Best Friend and Lord
A Feature Review of
Jesus: A Pilgrimage
James Martin, SJ
Best known today as the chaplain to Stephen Colbert’s alter ego on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” or as the Catholic priest who presided at the funeral mass in New York City for actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, James Martin SJ also writes great books. He’s been doing so for a long time. I suspect the simplicity of the title of this one is deliberate.
The subtitle suggests that it is as much about the author and reader as it is about Jesus. Martin’s intent is to take readers on a journey to find and experience the historical Jesus, walking in Christ’s footsteps throughout the Holy Land, using biblical scholarship to answer 21st century questions, to kindle faith. This is not yet another historical Jesus book, and not a postmodern screed, but a book born in and for the Church universal, as well as a deeply personal story. “Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine,” the author begins, and never does he steer into mysticism or deconstruction.
Jesus is a personal interaction with orthodox teaching, told with a sense of humor, by a Jesuit who has a knack for communicating with bored Christians, disaffected Catholics, and believers and post-believers on the margins of church and faith. The reader wants to know this Jesus – why else would she buy or borrow this book – and so is carried from the offices of America, the Catholic weekly where Martin serves as editor-at-large in midtown Manhattan, to Jerusalem, Nazareth, the Jordan River, Bethlehem, Jericho, Bethany, even to a place called the “Bay of Parables.”
The Bay of Parables, it turns out, is near Tabgha, the traditional site of the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000 on the NW shore of the Sea of Galilee. There, Martin finds what appears to be the exact setting of the Parable of the Sower, and doesn’t bother to hide his excitement: “I was gobsmacked to see rocks, thorns, and fertile ground. No one planted the thorn bushes, carted in topsoil, or arranged the stones to make the locale look as it did in Jesus’s time, as if we were in a theme park called Jesus Land. They were just there.”
The blend of distilled scholarship and narrative is infectious. Travelogue, spirituality, and theological reflection combine with humor. “I was constantly surprised how the storied names of biblical locales popped up in the most familiar of circumstances,” he writes at one point, followed by examples: “ ‘The traffic to Bethlehem was terrible last night!’…. Which still didn’t beat ‘Gehenna is lovely.’ ” Passages from the scholarship of C. H. Dodd, N. T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, and especially Daniel J. Harrington SJ, abound. Martin studied under Harrington at Weston Jesuit School of Theology and has written warmly about his former teacher, to whom he dedicates the book, and who died a few weeks ago, just prior to the publication date.
Jesus carries the Imprimi potest of the Catholic Church but also occasionally veers into distinctively evangelical Christian language, as when Martin asks out loud, “Why have I committed my life to Jesus?” Make no mistake about it, with Jesus, one of the most popular priests in America has returned to his roots, so to speak, to show what a heart of faith asks, desires, and finds when it turns to Christ and the gospels. James Martin wants that people he’s never met will come to know his best friend and Lord.
Jon M. Sweeney’s next book, Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible, and Eternal Torment, is published by Jericho Books in June.