Jesus: A Pilgrimage by James J. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am a fan of Father James Martin's books, especially A Jesuit Off-Broadway. When Scott chose this book for our next religious book discussion at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast, I was excited, having been interested since I first saw it mentioned at Amazon.
This is a much thicker and more substantive book than I expected. The bibliography alone makes one step back and realize there is more hard-core scholarship than in any of his previous books. Yet it is written in Father Martin's trademark style, interspersing personal experience with the main book text. It is accessible and interesting. It isn't dumbed down and isn't too scholarly. It's juuuuust right.
Martin's goal is to help us consider our answer to Christ's question to his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"
This means we must consider what it means to be "fully human and fully divine." Martin does a very good job of presenting a lot of contextual information for understanding Jesus' life and ministry through this lens. As we travel through the gospels, so to speak, he intertwines the various stops (recruiting the disciples, healing demoniacs, etc.) with his own pilgrimage to Israel. He then stops to place everything in the context of our own lives and is extremely generous in sharing his own life changing experiences, whether flattering or not. I especially appreciate Martin's openness in sharing the spiritual experiences he had, most notably that in the Church of the Resurrection.
I especially appreciate the way that Father Martin approaches questions from all angles. For example, when considering Christ's healings of "demoniacs," Martin isn't afraid to discuss the idea of psychological or physiological illness as a cause. This will be welcome to those who like to get down to examining facts. However, he always does this in a thoughtful, thorough, Christian way that leaves no doubt we are reading about the Messiah and that miracles can (and do) happen.
Each chapter ends with Martin's deeper thoughts on how our own lives can be enriched with the aid of what Christ has shown us about this part of his life. This is where the rubber meets the road for most of us and Martin brings great sensitivity and understanding to these pages. In fact, I was enduring great inner turmoil about something when I read Martin's thoughts of what it means to take up your cross daily. The whole section spoke to me strongly, but nothing more than "wait for the resurrection" which I sorely needed to hear that very day.
This is the sort of book that used to be much more common. To Know Christ Jesus by Francis Sheed and Life of Christ by Fulton Sheen are just a couple of the older books I've read like this. We have been sorely in need of a new one and I'm so pleased that James Martin wrote this book which is truly a treasure for reading and rereading. I'm beginning to feel that this book might be a "must have" for Christians who want a more rounded, personal experience of Christ. Or for those who don't understand the "Christian thing" and would like some general context of their own.
I also have a feeling that a lot of readers are going to come away wanting to visit the Holy Land. Not me, but I appreciate Father Martin's descriptions as it helps me "feel" the place a bit better. And, to be fair, I've never especially felt the need to go to Rome or anywhere else on pilgrimage, for that matter.
However, what it did was help me feel a deeper familiarity, connection, friendship dare I say, with Jesus when I encounter Him in the gospels. It made me think of Father Martin's story about his spiritual director showing him a green tree and reminding him it would be red in autumn, without anyone ever seeing the gradual change. That's what happened to me. A step closer. All to the credit of this book, which is doing it without "wows" or "aha" moments. Truly that is a credit to this work.
I also received the audiobook for review. I was eagerly anticipating this but was surprised to find that Father Martin's reading was extremely plain and without nuance or subtlety. In a sense, it was like a father reading to his children who is unused to reading aloud. I'm used to authors reading their work who are extremely good at it, such as Father Robert Barron or Neil Gaiman (yes, I know that is an unusual pair to put together but both are excellent at reading aloud).
That said, once I adjusted to Martin's style, or lack thereof, it actually worked fine for this book. In a sense, it took out any of his own personality and allowed the text to speak for itself. Which is actually just as it should be for a book like this. With that in mind, I can recommend the audiobook.