The 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.