So I’ve totally found my dream job. Get this: Spiritual Advisor to an off-Broadway show. Wouldn’t I be totally good at that? There’s no question that I have the skill set. I can rattle off all kinds of cool things from the Bible, and I love telling people what they should believe. Did you know that the manna from heaven was really seagull poop? And that the reason Joan of Arc’s heart didn’t burn when she was burned at the stake is because she had bovine TB?
But wait – first I would have to become a Jesuit. And before that I would have to become a man. Hmm. Maybe I shouldn’t quit my day job.
Ha ha – whoops. I already did that. I guess I’ll have to settle for Professional Blogger. Pass this URL around to your friends, OK?
James Martin’s A Jesuit Off-Broadway is the story of Martin’s six-month stint as the spiritual and theological advisor to the playwright, director, and cast of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, which opened at New York’s Public Theatre in 2005. I envy him profoundly, but I guess I’ve already covered that.
The central question of this play – written by Stephen Adly Guirgis and directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman – is whether or not Jesus forgave Judas for the betrayal that led to his crucifixion. While the play evolved considerably during the time Martin counseled the playwright, director, and cast, the final product took the form of a courtroom trial designed to determine who should be held guilty for Jesus’ execution. The primary suspects, of course, were Judas, Pilate, and Caiaphas. In the process, a wide variety of saints, Biblical figures, and other “expert witnesses” were brought on stage to testify: Saints Matthew, Peter, Thomas, and Monica, Mary Magdalene, Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud, and others. The cast and crew involved in the play came from a wide variety of religious backgrounds and possessed the range of beliefs and doubts one would expect of a group of two dozen New York theatre types. Martin’s job was to inform the cast of the many interpretations of Judas’ actions and the many debates that theologians have had over this topic (and others) during the past two thousand years of Christian history. In the process, he had the privilege of seeing the play evolve week after week as the playwright and cast internalized and processed his suggestions.
How cool is that?
Well, it’s very cool. But as enthusiastic as I may sound, I enjoy the idea of this book much more than I enjoyed its execution. Essentially, this is a book about how the theatre can enable a person’s spiritual growth – and it does take some time to explore the role of the theatre in both Christian and pagan (specifically ancient Greek) religious ritual and in Jesuit education. Martin narrates the questioning process that many of the cast members went through as they came to embody their roles, but for the most part this narration is very bland. He writes about spiritual growth as if he were writing about lawn care or auto maintenance, and he tells us about his own deep investment in the play’s development without letting that passion seep into his prose. His role in the play is to be a teacher, and his demeanor as he writes is very teacherlike and pedagogical, but as a teacher myself I know that the kind of distance Martin maintains is a key ingredient in a classroom experience that does not inspire students. The old writing rule ‘No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader’ applies equally to teaching: if a teacher doesn’t feel what he is teaching – and convey those feelings palpably to the students – the students will not feel anything either.
Overall, I felt that nothing was at stake in the narrative voice of this book. I did feel the tension of the playwright, director, and cast as they moved toward opening night even as Guirgis continued to revise his play, and I was moved by Martin’s description of the play’s final scene, in which Jesus and Judas sit cross-legged side by side on stage and Jesus repeatedly offers his forgiveness to Judas, who has sunk so deeply into despair that he is unable to accept forgiveness. Martin has successfully made me want to read and see this play; he has not, however, conveyed to me that he grew as a spiritual being as a result of his work. He implies that he has and probably even directly states as much – but his prose is too controlled to allow for the kind of vulnerability that would characterize true spiritual growth.
This book does little to inspire me to read other books of Martin’s. It does, however, make me want to go back in time to 2005 and be Martin, to have a chance to know the dynamic people he describes in his book and be a part of the making of what seems to be a truly remarkable play. And then I would write the book better.