One of the first questions James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, addresses in his new book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, is why in the world anyone needs yet another book about Jesus. Here's the crux of his answer:
Well, that's a tall order, given the hundredyskillion books about Jesus. And I can't see that Martin has completely and satisfyingly pulled off that formidable task in his new book.
Still, the book is quite intriguing and does offer a look at why a Catholic priest continues to be enthralled by this itinerant rabbi who set the world on its ear 2,000 years ago.
The Jesus you will meet here -- in large part as you travel with Martin through the Holy Land -- is the Jesus of orthodox Christianity, the fully human, fully divine savior of the world, as Christians put it.
But it's that Holy Land visit -- which I had a chance to do myself just two years ago this month -- that helps put this traditional Jesus into his thoroughly Jewish context. That alone helps the reader understand him more thoroughly. Martin generally succeeds in this, and acknowledges that he's had help with this aspect of the story from such scholars as Amy-Jill Levine, author of the insightful book about Jesus and his Jewish context, The Misunderstood Jew.
He generally succeeds, as I say, but not always. For instance, at one point he writes about what he calls "the utter newness of his (Jesus') ministry." Clearly Jesus broke new ground, but "utter newness" makes it seem as if he always and everywhere acted outside of his Jewish religious traditions. And that's simply not the case.
What saves this book from a dry recitation of Jesus' life is Martin's winning way of describing his pilgrimage to many sites in Israel related to that life. Sometimes he goes a bit overboard in breathlessly reporting his amazement that Jesus walked where he's walking, but his pilgrimage is well reported and contains the kind of lightness you'd expect from the author of this previous book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.
Martin's description of visiting the tomb inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem -- where tradition says Jesus was buried -- is moving. But that would have been a good place to remind readers that there now are two locations in Jerusalem that are purported to be the place of Jesus' burial and resurrection, the Holy Sepulchre site and the so-called Garden Tomb, the latter being a favorite of Protestants.
Late in the book Martin confirms what any careful reader will know early in the book: "The resurrection is the center of my faith." Indeed, it is the center of the entire Christian religion. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the fledgling church at Corinth, "And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain."
In the end, this is a book of Christian apologetics, done as a theological travelogue. And mainly it's a journey worth taking with Martin.
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THE GOSPELS WRIT SMALL
Pope Francis handed out pocket-sized versions of the gospels the other day at the Vatican. Not far into the future some pope wanting to do that will have to offer an e-version.