The Rev. Jim Martin is probably America’s best-known Catholic priest. He appears on “The Colbert Report” when a Jesus expert is needed. He is a Christian spiritual figure to tens of thousands of Twitter followers and has written several best-selling books about God. Yet the dry-witted former business executive had never been to Jesus’s birthplace. He was afraid that visiting the Holy Land would kill his “pristine” ideas about Jesus with images of “cheesy tourist sites.”
Yet a few years ago, the 53-year-old Jesuit changed his mind. Merging the historical Jesus with the “Christ of faith” — the spiritual figure Martin and so many millions turn to — was essential, he decided, not just for him, but for others, too.
The result is “Jesus: A Pilgrimage,” a new book that’s part travelogue, part memoir and part a very Martinesque — that is, funny, conversational and deep — meditation on how one rational modern person merges biblical history with the miraculous.
We spoke with Martin about his book, being part of Pope Francis’s tribe (the Jesuits) and what he is giving up for Lent.
Q: What made you want to do this book?
A: I’d long wanted to do a book on Jesus that combined insights about the historical Jesus with the Christ of faith. Normally those two things are kept apart in books. [History-focused books] don’t treat the subject of miracles and resurrection. The more spiritual ones don’t treat historical considerations. If you just look at the Jesus of history it’s man pretending to be God. Or the other way it looks like God pretending to be man.
Q: You want the book to reach people of various [faiths] or no religious faith. Why should people who don’t believe in Jesus care about this stuff?
A: Even if it’s someone who just thinks of Jesus as a wise teacher, I’ll show you why the miracles are important. To be blunt, I do believe they did happen. The Gospels fall apart without miracles. Today’s discomfort with the miraculous reflects a fundamental unwillingness to believe God can do anything. Frankly, if God can create the world out of nothing, having his son still a storm to me seems reasonable.
Q: If there are trends in how Christians think of Jesus, what is the trend now?
A: For the non-religious, it’s that he was just a teacher. But for the religious, it’s the opposite — his humanity is being watered down. It’s hard for people to think that Jesus may have learned, or grown. One of my favorite stories [from the Book of Mark] is when he meets a woman who isn’t Jewish and she asks for her daughter to be healed. He basically says his ministry doesn’t extend to non-Jews, that it’s not right “to take children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She says, “but dogs get the crumbs from the table.” Then he heals the daughter. I think he is learning, he is growing in wisdom.
Q: You’re a Jesuit, like Pope Francis, so maybe that gives you insight into how he sees Jesus. What’s Jesuity about how you see Jesus?
A: Jesuits like to invite people into imaginative prayer. That’s a classic Jesuit way to pray — to say, what would it look like, sound like, feel like to be in certain parts of the Bible. I’ve been praying like that for 25 years. I’ve heard Pope Francis say in certain homilies, “imagine what these women were feeling” — for example.
Q: Lent just started. What’s your practice?
A: I am giving up saying anything uncharitable to anyone and about anyone. And that’s harder than giving up chocolate.
Q: How’s that going?
A: I’m working on it.