As your resident book reviewer, I try to cover the books that you might not yet have gotten to, about which you might be curious, or what (I think) you should avoid like the plague. I do have one serious weakness, though, in this position. I really enjoy reading the books of James Martin, SJ. After having attended the Big Event in January, I realize that he might be the same Enneagram number as me (3), which may be why I easily related to his writing, his sense of humor, his dilemmas, his joys.


Nevertheless, when I saw that he had a new book coming out early in March, I was on it. It did not necessarily promise to be a groundbreaking book (for most RevGals and Pals), but I thought it might have some new insights and be useful in our congregational life. The book itself is good. It’s not my favorite by Martin, but it is definitely of his trademark style- so readable, moving, and deeply informative.


I did, however, struggle with Jesus: A Pilgrimage. In a recent conversation with our RGBP director, Martha Spong commented on her own frustration with the media/book reviewer/”non-church world” effusion when a Evangelical author makes a statement or draws a conclusion when that same thought has been a staple of a Mainline Protestant denomination for years. I’ll echo her frustration and draw it beyond our Evangelical brothers and sisters (who are represented in RGBP) and say I feel the same frustration when it happens with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters (who are also represented in RGBP).


This was exacerbated for me in reading Father Martin’s book, which combines a significant amount of research on the historical and theological person of Jesus with his own spiritual experiences and discernments in the Holy Land. It is entirely possible that my own thoughts about the Roman Catholic Church may stem from personal prejudices and experience, but not entirely. I do spend a great deal of time counseling church disciples, seekers, and workers with regard to their own experience of the Roman Catholic church, and not the church of decades ago, but the church of last year or last month.


Thus, I find myself frustrated with the gap between the words of American priests and nuns (and other progressive Catholics around the world) and the more formal actions of the Roman Catholic church. I understand there is a difference between the lived theology on the street and what might come from the Vatican. Yet, I cry, “But [Lutherans] have been saying/doing that for years.” (You may insert your own denomination into the bracket.)


On approaching the biblical text with imagination and openness, Martin writes:


We read a story not to pick it apart, but to encounter Jesus. In that way, we read in the light of reason and with the eyes of faith. And even those readers who are not Christian, or who are not seeking to dedicate their lives to Christ, might consider bracketing issues of possible contradiction and read the texts generously. (Ch. 2)


He does not go on to say that we must rely on church tradition. Martin’s entire modus operandi is have people see themselves in Scripture- in the moments, in relation to other characters, as responding to Jesus. His love of imaginative prayer is the foundation of his exegesis and it makes the latter very engaging.



In all of his writing, Martin’s reflections on chastity and celibacy are most interesting to me. In My Life with the Saints, he mentions his prayers and deep spiritual struggle with this commitment. When he writes of Jesus’ celibacy, I saw echoes of Martin’s own prayer conclusions in this arena.


            Jesus understood the emotional life of intimate friendships too. We can assume that he- as a fully human person- experienced the normal sexual urges as he matured, most likely experienced the typical adolescent crushes, and perhaps fell in love. At some point Jesus would have had to undergo a serious discernment about what it meant to be a good friend and share intimacy while remaining celibate. All of this flows from love, and we can see traces of Jesus’ deep loving friendships in not only his patient affection for the disciples, but also his encounters with people like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus… He must have been a loving and kind friend to both men and women, capable of great intimacy and affection. (Ch.4)


Overall, this book may reveal very little new information to most RevGals and Pals about the life of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth reading. Martin’s writing combines a wide swath of historical and theological research. The book is rich with quotations, images, and new understandings gleaned from his own pilgrimage to sites in the Middle East.


This book is the kind of thing that would be EXCELLENT for a new member class over coffee or a dinner series. I suspect you have a book club, reading circle, or questioning friend who might really enjoy the level of scholarship in this book, combined with its accessibility. This is not a light book, but it’s not terribly indigestion-producing.


As for my beginning rant, it is not that I don’t want Martin to share this kind of insight or that I want others to keep to “their side” of the theological fence. What I actually want is for Mainline Protestantism in its various forms, including Mennonites, Society of Friends, and others to be listened to and heard. We have understandings and practices that are long-established, that benefit our corners of the world, and that languish as we struggle to keep doors open and bills paid.


With that last sentence, I am pushed to wonder for myself, then, is the problem our reception or our presentation?



Martin, James, SJ. Jesus: A Pilgrimage. HarperCollins, NY. 2014. Epub Edition.

4 thoughts on “RevGalBookPals: “Jesus: A Pilgrimage”

  1. It’s a great question you pose. Today people are sharing Sarah Bessey’s post about how she has struggled with Paul. Haven’t I written something like that? Yes, yes I have. Her writing is fine, I mean no criticism. But it’s not like she is the first Christian feminist. It’s her context that makes her noteworthy. She is exciting because she is not supposed to think that way, much like Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell. They started out in the evangelical church – which is a huge base compared to the mainline – and they are marketable both to people who find them shocking and to people who are moving away from that original context, and, frankly, to us. And maybe God is doing good work through them, and those of us who are less sexy to publishing companies should get over it and be glad the good news is getting out there. But I admit to being frustrated by the scenario when I know so many strong and beautiful voices not being heard.


  2. This is exactly the conversation from last Tuesday – I spent the day with the local ELCA (synod? Mission group?) as they hosted a Table Talk by an SMU professor (ecumenism at its finest – there was a presbyterian pastor there as well). There was a great discussion about claiming our places boldly as progressive Christians. There was discussion about the non-denominational mega churches – whether they survive past the charisma of the first leader – and the ones that do survive, end up looking more “mainline” – like us. The lecturer said the exact same thing I think you are saying above about every few years another book coming out proclaiming something the mainline protestants have known – and it makes a big splash among the non-denoms. Apparently we suck at getting our messages out beyond our own people. I do not mean any of the to be offensive to anyone. I truly wish we (each denomination or non-denomination, protestant or catholic) had the guts to fly our own freak flags high and proud!


  3. I guess I don’t quite understand this review. On the one hand, the imaginative prayer I learned from Jesuits like Jim Martin transformed and enriched my prayer life – and I definitely did not learn it in my mainline Protestant contexts of church and seminary, but in the Ignatian spirituality I was pursuing at the same time. On the other hand, I understand your frustration – in seminary I often hear from young evangelicals about “new” things which have been church practices for 1500+ years, and while I enjoy the engaging writing and creativity of Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell, they aren’t saying anything new to the Christianity of my experience. I often think of Christianity as a prism, and that we each emerge from different facets of the prism with distinct offerings for one another.

    That said, we progressive main liners are definitely having a hard time getting the message out. When I used to describe my home church to friends from across the country, they would say things like’ “I would go to church if I could find a church like that” — and I knew perfectly well that there are lots of churches like that. Just last week one of my own elders, a science teacher, said in frustration that most of the people she knows consider Christianity a medieval relic for conservatives, and wondered, “How do we convey the presence of a progressive and engaged church?”

    And all that said, my experience also indicates that even people who have spent decades in the church have little grasp of the Bible beyond what they learned in elementary school, and even less of an understanding that it is an exciting invitation to a personal spiritual life, to deep community, and to social action. I’m going to think about using this book for our next small group study.


    1. Robin, I think you grasp the essence of the review in that there is a lot of “me” in it, but that I overall endorse the book. I echo your experience of many people’s general unfamiliarity with Scripture. I think your group will like this book. I may use it for a similar setting myself in the fall.


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