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Books

02/04/2015

JESUS: A Pilgrimage by James Martin, SJ. Harper-Collins Hardcover, ©2014, 526 pages, $27.99 (U.S.). Reviewed by Edwin Buettner.

Though the framework for Jesuit Father James Martin’s book is that of a journey through the Holy Land, this work is considerably more far-reaching than a travelogue. Rather, it is a seamless integration of Scripture commentary, scholarly discussion, personal anecdote, and pastoral care. Perhaps most importantly, it reads as a testament of the author’s personal faith in the revelation of Jesus as both Son of Man and Son of God.

Martin expresses one of his goals in writing this book as follows: “I would like to invite you to meet the Jesus you already may know, but in a new way.” Of necessity much of the book deals with the “Jesus of history.” However, Martin continuously seeks to understand what it means to follow Jesus as the timeless Christ: “It’s important to know all that we can about the historical person . . . but it’s also important to be open to the ways Jesus calls us today.”

Jesus: a Pilgrimage is highly accessible to the general reader, and its appeal will not be limited to those who have visited the Holy Land or are planning to. Martin’s writing style is highly engaging and much of the book flows in a manner similar to that of a detective novel. Though the book does not contain any photographs, there is surprisingly “visual” quality to the writing. Augmented by the author’s imaginative forays, vivid imagery characterizes the site descriptions. Those familiar with the Jesuit Spiritual Exercises will not be surprised to find that Martin’s reflections on place and Scripture reveal a personalized rendering of scriptural text drawing on the concreteness of place, as well as thoroughly researched biblical scholarship.

In undertaking a task of this magnitude and complexity for popular consumption, one might be tempted to minimize contradictory information sources and areas of inconclusive scholarly debate. Martin, however, boldly and honestly ventures into these areas and invites the reader to join him in exploring such tensions. Yet, one is not simply left hanging with irreconcilable uncertainties. Rather, Martin takes these opportunities to more deeply explore the mystery of Jesus, the Christ: an incarnated God living within what Martin calls the “messy and beautiful physical realities of the human person.”

Martin’s comments regarding the church are rendered with remarkable honesty. Without in any way compromising his priestly function, he deals openly and compassionately with the human realities of organized religion. He can at times be quite pointed in his criticism: “Care for the poor . . . is a litmus test for admission into heaven — so it is always surprising to me when Christians set aside this teaching.” Yet, somewhat counterintuitively he shares an important insight as to the nature of church: “Jesus may have called Peter to lead the church because Peter was painfully conscious of his own weakness.” His bottom line on these matters is refreshingly practical: “One of the many benefits of organized religion . . . (is) . . . we all need others to help us find God.”

People who embark on pilgrimages do so for a variety of purposes: refreshment, insight, and direction. Martin’s virtual tour delivers in full measure.