A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Center Stage with Jesus, Judas, and Life’s Big Questions by James Martin, SJ

A few years ago, I read Father Martin’s wonderful memoir My Life With the Saints. He commented on that original review, and he was probably the first author to ever comment on my blog, which was extremely gratifying. That’s one thing I really appreciate about the internet: it is so easy for me to get in contact with authors and tell them how much I have enjoyed their work. (One time an author did comment on a bad review in which I was kind of mean. You will notice that I temper my bad reviews a little more now. Or just don’t post them.)

Since I don’t work at the public library anymore, it’s hard for me to stay on top of every single thing I would like to read, so I hadn’t realized that he had some other books since then. I put his newest one on hold and also got a copy of A Jesuit Off-Broadway, which sounded so interesting to me. It’s about his time acting as a theological consultant for the play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot which was directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starred Sam Rockwell. Father Martin walks us through the theology and story of Judas’ time with and betrayal of Jesus as he is also telling us the story of how the play came to be and what the people involved learned from it.

I came away from this book thinking, yet again, that Father Martin seems like a kind and thoughtful man. I was impressed at how, in his story, he sought to respect everyone’s faith journey while also admitting that he truly hoped that the experience would in some way convert them to Christianity/Catholicism. I wished that there was more about the long talks he had with the author of the play, Stephen Guirgis, as they worked out the motives and consequences of Judas’s actions, because I would have loved to hear more of the honest questions and answers that they explored. I also learned a lot about some of the saints that the play featured and expanded my own ideas of who some of the disciples were – not just Judas but also Thomas and Peter. The thoughtful discussions about the ideas of forgiveness and despair were some of the other highlights for me personally.

I will admit that I couldn’t keep every cast member straight, but there was a chart at the beginning that I could have studied a little bit closer. I was especially impressed at how hard-working and considerate of each other the cast seemed to be. We all have this idea of diva actors, but these men and women seemed to be just the opposite and worked long hours to make sure the message of the play came through as clearly as possible.

I started reading this book just after I gave my This I Believe speech at church, and I was so disappointed that I hadn’t started it earlier, because I would have loved to include part of this passage:

C.H. Dodd, the great Scripture scholar, defined a parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” In other words, parables are poetic explanations of concepts that are otherwise impossible to comprehend fully.

The concept of the kingdom of God is too rich to be encompassed by something as simple as a definition. And the notion of radical forgiveness is impossible to explain in a few words, no matter how carefully chosen. Jesus grasped the benefit of telling a story about, say, a father’s reconciliation with his prodigal son and allowing the hearers to tease out the underlying meaning for themselves. Besides, if Jesus had given a philosophical lecture to the predominantly peasant community, they probably wouldn’t have understood him anyway.

Where a strictly worded definition can be somewhat shallow and actually close down a person’s thoughts, a story is endlessly deep and more likely to open one’s mind. Jesus’ stories carried meaning without having to be converted into a concept, and the power of his parables was that they always went against the expectations of the audience, as when the Samaritan, hailing from a hated ethnic group, was ultimately revealed as the good guy who cares for the stranger. “The deep places in our lives–places of resistance and embrace–are not ultimately reached by instruction,” wrote the Protestant theologian Walter Brueggemann. “Those places of resistance and embrace are reached only by stories, by images, metaphors and phrases that line out the world differently, apart from our fear and hurt.”

That last paragraph explains a lot of Father Martin’s excitement about the play itself and the people he met while working with it. And it deeply resonated with me as I have been thinking so much about the power of story. I recommend this book for people who have an interest in theological stories and plays and for people who enjoy reading about the workings of theater productions. And I will reiterate my previous recommendation of My Life With the Saints, which is a book that has stayed with me since I posted about it almost exactly four years ago.

You can read Father Martin’s columns in America magazine and see him as an occasional visitor on The Colbert Report (here is a clip from a recent show).

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