The Jesuit priest, author, and avid tweeter on telling the story of Jesus through his divinity, and humanity.
The Rev. James Martin, S.J., doesn’t know quite when he realized he was in “the wrong place,” but he can recall the seeds that led him from a post-Wharton corporate finance job at General Electric to a vocation as a Jesuit priest. He writes in My Life with the Saints (Loyola Press, 2006) about a night when he came home exhausted, miserable, and dissatisfied with life. He turned on his television and stopped on a public-access station airing a documentary about the Catholic monk Thomas Merton. The program captivated him so much that he found Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, the next day. Martin writes that God gave him the answers he sought through Merton’s story:
Since this decision, Martin has written and edited over a dozen books, including A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Center Stage with Jesus, Judas, and Life’s Big Questions (Loyola Press, 2007) and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (HarperOne, 2010), a New York Times bestseller. Martin also makes regular appearances on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. His newest title, Jesus: A Pilgrimage (HarperOne, 2014), comes amid a crowd of recently released historical Jesus texts, but Martin journeys down a distinctly personal path. “We can encounter Christ in the people around us,” he writes. “Every life can tells us something about God. So I will share stories of encountering God in and through others.”
On a recent spring afternoon, Martin shared stories about finding God
in those around him, in humor, and on Twitter.
—Win Bassett for Guernica
Guernica: You’re a Jesuit priest. You’ve written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Globe. You’re a chaplain for Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. You’re prolific on social media, and you’ve written several award-winning books. In short, you’re doing God’s work in many different places. Why 544 pages on Jesus for this new book?
James Martin: All of my previous writings have been leading up to Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Jesus is the most important person in my life as a Jesuit, and I’ve long wanted to invite people into the story of Jesus in a new way. That’s what I’m trying to do with this new book.
To truly understand the story of Jesus, you have to see him as fully human and fully divine.
Guernica: Books about Jesus, especially the historical Jesus, seemingly never cease to be popular. In the last year, Reza Aslan’s Zealot and Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Jesus have garnered a lot of attention. Your publisher, HarperOne, released Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee this past March. How does your book fit into this space?
James Martin: Historical Jesus books look at all we can know about the life and times of the carpenter from Nazareth. Such as, what life was like in first-century Judea and Galilee, Jewish religious customs, and the effects of Roman occupation in that region. These books are very important in terms of helping us understand who Jesus was and what he said and did. But they almost always set aside the miracles of Jesus—like healing the sick and stilling a storm—and the Resurrection. So they’re telling only half of the story. If you take the miracles and the Resurrection out of the Gospels, the stories fall apart.
For example, there’s the story where Jesus heals a paralyzed man. In Mark 2:1-12, Jesus is in Capernaum, and he’s “at home.” Four men take the roof apart to let the paralyzed man down before Jesus because there’s such a press of people at the doorway. Jesus says to the man, “Your sins are forgiven.” And the people around him say, “Who is this person to forgive sins?” Jesus says, “Which do you think is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Take up your mat and walk’?” Jesus then says to the people who doubt him, “So that you may understand that the Son of Man has the power to forgive sins, I say to you, ‘Take up your mat and walk,’” and the paralyzed man takes up his mat and walks.
One of the points of this story is that Jesus has the power to forgive sins. He proves that, in a sense, by healing the man. But if you take the miracle out, the context for teaching Jesus’s ability to forgive sins falls apart. You cannot look at the life of Christ without taking seriously the miracles. To truly understand the story of Jesus, you have to see him as fully human and fully divine.
A book about only the Jesus of history is incomplete, and a book about only the Christ of faith is incomplete. I bring these two things together to say that they’re one and the same. We see that at the Resurrection. Jesus raised from the dead bears the marks of his crucifixion. He’s a real person, a historical person who has risen from the dead. Otherwise, the Resurrection is meaningless.
I don’t intend to critique historical Jesus scholars. They are archeologists and sociologists and historians, so it’s not surprising they wouldn’t want to talk about the miracles. But that’s only part of the story.
Guernica: You’ve said that this is your favorite book you’ve written. Who did you write it for?
James Martin: I wrote it for everybody. I wrote it for people who are doubtful seekers, who may be curious about Jesus and may not know a whole lot about the Gospels. For those people, I start at the beginning and talk about the construction of the Gospels and how we can understand the miracle stories.
But I also wrote it for people who are devout Christians and for whom Jesus is the center of their lives, trusting that there will be new things that they’ll find out they hadn’t known. I wrote it for the broadest possible audience, just like the Gospels.
Guernica: You write that this book intends to help readers meditate on “parts of the narrative that have often escaped notice.” Can you talk about one of these passages?
James Martin: My favorite one is a passage from Mark with a woman who comes to ask Jesus to heal her daughter. She is often called the Syrophoenician woman, and she’s from a non-Jewish part of the region.
Jesus says to her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s a stinging comment. But she says, “Even the dogs get the crumbs from the table,” and Jesus softens a bit and heals her daughter.
It’s a difficult passage for people who are focusing only on his divinity because it shows Jesus’s humanity on full display. It seems as if he needs to learn something from the woman, that his ministry extends not just to the Jewish people but also beyond. This passage is an invitation to meditate on his humanity.
But his learning is only part of the story, because the second part is a healing. This is an example of how you must look at both the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. Again, the story falls apart if you take the miracle out.
Guernica: What did you learn about Jesus while writing this book?
James Martin: I learned a lot during my writing. The book follows the sequence of Jesus’s life—from the announcement of his birth, to the nativity, his public ministry, his passion, his death, and his Resurrection.
Each chapter has three different elements. The first element is a pilgrimage. If we look at the story of what happened in Bethlehem, I write about my experience of traveling to Bethlehem. The second element is a Bible study, and here, I look at the passages that talk about the nativity. The third element is a spiritual reflection on what these passages might mean for us today.
One of my favorite discoveries during writing came from a passage where Jesus says to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” The key word here is the Greek verb used. The verb poieo, meaning “to make or to do,” is the root for the words “poem” and “poetry.” Thus, the phrase “I will make you into fishers of people” beautifully conveys the sense of Jesus fashioning the disciples into something new and beautiful.
In the book I use a little Greek to help readers understand passages that might be obscure or whose English translations might actually elide some of the original meaning.
For example, in the parable of the prodigal son, one English translation says that the father “ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” The original Greek is much more beautiful, and it can be translated as, “and running, he fell upon his neck and fervently kissed him.” It’s more physical. It’s more detailed, and more beautiful.
The Ressurection shows you that nothing is impossible with God. It shows you that suffering is never the last word.
Guernica: Many Christians ground their belief in one particular aspect of Jesus’s life. Some focus on the Incarnation, some, the Beatitudes. You write: “The Resurrection is the center of my faith,” and tell the story of a woman in a wheelchair at a hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. How does this woman relate to the story of Jesus’s coming to life again?
James Martin: The Resurrection is the center of my faith because the Resurrection changes everything. It shows you that nothing is impossible with God. It shows you that suffering is never the last word. It tells us the most important thing about the Christian faith—that Christ conquered death.
The story of Doris, a woman I met in a hospital for the seriously ill in Cambridge, relates to the Paschal mystery, as it’s called in theology, and the kind of resurrections that we see in our day-to-day lives. I was in a faith-sharing group with Doris, and someone suggested that her wheelchair was a cross to her. And she said, “No, no, no. It’s a source of life for me. The wheelchair is my resurrection. Without it, I couldn’t get around. Life would be so dull. It gives me new life.”
It reminded me that the outside observer sometimes sees only the cross. But the Christian can often find a resurrection there.
More broadly, the Paschal mystery speaks not only about what God promises us in terms of eternal life, but also about our daily lives. We “die to self.” That is, we let parts of our self die that are unhealthy or un-free, and we experience new life in these ways.
Guernica: Your daily life includes a lot of writing, posting on social media, and television and radio appearances. How do these different pursuits comprise your vocation?
James Martin: My most basic vocation is as a Jesuit, a member of the same religious order that the Pope belongs to. The most basic Jesuit vocation is the Christian vocation, which is to preach the Gospel. And Jesuits are often known as educators. We have the big Jesuit schools—Georgetown, Fordham, Boston College, and all of the ones named “Loyola”—and many of the basketball powerhouse schools as well.
I believe I have a vocation within a vocation, and that’s writing. That’s another way to evangelize. It’s not only the printed page—it’s also online. I see my public Facebook page and my Twitter feed and my Instagram posts as outgrowths of the invitation to preach the Good News.
You have to go out where the people are. Jesus didn’t sit on his butt in Capernaum and wait for people to come to him.
Some Catholics think that social media is beneath them, but these are media through which you can communicate. Jesus used simple media to communicate. That was the media of parables and stories. It wasn’t beneath him to use ideas like birds or seeds or wheat, or a woman sweeping her house looking for a coin, or a wayward son coming back to his father.
If it was not beneath Jesus to use these simple means and media that people can appreciate, then it should not be beneath us. My joke is, if Jesus could talk about the birds of the air, then we can tweet.
Guernica: That’s pretty good.
James Martin: More practically, that’s where people are. A few weeks ago, I went to a big Catholic convention of 30,000 Catholics in Los Angeles, and almost half of the people who came to have their book signed said, “I follow you on Facebook.” That’s incredible. And it wasn’t just young people.
Lately, I’ve ventured into Instagram because someone told me that younger people are migrating there, too. It’s hard to keep up. You have to go out where the people are. But Jesus didn’t sit on his butt in Capernaum and wait for people to come to him. Sometimes they came to him, but most of the time, he went to them, and he spoke to them in their language, in ways that they could understand.
Guernica: Followers of your tweets seem to find them a balance of theology, evangelism, intellect, and social justice. I see this combination in all of your writing. Is it a conscious consideration when you put down words?
James Martin: It flows out of who I am as a Jesuit, but I’m also conscious of what I post and don’t post. It can’t all be social justice because that might turn off people who don’t understand the riches of the church’s tradition of social justice. And it can’t be all funny stuff because that would turn off people who are more serious.
My model is Jesus. Jesus preached about a mix of things, the main theme being the reign of God. He preached about poverty and freedom and friendship and love and hospitality. It wasn’t one message constantly. You have to provide variety for people. If all I posted on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube were celebrations of Jesuit spirituality, people would get tired of that. And if all I posted were meditations on social justice, people would get tired of that, too.
Guernica: One reason that people are drawn to your work is your use of humor. You use humor when discussing religion on The Colbert Report and on social media, and you wrote an entire book on it—Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. How does humor help you tell the story of Jesus in your new book?
James Martin: The new book has quite a bit of humor in it, mostly in terms of the stories of a pilgrimage that I undertook with a fellow Jesuit three years ago through the Holy Land. Most of those stories are pretty funny because you tend to get into scrapes and to get lost and to mess things up when you travel. My friend was very funny, so I knew that when he agreed to go, I would have some good material for the book.
For example, we got lost in the middle of Israel. We were driving through the desert with a completely useless GPS, and a guy with a gun—an Israeli Defense Force soldier—came up to our car. I got out—and I only know five words of Hebrew—so I said to him in English, “How do we get to the Jordan River?” He unslung his rifle and poked its barrel into his forearm and said, “Dead, dead, dead.” I didn’t know what he meant. Then he said, “Then left.” What he meant was, “Follow the road until it dead-ends, which is the Jordan River, and then make a left.” What I had suspected was a death threat turned out to be very helpful driving instructions!
It’s hard not to laugh about those things. It’s important to mix in humor with your evangelization because life is full of humor, and Jesus had a sense of humor.
Guernica: In your book Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints, you describe how Catholic writers like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen have impacted you. What writers outside of Catholic spirituality influence your writing?
James Martin: One of my favorite writers is Kathleen Norris, who is actually a Presbyterian but has close ties to Benedictine spirituality. She’s also a good friend. Even before I knew her as a friend, I was completely entranced by her writing, which is very inviting, personal, and reflective. She isn’t afraid to share her own struggles.
One of the things that helped me most in my writing was her book The Cloister Walk, which is the story of her affiliation with the Benedictine monastery. It dawned on me that what she was doing was writing a series of essays that were connected chronologically. It just clicked. I thought, “Well, that I think I can do. I don’t know if I can sit down and write a 300-page book, but I can write twenty essays.” And that’s still the way I write my books. I write them as essays that are complete within themselves, and then I link them. It sounds obvious, but that was a big “aha” moment for me.
Guernica: When you were sitting at a desk in corporate finance at General Electric, did you ever imagine writing a book on Jesus?
James Martin: Never, ever, ever. Never. I had no clue that I would be a Jesuit. I thought I’d be in business for the rest of my life. Gradually, I grew disenchanted with that. That’s not because business isn’t a real vocation. It is for many people. It just wasn’t for me.
If you had told me, as a 21-year-old Wharton graduate, that I would be a Jesuit priest writing a book about Jesus, I would have laughed in your face. God clearly had other ideas.
To contact Guernica or the Rev. James Martin, please write here.