Father Jim Martin did not seek the title of Stephen Colbert's TV priest. All he was doing was waiting in the wings for his third appearance on the comedian's show, on which the ebullient, bespectacled cleric was scheduled to be quizzed on poverty why Martin embraces it when its allure escapes so many other Americans. Then the priest suddenly heard his host direct the audience to welcome "The Colbert Report chaplain."
"I remember being surprised and delighted," says Martin. He shouldn't have been too shocked. In the decade since he joined the staff at America, the Roman Catholic weekly run by Jesuits like himself, he has utilized just about every existent platform in becoming one of the highest profile religious "explainers" in the country, a status that should only be enhanced by his user-friendly new book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.
Every creed has its pop experts the backgrounders and sound-biters parsing their traditions for a sometimes-perplexed nation. The Buddhist slot, for example, is occupied by Uma Thurman's father Robert, a professor and former Tibetan monk. In the 1990s reporters looking for a conservative Catholic voice sought out Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the journal First Things; for a more liberal take they called America's then editor Fr. Thomas Reese. But Neuhaus passed away and Reese (who remains a brilliant analyst) was controversially fired by the Pope. Since then Martin, America's culture editor, has out-outreached them both in their primes.
His ability to communicate with church outsiders may derive from his six-year stint as a General Electric executive "before I saw the light," as he informed Colbert, deadpan. He is also less edgily polemic. David Gibson, a veteran religionista and columnist at Politicsdaily.com, notes that while Martin does champion "marginalized" Catholics like gays and women, as well as nuns, who are currently undergoing a Vatican doctrinal investigation despite their declining numbers and often-heroic works., he excels at spiritual and pastoralnuns (currently under a Vatican microscope), he excels at spiritual and pastoral issues. "He's like a campus chaplain at a very large non-Catholic school" says Gibson. Raymond Arroyo, a popular host at the conservative Eternal Word Television Network, concedes, "I think his cultural writing is interesting and has its place," while noting that "some have offered that at times the attempt to be relevant has caused his magazine to muddle and nuance church teaching."
At America Martin moved quickly beyond informing the mainstream press to charming it: Newsweek's religion editor referred to him in a cover story as "my friend." And full disclosure he is contributing a chapter to a book I am editing. Moreover, he is himself a very prolific journalist. In addition to writing and blogging for America, he blogged about Pope Benedict's U.S. visit for the New York Times, contributes to Slate and the Huffington Post, stars in Beliefnet videos, and comments frequently for both CNN and NPR. He's written a brace of previous books including the hagiographic memoir My Life with the Saints, which has sold 100,000 copies. Less predictably, after advising on a production about Judas, he became a member of the off-Broadway LAByrinth Theater Company, attending readings and participating in exercises. Says Philip Seymour Hoffman, the Oscar winner and LAByrinth co-founder, referring to the company's eclectic religious mix, "people might have preconceptions about [clergy], but he wasn't judgmental."
Nor is The Jesuit Guide. It helpfully unpacks core precepts like "finding God in all things." But at heart it is self-help book based on the "spiritual exercises" of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola and other Jesuit practices for a non-Jesuit, possibly non-Catholic, maybe even non-believing audience. This makes it unusual. Unlike Buddhists or New Agers, notes religion author and book critic Jana Riess, Christian writers may evangelize others, but save their how-tos for members of their own flock. Not Martin. His guide suggests "six paths" that might appeal to different kinds of readers, including "the path of disbelief," "spiritual but not religious," and "exploration." Several of its techniques including the "examen," Ignatius' 20-minute review of the day's events can work across or outside formal religious contexts. "You could be Richard Dawkins and find this stuff helpful," effuses Martin, referring to the famous atheist.
Yet Dawkins he is not. To understand the Guide's totality "you have to understand that that it is focused on God," he says. Martin simply thinks the paths of exploration, spiritual-but-not-religious and disbelief, if seriously pursued, eventually lead to God: and so they must all be addressed respectfully and seriously, "with invitations rather than condemnations."
And at this rate, it won't be long before he's invited most of us.