I just finished reading James Martin’s 2007 book, A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Center Stage with Jesus, Judas, and Life’s Big Questions. I have enjoyed and benefitted from every one of Martins’s books that I have read, and this one is no exception.
A Jesuit Off-Broadway is the enjoyable story of Martin’s six months with the LAByrinth Theater Company as they prepare for the production of the play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (which I wrote about here). More than that, though, it offers Martin’s insights on a number of issues of Christian faith and on Ignatian spirituality. I would have enjoyed it for the story telling alone, but found much to reflect on in his observations about faith, religion and human nature, and on what he learned from the actors and others with whom he was involved during this period.
One of the things I found illuminating was Martin’s discussion of the directing style of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who directed the play. Describing Hoffman’s penchant for offering a story from his own life to illustrate a thorny point, Martin talks about his realization that Hoffman “was providing something like contemporary parables for the cast.” He quotes Scripture scholar C.H. Dodd’s definition of 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.” Parables, Martin explains, open the mind, inviting its hearers to a deeper level of understanding.
The operative word, for Martin, is “invite.” When he discussed his insight with Hoffman, Hoffman found Martin’s parable analogy apt, believing the personal anecdote had an ability to communicate more effectively than firm direction. Explaining why he tried to avoid being too specific in his direction, Hoffman explained, “You have to keep suggesting. Otherwise the person becomes for of empty shell, and they end up performing in a way that’s not at all, well, spiritual.”
Hoffman’s comments offer a way of thinking about Jesus’ approach with his disciples. As Martin explains
In a sense [Hoffman’s] approach mirrored the way Jesus preached. One of my theology professors said that apart from the initial calls of the apostles, which seem peremptory, brooking little dissent (“Follow me, he says to Peter), much of Jesus’ preaching involves inviting his listeners to consider something new (“Consider the lilies…”) Or, to use Phil’s words, Jesus was always suggesting, in order that the decision to follow or not to follow was the person’s own decisions.
I like the analogy. It does a nice job of combatting the image some people have of God as a kind of marionette master. God doesn’t compel our moves. God doesn’t spell out in detail everything we must do. Instead, God directs by invitation and suggestion and leaves it up to us what to do with that.
There is much else I liked about this book, which has wonderful discussions of despair, of sanctity, of poverty of spirit, and a lot more.