Jesus: A Pilgrimage (James Martin, SJ) -- A Review

JESUS: A Pilgrimage. By James Martin, S.J.  San Francisco:  Harper One, 2014.  510 pages.

Who is Jesus? Is he a rebel leader?  Savior? Religious teacher?  Community organizer?  Could he be a bit of all of these things?  People have asked this question multitudes of times down through the centuries. One will find numerous television programs, movies, and books that take up the question.  There appears to be a Jesus for everyone – or as Albert Schweitzer famously put it, in the quest for the historical Jesus we look down the well and see the reflection of our own faces.  So take your pick from the Jesus’ offered by the likes of Reza Aslan, Bart Ehrman, Dan Brown, Marcus Borg, Elaine Pagels, and even Bill O’Reilly.   Over the years, I’ve seen many of the Jesus movies, watched those TV programs that tend to dwell on the sensational, and of course I’ve read my share of books.  Some I've enjoyed; others not so much.  This I can say -- I thoroughly enjoyed reading James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage

James Martin is a Jesuit priest, author, journalist, commentator on matters of church and culture. He even holds his own with Stephen Colbert!  In this book Martin offers us a Roman Catholic-infused portrait of Jesus that weaves in biblical scholarship -- mainstream Catholics such as James Harrington, Raymond Brown, and Luke Timothy Johnson – spirituality, and his own personal narrative.  It is part travelogue, part devotional, part scholarly reflection.  While you may not encounter too many new “facts,” even experienced Jesus folk will find something here that will stir their hearts and minds.
When Fr. Martin decided to write about the life of Jesus, he received encouragement to visit the Holy Land.   Although he'd never had much of an inkling of going there (I can relate), he became convinced that making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land would be valuable.  He makes this journey in the company of another Jesuit – George – who had spent significant time in the region, and therefore had a good sense of the area, its culture, and the important sites.  While in the region they will stay at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem and at a Franciscan Hostel in Galilee.  As we move through the story of Jesus as told by the Gospels, we visit sites that have been deemed sacred by Christians.  As we visit sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Capernaum, we find ourselves drawn into a story that occurred two millennia ago.  Martin takes with him Jerome Murphy O’Connor’s archaeological guide to The Holy Land, which informs him to the likelihood that a site actually is connected to the life of Jesus.  As we take this journey we find ourselves able to envision where Jesus walked and where he died.  This involves both understanding the past and the present, a present that is marked by a dividing wall separating Palestinian territory and Israel.  This becomes clearest in the journey to Bethlehem.  Martin tells us how he and Fr. George were in a curio shop, when his friend showed him a Nativity set.  He writes:
Placed between the Holy Family and the Wise Men was a barrier, a thin block of wood.  The owner explained, “that is the wall that blocks off the Palestinian territories.  Jesus, was a Palestinian, just like us” (pp. 66-67).  
What marks this book as worth spending time with isn’t the historical and archaeological insights, as interesting as they may be, but the distinctly spiritual dimension of the book.  It is important to remember as the book progresses that we are joining Martin on a spiritual pilgrimage.  We take this journey with Martin not merely as tourists, but as persons seeking thin places where God can be encountered in new ways.  We go in search of the risen Christ. 

So, when Martin goes to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to pray, he finds himself overwhelmed by the presence of God.   At sites across the region, he not only stops to take in the view and snap a few pictures, he stops to pray.  As he engages in these reflections he connects them to his own life and ministry.  He goes looking for a place he had heard about – the Bay of Parables.  No one seemed to know about it, but finally he finds someone who does know the spot.  There on the Sea of Galilee was a natural amphitheater that would have lent itself to him preaching to a large crowd from a boat.  As he takes in this site, he finds objects from nature that could have spurred Jesus’ imagination – There, all around him, were the “seeds, rocks, birds, clouds, water” that could have given birth to the “Parable of the Sower. “  He writes:  “It grounded the Gospels, and Jesus, in a way that I never could have imagined.  It made me think more about the way Jesus drew on nature in his parables” (p. 199).   

Each step along the way, as he travels to Galilee, to Nazareth and Capernaum, along the lakeshore to Gerasa, the biblical story comes alive.  A visit to the Sea of Galilee and learning of how storms can brew on the lake helps him to better connect with the fear instilled in the disciples and the calm that Jesus exhibited in its midst.  He takes the road to Jericho and envisions the attack that gives rise to the Good Samaritan.  He goes to Bethany and begins to contemplate the nature of friendship that Jesus had developed with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.  He takes the pathway to Golgotha and out to the Mount of Olives.  He and George even try to find Emmaus, but each of their efforts ends in failure, and perhaps that’s the way it should be.  Some things should be left to the imagination.  So, in the course of his journeys, his faith comes alive and Jesus becomes more real to him.

This isn’t a brief book – as it approaches five hundred pages – but it is a faith affirming book.  If you’re looking for controversy you won’t find it.  It’s not that Martin is unaware of the various radical versions, it’s just that’s not who is.  This is a book written with a great deal of reverence for the person who stands behind the book – Jesus of Nazareth.  While he’s aware of the many attempts to recreate the story in a fashion more “suited” for the modern age, he doesn’t lose sight of his own spiritual connection to the subject of the book.   So, as he takes his journey, he knows that not all sites are genuine, but even in the places that are questionable in their historicity, there might be something faith affirming present.  And, if you, like me, haven't put the Holy Land at the top of your bucket list, you might start to have second thoughts (just don't go with a big tour group)

His spiritual pilgrimage is deepened by his explorations of scholarly inquiries – mostly Roman Catholic.  He brings into the conversation archaeology, intricacies of Greek words, and theological affirmations.  Though at times he seems to show a lack of awareness of the context of the story, it’s clear that he is highly trained as in biblical studies and theology.  So he combines the wide-eyed experiences of a first time visitor with a good understanding of the story itself. 

I heartily recommend the book. If you’re looking for a controversial Jesus, you probably won’t find it here (don't worry, Harper One has a few of those as well).  That is, unless you're seeking to know Jesus in a way that challenges and inspires faith -- that could be controversial in its own right, because that Jesus is also unsettling to many.  Therefore, if you’re looking for a well written, readable, understandable, spiritually relevant look at the life of Jesus that is rooted in rich biblical scholarship then this may be your book.  It’s not written with the scholar or the skeptic in mind.  Martin writes as someone who is personally engaged with the story in a life-transforming way.  It is from that perspective that we encounter one who is both Jesus of History and Christ of Faith.  


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