes place in Washington, DC, and is set this year for 7:00pm on Friday April 11, 2014. Each year FMS honors a person who has demonstrated leadership in social justice, global transformation, and modeled the priorities of FMS. This year the honoree is Jack Jezreel, the founder of JustFaith Ministries. FMS also invites a keynote speaker to offer a reflection on the theme of that year’s event. The theme happens to be “Profoundly Changed: New Disciples for Peace, Justice, and Hope,” and the speaker is me.

It is an honor to be invited to be the keynote speaker at this event and humbling given the tremendous good work that FMS does at home and abroad. For those in the Washington, DC, area, I encourage you to consider coming to the benefit and celebration on April 11 or help out FMS in any way you are able. You can visit the website via the links above to learn more.

John D. Caputo Interview with New York Times

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 12, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

JohnCaputoThere is an interesting discussion posted on the website of the New York Times between John D. Caputo and Gary Gutting titled “Deconstructing God.” Longtime readers of DatingGod.org will know of my appreciation for and interest in the work of Caputo in the field of continental philosophy of religion. Whether you are a fan of Deconstruction or not, whether you’re a fan of Caputo or not, these interviews with him are always interesting and worth considering. Here’s an excerpt from the discussion, you can visit the NYT website to read it in its entirety.

Gary Gutting: You approach religion through Jacques Derrida’s notion of deconstruction, which involves questioning and undermining the sorts of sharp distinctions traditionally so important for philosophy. What, then, do you think of the distinction between theism, atheism and agnosticism?

John Caputo: I would begin with a plea not to force deconstruction into one of these boxes. I consider these competing views as beliefs, creedal positions, that are inside our head by virtue of an accident of birth. There are the people who “believe” things from the religious traditions they’ve inherited; there are the people who deny them (the atheism you get is pegged to the god under denial); and there are the people who say, “Who could possibly know anything about all of that?” To that I oppose an underlying form of life, not the beliefs inside our head but the desires inside our heart, an underlying faith, a desire beyond desire, a hope against hope, something which these inherited beliefs contain without being able to contain.

If you cease to “believe” in a particular religious creed, like Calvinism or Catholicism, you have changed your mind and adopted a new position, for which you will require new propositions. Imagine a debate in which a theist and an atheist actually convince each other. Then they trade positions and their lives go on. But if you lose “faith,” in the sense this word is used in deconstruction, everything is lost. You have lost your faith in life, lost hope in the future, lost heart, and you cannot go on.

G.G.: I’m having some trouble with your use of “deconstruction.” On the one hand, it seems to be a matter of undermining sharp distinctions, like that between atheism and theism. On the other hand, your own analysis seems to introduce a sharp distinction between beliefs and ways of life — even though beliefs are surely part of religious ways of life.

J.C.: After making a distinction in deconstruction, the first thing to do is to deconstruct it, to show that it leaks, that its terms are porous and intersecting, one side bleeding into the other, these leaks being the most interesting thing of all about the distinction. I am distinguishing particular beliefs from an underlying faith and hope in life itself, which takes different forms in different places and traditions, by which the particular traditions are both inhabited and disturbed.

I agree they are both forms of life, but on different levels or strata. The particular beliefs are more local, more stabilized, more codified, while this underlying faith and hope in life is more restless, open-ended, disturbing, inchoate, unpredictable, destabilizing, less confinable.

G.G.: O.K., I guess you might say that all thinking involves making distinctions, but deconstructive thinking always turns on itself, using further distinctions to show how any given distinction is misleading. But using this sort of language leads to paradoxical claims as, for example, when you say, as you just did, that beliefs contain a faith that they can’t contain. Paradox is fine as long as we have some way of understanding that it’s not an outright contradiction. So why isn’t it a contradiction to say that there’s a faith that beliefs both contain and can’t contain?

J.C.: The traditions contain (in the sense of “possess”) these events, but they cannot contain (in the sense of “confine” or “limit”) them, hold them captive by building a wall of doctrine, administrative rule, orthodoxy, propositional rectitude around them.

G.G.: So the distinction that saves you from contradiction is this: Beliefs contain faith in the sense that, in the world, beliefs are where we find faith concretely expressed; but any given faith can be expressed by quite different beliefs in quite different historical contexts. In this sense, the faith is not contained by the beliefs. That makes sense.

Presumably, then, deconstructive theology is the effort to isolate this “common core” of faith that’s found in different historical periods — or maybe even the differing beliefs of different contemporary churches.

J.C.: No! I am not resurrecting the old comparative-religion thesis that there is an underlying transcendental form or essence or universal that we can cull from differing empirical religious beliefs, that can be approached only asymptotically by empirical cases. I am saying that the inherited religious traditions contain something deeper, which is why they are important. I don’t marginalize religious traditions; they are our indispensable inheritance. Without them, human experience would be impoverished, its horizon narrowed. We would be deprived of their resources, not know the name of Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the startling notion of the “kingdom of God,” the idea of the messianic and so on.

As a philosopher I am, of course, interested in what happens, but always in terms of what is going on in what happens. The particular religious traditions are what happen, and they are precious, but my interest lies in what is going on in these traditions, in the memory of Jesus, say. But different traditions contain different desires, promises, memories, dreams, futures, a different sense of time and space. Nothing says that underneath they are all the same.

G.G.: That doesn’t seem to me what typically goes on in deconstructive theology. The deconstructive analysis of any religious concept — the Christian Trinity, the Muslim oneness of God, Buddhist nirvana — always turns out to be the same: an endless play of mutually undermining differences.

J.C.: There is no such thing as deconstructive theology, in the singular, or “religion,” in the singular. There are only deconstructive versions of concrete religious traditions, inflections, repetitions, rereadings, reinventions, which open them up to a future for which they are not prepared, to dangerous memories of a past they try not to recall, since their tendency is to consolidate and to stabilize. Accordingly, you would always be able to detect the genealogy, reconstruct the line of descent, figure out the pedigree of a deconstructive theology. It would always bear the mark of the tradition it inflects.

A lot of the “Derrida and theology” work, for example, has been following the wrong scent, looking for links between Derrida’s ideas and Christian negative theology, while missing his irregular and heretical messianic Judaism. I like to joke that Derrida is a slightly atheistic quasi-Jewish Augustinian, but I am also serious…

Read the rest of the interview here: Deconstructing God.”

Photo: File

Thirsting for Lent

Posted in America Magazine with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Front image_drinking-waterThis column originally appeared in the March 17, 2014 issue of America magazine with the title “Thirsting for Lent.”

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—this Lenten trinity of practices has long been the foundation of our penitential season as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter. Many people will adopt new methods of prayer, engage in the spiritual practice of fasting and offer time and resources in the form of almsgiving. Each of these helps us to focus our attention on what we might otherwise overlook and challenges us to, as one option for the distribution of ashes puts it, “repent and believe in the Gospel” in increasingly attentive ways.

Even with Lent now underway, some people might still be looking for a way to connect better to their faith beyond the usual tradition of “giving something up.” I suggest that this year we might benefit from focusing our attention on something totally different, something often taken for granted: water.

With the short phrase “I thirst” (Jn 19:28) counted among the traditional seven last words of Jesus from the cross and proclaimed in the Passion account on Good Friday, it seems that we already have a reason to reconsider water as part of our Lenten practice of repenting and believing in the Gospel.

Too often this phrase has become “overly spiritualized.” It is perhaps too easy, too quick and neat to read this line symbolically as a reference to the waters of eternal life. There is a temptation here for us to ignore the real and powerful human suffering that comes with someone dying of dehydration and experiencing real, life-ending thirst. To over-spiritualize the Gospel and overlook the real suffering of human beings is a problem because the waters of eternal life may mean little for those who die waiting for the waters of basic earthly life.

In his book Seven Last Words, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., the former master general of the Dominican Order, makes the keen observation that “because our bodies are 98 percent water,” we might better view “dehydration [as] the seeping away of our very being, our substance. We feel that we ourselves are evaporating.” To die from lack of water is perhaps one of the most dehumanizing ways for a life to end. And yet, millions of people face this threat every day.

Often people in the United States are shielded from the harsh truth that most of the world’s population does not have access to clean drinking water. This same insulated population, especially those in city and suburban locations, regularly uses clean water to flush toilets, wash cars, clean sidewalks and water lawns. That said, the recent droughts in California, as well as the Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia that left more than 300,000 residents without drinkable water, have made more people in this country aware of how precarious life can be without the guarantee of clean water.

Beyond our borders the situation is much worse. While we regularly accept the commodification of water in the form of plastic bottles purchased at grocery stores or the use of filtration systems to enhance the taste of our already potable supply, the business of water has become a justice issue for those who cannot afford to satiate the whetted appetites businesspeople have for profit. It raises the question: Is clean water a basic human right or a product for sale?

Christiana Peppard, an assistant professor of theology, science and ethics at Fordham University, treats this question in her new book, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Treated as an overlooked subject for Christian ethics and social justice, water, Peppard notes, is really a right-to-life issue, because “fresh water is interwoven with the most pressing realities that populations and regions will face in the twenty-first century, from agriculture to climate change to political stability, and more.” When we take clean water for granted, both humanity and the rest of creation suffer.

Jesus’ cry “I thirst” continues to echo in the lives of those hanging on the crosses of poverty and oppression. This Lent perhaps we can commit ourselves to rethinking the role of water in our lives, paying special attention to how we use and abuse it. In turn, we might reconsider our practices and discover ways we can become better sisters and brothers to one another and the planet.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

Photo: Stock

Fr. James Martin’s Book on Jesus: A Great Read

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on March 9, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Jesus-a-Pilgrimage-203x300The book has already hit two bestseller marks on Amazon.com: it’s a #1 in the categories of ‘Catholicism’ and ‘Jesus, Gospel, and Acts.’ And the book hasn’t yet been released. It is scheduled for March 11, but I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy to read just in time for the first week of Lent.

Fr. James Martin, SJ’s latest, Jesus: A Pilgrimage (HarperOne 2014), lives up to the expectations set by his already existing library of well-written, deeply engaging, entertaining, and inspiring books. Having written on themes including his own vocation story, his experience ministering in Africa, his work with a theatre company (where he became close to the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman), the role of the saints in his life, the place of joy and humor in the spiritual life, among others, Martin returns to the source of Christianity to examine Jesus of Nazareth from a deeply personal perspective and with in typically approachable style.

There are three intersecting threads that are neatly woven together throughout the book. The first is Martin’s personal experience of visiting the Holy Land while on pilgrimage. The story of his own journey to the land of the Gospels is itself an entertaining one, marked as it is by his own resistance to such a trip and the fortuitous encouragement and friendship that eventually made it all possible. He is able to describe, not just the scenery of the Palestinian landscape, but add stories and details that help bring the modern experience of this ancient land alive.

The second thread is the careful scholarship that informs so much of this book. While Martin admits upfront that he is not a scholar nor a professional theologian, he has done his homework and the thirty pages of endnotes are but one sign to illustrate that. The number of notes is not so much the scholarly signal, but the sources and material that he relies upon, which is reflected in both the content and the notes. The book, as it happens, is dedicated to his former professor, fellow Jesuit brother, and recently deceased New Testament scholar Daniel Harrington, SJ, who was no doubt proud of his brother and former student (Harrington also blurbed to book before embracing Sister Death). Martin relies not just on Harrington, but the work of other important scholars too including Raymond Brown, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Gerhard Lohfink, Elizabeth Johnson, John Meier, John Dominic Crossan, E.P. Sanders, Amy Jill-Levine, and so many others. While certainly not adding to the scholarly research, Martin does what few of the academic luminaries he engages can do: make some of the latest research accessible to a very broad audience.

The third thread is Martin’s approachable, personal, humorous, and insightful writing style. Those familiar with his other books will recognize immediately the familiar form his prose takes. While I have enjoyed reading many of Martin’s earlier books, especially his last Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (2012), I don’t think I’ve liked any of them quite as much as his My Life With the Saints (2006) until Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Like My Life With the Saints, this new book has the overlapping appeal of addressing a subject that is important and relevant to so many reader (i.e., Jesus), while also infusing the subject with the life of it’s author. This is, perhaps, the most appealing aspect of the book as a whole. It answers the question: What else could possibly be said about Jesus of Nazareth? Jim Martin’s experience of this one called the Christ is what can be said and hasn’t been said before.

This last point is something Martin addresses early on in Jesus: A Pilgrimage:

…after I explained that the book would focus only on specific Gospel passages, one friend asked sensibly, “What can you say that hasn’t been said?” “Well,” I said, “I’ll write about the Jesus whom I’ve met in my life. This is a Jesus who hasn’t been written about before.” It may be similar to hearing a friend tell you something unexpected about a mutual friend. “I never knew that about him,” you might say wonderingly. Seeing a friend through another pair of eyes can help you appreciate a person more. You may end up understanding your friend in an entirely new way. So I would like to invite you to meet the Jesus you already may know, but in a new way. Or, if you don’t know much about Jesus, I would like to introduce him to you. Overall, I would like to introduce you to the Jesus I know, and love, the person at the center of my life.

And he does.

Following a generally Gospel-based chronology, Martin leads the reader on a pilgrimage through the assumed historical timeline of Jesus’s earthly life and ministry, selecting (as he stated he would) certain key passages upon which to reflect most fully. Even a book just a bit over 500 pages cannot cover everything (the New Testament scholar John Meier has been working for more than two decades on his multi-volume series on the Historical Jesus titled A Marginal Jew, each volume of which weighs in at more than Martin’s singular project on the subject).

Each of the chapters bears the trifold mark highlighted above of pilgrimage, a foundation of sound scholarship, and approachable writing. As someone who is an “academic,” I admit that I approach reading books about theology and scripture aimed at popular audiences with caution and hesitation. It’s just too easy for the seemingly arcane and esoteric, but important, details about this or that doctrine or this or that historical event or this or that word in Greek to become confused in translation. This is something I myself have struggled with in writing books like my latest The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013). It is not easy to find the right combination, yet Martin certainly has here.

One of the subjects that comes across as a central Christian tension — indeed a real tension about which most Christians might not always be aware — is that between the so-called “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” Martin explains early on in the book how he will address this tension throughout the book:

Moreover, Jesus is always fully human and fully divine. That is, Jesus is not human during one event and divine in another, no matter how it might seem in any particular episode of his life. He is divine when he is sawing a plank of wood, and he is human when he is raising Lazarus from the dead.

It is the Catholic “both/and” view that holds the tension up as both a reality and struggle, yet affirms the central doctrinal claim of the Incarnation. The materials that Martin brings into dialogue with the various Gospel passages explored throughout the book helps the readers to appreciate both dimensions of this Jesus called the Christ.

This review could go on and on with additional details and descriptions of passages throughout the book, but I suppose the ultimate message I have to offer is that this book is definitely worth reading and for a whole variety of audiences. For those who might not have an academic background in theology or scripture, this book would serve to offer a richer context for Gospel passages frequently encountered in the Liturgy and in private study, but often misunderstood. Martin gives helpful, yet non-intimidating, exegetical references along the way. I could imagine this being a great book for parish faith-sharing groups (although the book does lack in-chapter reflection questions). For those who have more (or a lot) of academic background in theology or scripture, this book would serve as a grounded yet lighthearted and personal refresher, living up to Martin’s goal to offer another view of a mutual friend.

While there are many underlined passages in my copy, I have to say that one of my favorite has little do with Jesus per se, but with a passing reference Martin makes to when Ignatius Loyola made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land only to be kicked out by the Franciscans, who have been the guardians of the sites for centuries, because they didn’t think it safe for Ignatius to be there. It seems especially funny in an age when the Bishop of Rome is a Jesuit who took the name Francis.

Photo: HarperOne
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