“Jerusalem stirs the imagination of billions of people and is the beating heart of our world today.”
That’s the conclusion of a powerful new IMAX film, which is narrated by the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbach) and promotes both tourism and peaceful co-existence in the holy city. (You can watch a preview of the movie here.) That idea of Jerusalem as a life-changing destination also runs through the popular Jesuit author James Martin’s latest book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage.
Martin is famous as America magazine’s Editor at Large, regularly writing about Christianity for a huge audience—but he admits in this new book that, for decades, he rejected the idea of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He resisted for many reasons: It’s just a tourist trap, he told himself. Or, if he did go, then what he would see in the “Holy Land” might conflict in jarring ways with his own fond images of Bible stories.
He admits he was surprised by this journey! When friends all but pushed him onto an airplane bound for Israel, Martin writes that the experience turned out to be “one of the high points of my life.”
Now, he can’t imagine why he waited so long to make this pilgrimage! In the book, he describes the trip as “overwhelming. It was almost unbelievable to visit the places where Jesus had lived. When I first caught sight of the Sea of Galilee, its shimmering blue-green waters surrounded by pinkish sandy hills under a blazing sun, it was like a dream.” He adds, “the pilgrimage taught me things that I had not learned from books.”
The result is an inspirational memoir that stands as a fresh perspective on Jesus. The book starts with Jesus’s birth and follows sequentially through his crucifixion and beyond to Emmaus. Each chapter includes some of Martin’s travel narrative—truly the best parts in this page-turner of a book. Then, in each case, he adds a bit of Bible study that is both scholarly and inspirational, perfectly pitched for general readers. Remember that Martin is popular with his young and old readers, these days, because of his fluid, and sometimes even amusing, magazine-style prose. This book definitely is a “mash up” of styles—but Martin makes it work!
This is a great choice for small-group discussion. The book’s 18 chapters could let you run a series over an entire season of the year, or you could pick favorite chapters for a shorter series. Word of Warning: If you use this book in your congregation, plan ahead to investigate options for participants to take their own pilgrimage. (Consider getting people excited by inviting them to see the Jerusalem movie.)
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed James Martin SJ. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH JAMES MARTIN SJ
ON ‘JESUS: A PILGRIMAGE’
DAVID: America magazine lists you as Editor at Large. Our Catholic readers are familiar with America, but many of our other readers may not know that this is a century-old publication that combines journalism with Christian inspiration. Tell us a bit more.
JAMES: America is a national Catholic weekly magazine that’s been around since 1909 and I’ve been here for the last 15 years, most recently as Editor at Large. As a Jesuit priest, I live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience; and part of poverty means that everything I earn goes to my religious order. This is true of my work with the magazine, which is owned by the Jesuits, and it’s true of this book. All proceeds from this book go to support our ministry here at America. I don’t get a penny myself.
DAVID: Beyond the pages of America, more than 80,000 people are connected to you through Facebook. I checked on your Facebook stats and they’re very impressive: In mid May, you had 25,000 Facebook friends “talking about” you and your posts. And this is impressive, too: Facebook reports that you’re popular with people aged 24 to 54—so this isn’t a case of a bunch of Catholic senior citizens reading your material. These are lively young adults.
JAMES: A few years ago, a publisher suggested I start a Facebook page and my first reaction was: “Forget about it!” I thought it wasn’t worth it. Now? It’s become a big part of my ministry as a Jesuit priest. It’s a way to share information, videos, photos, meditations and prayers with people all over the world. And I’m amazed at the number of people who respond and tell me they’ve found it helpful.
It’s all about bringing people to God. That’s why I now see it as such an important part of what I do as a Jesuit. I get questions about people’s spiritual lives. I get requests for prayers. I get beautiful comments from people telling me different ways that they’ve met God through what I post. I especially like writing prayers and meditations throughout the day, then posting them there on Facebook. The most moving thing I’ve experienced recently is a woman who came up to me at a religious-education congress I attended. She said, “I’m a mother of four and I’m largely at home all day. And, I can’t tell you how much I look forward to your Facebook posts. They’re a link for me to the Catholic and Christian world.”
A “MASH UP” ON THE LIFE OF JESUS
DAVID: You offer all kinds of things, day by day, on that Facebook page and I suspect that’s why you felt so free to publish this “mash up” of a book on the life of Jesus.
JAMES: I’d say this book is a straight Life of Christ, but written in these three forms. There’s the story of my real-life pilgrimage, but then I do add the latest in Bible scholarship about whatever I am considering in that chapter. And then I try to offer a message for readers about what all of this means for them today in their daily lives.
DAVID: And, when you say “Bible scholarship,” we’re talking about references to some famous scholars: Raymond E. Brown, John Dominic Crossan, John Meier, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, N.T. Wright to name a few.
JAMES: There are a lot of books that just summarize the life and times of Jesus for readers and take the Bible stories at face value, so they ignore the historical research. There are books that just describe someone’s pilgrimage. I think the scholarship is important, too, so I wanted to include that. I’m trying to do all three in one book.
There is something naturally appealing about Jesus and that’s the person I want to introduce to people. This book is for everyone from the doubtful seeker to the longtime church person. I don’t assume readers know anything about Jesus. So, I hope that all readers can gather around this book and find out about the person of Jesus Christ.
DAVID: I agree with you. This is a book someone could enjoy without knowing anything about Jesus or the Bible. You walk readers through the whole story.
JAMES: I was very intentional that this not be just a book for Catholics. I do speak about my own Catholic background because—but Jesus wasn’t a Catholic. The gospels aren’t “Catholic books.” My book isn’t about Catholicism. Frankly, Jesus didn’t come for just one group of people.
“FORMS OF CHRISTIANITY YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF”
DAVID: The stories you share from your travels include lots of men and women who aren’t Catholic. Israel-and-Palestine is an amazingly diverse little corner of the world, isn’t it?
JAMES: When you go to Jerusalem, as an American, you see forms of Christianity you’ve never heard of. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself is divided into so many parts, controlled by so many different Christian groups, that you realize how frustratingly elusive Jesus’s wish—that they may all be one—has been through the years. It also reminds you that Jesus Christ appeals to all kinds of people, all around the world, not just Westerners. One of the most interesting experiences was our visit to the Church of St. Mark, a Syriac Orthodox church near the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem.
DAVID: I’ve been there. It’s a bit off the beaten track and pilgrims who sweep through Jerusalem without much time may never find the place. But it’s one of those little wonders you discover on the side streets of the Old City.
JAMES: I end the book with that scene, because our guide at St. Mark’s sang the Our Father in Aramaic for us. It was so unexpected!
DAVID: You write, “She opened her mouth and in a strong, clear voice began singing. Our new friend wasn’t an opera singer, but it was probably one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard—because it was in Jesus’s language. She sang in the lilting cadences of Aramaic, more and more strongly as she went on, and her prayer echoed throughout the ancient church that we had found by accident on our last day of our pilgrimage.”
I’ve got to say, having worked on several reporting projects based in Jerusalem, throughout my career—it’s that kind of amazing little scene that shows your readers the wonders of this city! And, I love it that you also include the surprises that take pilgrims in other directions, as well. One scene that comes to mind is your visit to what scholars believe was the real site of Jesus’s own baptism in the Jordan River. There’s a lovely spot further to the north, where a lot of tour guides tell you Jesus was baptized—but the real spot is pretty, well …
JAMES: It’s “pretty gross.” That’s what my friend told me to discourage me.
DAVID: It’s called Qasr el-Yahud and you describe it vividly in your book. Way back in the year 2000, I was there as a journalist covering an Israeli-government convoy of journalists and tourism officials to take a look at the site that the government planned to finally open up for pilgrims. It was a startling place even at that time. I remember people getting off those buses, in our convoy, and being so moved at the sight that they went into the water and some of them actually drank the stuff!
JAMES: It’s definitely a very unusual holy site. It’s a decommissioned militarized zone in the middle of the desert and it’s very simple. There are some bleachers on the Israeli side, now, that go down toward the water. What’s most surprising is the water itself, which I describe as “neon green, more like Mountain Dew than water.” That’s the result of a lot of pollution and a lot of irrigation further to the north and the lowering of water levels. This was the opposite of the Sea of Galilee, but it was a fascinating experience.
DAVID: Well, I enjoyed reading that section. And, overall, your book already is doing very well in terms of sales and reader reviews on Amazon. I see there’s also an audio version, which readers could get through Amazon.
JAMES: It’s read by Yours Truly—all 18 hours of it. There will be a paperback edition, which I’m working on now.
DAVID: I’ve interviewed you, over the years, about some of your other books. Most recently, we talked about your book on religious humor, Between Heaven and Mirth. I get the sense, though, that this new book is special among the 10 or so you’ve written. Is that fair to say?
JAMES: Yes, I would call this the most satisfying writing experience I’ve ever had. It certainly was the most enjoyable. I loved spending time with the gospel texts as I wrote. That was my favorite part of this book. I learned so much. And, now, I hope readers will, as well.