Jesus is helping readers encounter its lofty subject in a refreshingly relatable way, too. The book blends Bible study, spiritual reflection, personal memoir and travel writing in a way that (mercifully) differs from the classically dull, dry volumes on the life of Christ. In this candid Q&A, we discuss Fr. Martin’s unique approach to the greatest story ever told.
If you’ve never trekked to the Holy Land, here’s the next best thing: Treat yourself to a copy of Jesus: A Pilgrimage by James Martin, SJ, which recently debuted at #9 on the New York Times bestseller list. The Jesuit priest — best known as Stephen Colbert’s chaplain on The Colbert Report — was initially reluctant to leave his office at America magazine to visit where the events of the Bible took place. “I didn’t want my pristine mental images of holy sites to be supplanted by touristy locales,” Fr. Martin admits, “but going there was really transformative. It helped me understand the Gospels in a way that I never could have.”
BH: You write that this book is intended to “introduce” people to Jesus. So it isn’t for Christian churchgoers only, right?
JM: This book is written not only for the devout believer, but the doubtful seeker. I assume that the reader knows very little about the Gospels — and even about Jesus — so I start at Square One. But I also assume that people can come up to speed very quickly and follow along with me.
BH: Reading Jesus is like listening to a friend, rather than sitting through a long religious history lesson. It feels very confidential.
JM: I try to be very honest about my own experiences and struggles, spiritual and otherwise. I think that trying to help people reflect on the Gospels without entering into your own personal experience remains dry and disconnected. For the most difficult spiritual questions, you have to share yourself! And frankly, those are the kinds of spiritual writers that I like to read. When you read Thomas Merton or Henri Nouwen or Kathleen Norris, their honesty and vulnerability draws you in.
BH: Jesus offers a lot of humorous moments, too.
JM: I think the pilgrimage narrative is fun — and even funny. The person I traveled with [Rev. George Williams, SJ, the Catholic chaplain of California’s San Quentin State Prison] is a Jesuit with a great sense of humor. It’s usually my friends who get the best lines in my books, too. I do that out of humility. So my friend George has all the best lines in this book!
BH: I love how you admit to being confused about Holy Land geography. There’s a chapter where you and George get lost on the famous road to Emmaus…
JM: It’s OK not to know everything when you’re on a pilgrimage! I wanted to remind the reader of that.
BH: It’s good that you don’t feel obligated to have all the answers just because you’re a priest. Some things in life are unknowable.
JM: Like Jesus! In the end, He’s a mystery. If I did try to present myself as somebody who knew everything, someone would figure out pretty quickly that I don’t! (Laughs) This pilgrimage and this book is about exploring the mystery of Jesus. I lead the reader on this journey, hoping that the reader will discover himself or herself as well.
BH: It’s noteworthy that your book emphasizes inclusivity. You recognize the value of women in the church and discuss gay people charitably.
JM: Well, it would be hard to write a book about Jesus and not talk about the marginalized, because that was so much a part of His ministry. I also know a lot of people who have felt marginalized or excluded in church circles. Anything we can do to make them feel welcome and bring them into the faith is a good thing to do. The movement for Jesus is always to go to people on the outside and bring them in.