#39—The seven last words of Jesus, with James Martin, SJ [MIPodcast]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. The New Testament records seven phrases Jesus uttered as he hung on the cross. Christians around the world commonly use these seven last words as a focus of Good Friday worship services. Maybe you’re not sure what Good Friday is, so my guest today is James Martin. He’s a Jesuit priest and a New York Times bestselling author who recently published a book called Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus. His book is a nice example of the intersections between academic and devotional writing.
If you have questions or comments about this episode, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening to another episode.
BLAIR HODGES: James Martin is a Jesuit priest and editor at large at America: The National Catholic Review. His latest book is called Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus. Should I call you Father Martin? Or what would you prefer?
JAMES MARTIN: Jim is fine. Whatever you prefer, though.
HODGES: Jim, okay. Well I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule today, Jim. You’re probably used to larger platforms. I know you’ve appeared on NPR, BBC, you’ve written in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, been on Fox, and the Colbert Report, so thanks for adding the prestigious Maxwell Institute Podcast to that list.
MARTIN: I am delighted to be with you.
HODGES: So I follow you on social media and I see that you just got back from Rome. What was the trip for?
MARTIN: Well I work for a Catholic magazine called America and our editor normally goes over to meet with different Vatican officials and religion journalists who cover Rome, and then also I’m a Jesuit, which is a Catholic religious order, so we meet with people at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome. So it was quite busy. I ended up sort of doing a little too much. It was also very interesting.
I don’t know Rome of Vatican City all that well, just by what people think about Jesuits popping over to Rome all the time, so it was really interesting. I saw the inside of the Vatican for the first time and met a lot of interesting officials and journalists and Jesuit folks. So it was good, but I came back totally wiped out.
HODGES: Did it feel sort of like a pilgrimage? That’s home base for you guys.
MARTIN: Well, you know, it’s funny. It did not. I’ll tell you why. I had been to Rome two years ago on a pilgrimage with a group of adults who were parents of students who went to Jesuit high schools. That was much more prayerful. We visited different churches and really toured around. This time I said to myself well, gee, I hope that there’s time for a little more prayer and kind of quiet and pilgrimage, but I ended up emailing people saying, “Would you like to meet with me?” And everybody said yes. So the irony was I really went over there with the intention of it being a little more prayerful and it was not. I would have liked some more quiet time. So maybe the next time I go over.
HODGES: So, we’re recording this interview on February ninth. It’s a Tuesday today. It happens to be the day before Ash Wednesday. This is especially timely I think because your latest book Seven Last Words discusses the phrases mentioned in the Gospels that Jesus utters on the cross.
A lot of my listeners probably come from traditions, especially Latter-day Saints, that don’t have a heavy liturgical calendar. We don’t celebrate Ash Wednesday and all the liturgical observations sort of leading up to Easter, so I thought it would be nice to get a primer on the liturgical calendar from you first.
MARTIN: Sure. Well, you know, the liturgical year basically follows the life of Jesus. It begins with Advent, so the time leading up to the birth of Jesus at Christmas, and then it continues through his public ministry and then Lent comes; Lent is a forty-day preparation period before Easter, and so towards the end of Lent we have Holy Week, which you read the events and what we called the “Passion Narratives,” the stories from the Gospels that talk about his death, and then Easter of course is the resurrection. Then we move back into what’s called “Ordinary Time” which is again sort of looking at Jesus’s public ministry, the healing, and the preaching, and things like that, and then you’re back to Advent.
So every year you sort of follow Jesus through his life, which is great because I was talking to someone just yesterday about Lent and this fellow said, “Well, every Lent I seem to have to kind of go back and look at my life and repent and try to a little better,” and I said it’s kind of great that Lent comes around once a year, because there’s always a chance to repent. It’s not once and for all. You’re always trying to do a little better.
But essentially the liturgical year is following the life of Jesus, and that sort of gives a rhythm to a chronological time as well.
HODGES: How about Ash Wednesday in particular, which is tomorrow? What do people do on Ash Wednesday?
MARTIN: Well, traditionally as the beginning of Lent people start their practices of, there’s three parts to Lent in our tradition. Prayer, fasting, and alms giving. I’m not sure if that’s part of the LDS tradition as well, but prayer of course, kind of redoubling your prayerful and spiritual life. Fasting, and the reason we do that originally it’s not simply to just sort of punish yourself, but the original reason was the fast to save money to give to the poor so there was a generous effect of that as well, and also I think fasting and giving things up reminds us that we do have a will and our bodies aren’t kind of in control of us.
Then alms giving, of course, giving alms and being charitable. Most Catholics try to “give things up,” which is certainly laudable, but I would suggest trying to do things too. Being kind, being more charitable, looking at it from a more positive viewpoint. Then today, of course, which I forgot about until you mentioned it, is Mardi Gras, which means Fat Tuesday, which means that supposedly people go crazy—
HODGES: I saw you wearing your beads there.
MARTIN: Yeah, right. I wish. I’m not really. There’s not a whole lot of craziness I can get into today. So but certainly in New Orleans and places like that there’s parties and things.
HODGES: Sort of like get it all out right now before—
MARTIN: Yeah. It’s definitely not part of… that’s not in the Gospels. The disciples did not have a big party before Holy Week. Although, we have to remember that Jesus’s first miracle was turning water into wine at a party. So, you know, he wasn’t totally a man of sorrows.
HODGES: We’ll talk about that in a minute too, because you’ve written on that. So Seven Last Words, the book Seven Last Words is based on sermons that you were invited to deliver last year on Good Friday in 2015 by Cardinal Timothy Dolan at St. Patrick’s Cathedral of New York, so I’d like to know something about that invitation and the sermon itself and whether a lot of Catholics celebrate Good Friday by focusing on these seven last words.
MARTIN: Well that’s a good question. It’s a Christian tradition that crosses different denominations. I don’t know if it’s as well known as some other Christian traditions. Basically, as you say, it focuses on—it’s a little confusing for people, the seven last words aren’t exactly words, they’re sayings or phrases. They are, for listeners that may not know them, I’ll just list them, they’re very short. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Truly I tell you, today you’ll be with me in paradise,” he says that to the good thief. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “Woman, here is your son. Here is your mother,” he says that to the beloved disciple. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” “I am thirsty.” And, “It is finished.”
So that is the sum-total of all of the things he says when he’s on the cross as recorded in each of the Gospels. Now, interestingly, they’re not all of them are in each of the Gospels. In fact, most of them appear just in one or two Gospels. From around the sixteenth century there were liturgical services, church services basically, on Good Friday where the seven last words would be combined and there would be a little prayer around each one, a little music, and then a sermon.
So I was invited last year by Cardinal Dolan, who’s the archbishop of New York, to preach at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Funny story, normally when you go to Seven Last Words Services on Good Friday, they’re usually from twelve to three, which is the traditional time that we thank or we commemorate Jesus being on the cross, although it’s kind of hard to say exactly when that was. Normally it’s seven different people, you know, so you have from seven different denominations. So you might have a Catholic, Episcopalian, a Mormon, a Baptist, a Methodist, etc. preaching on each of the words, each of the sayings. Cardinal Dolan invited me and I said, “Well, which one do you want me to do?” And he said all of them. My Jesuit friends said, “All of them? I feel sorry for the congregation.”
But it enabled me to give a certain overarching theme to it, which is that Jesus understands us, that his sufferings and his experience on the cross reminds us that he understands what he’s going through, physical suffering, emotional suffering, and even spiritual suffering. So that was the kind of theme that I brought to each of the seven last words last year. It was a lot of fun. I really was very, I was nervous because it was St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but once I got started I thought, “Well, I’m preaching about Jesus. I do this every Sunday.” So—
HODGES: Talk for a second about that venue and why that would be a sort of intimidating place for you to speak.
MARTIN: Well, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is the Catholic, the home of the Catholic archdiocese here in New York. It’s the main cathedral in New York. It’s, I would say, world famous. Pope Francis just visited it a few months ago. It’s very big, and very daunting when you go inside and it’s kind of a magnet for people. It’s a tourist attraction as well because it’s so beautiful.
Interestingly, when I was preaching there it was under renovation and so you know you always have this idea of what it’s going to be like when you preach at some great place and you think oh, it’s going to be so beautiful, and just so dramatic. And I walked in and there was scaffolding everywhere. So that made me feel a little more relaxed. It’s like oh, okay, it doesn’t look as beautiful as it normally does, so we’ll just sort of make do.
HODGES: I thought it was cool in the forward where Cardinal Dolan mentioned that it was undergoing physical renewal of the building and he sort of liked being in that setting because you were speaking on spiritual renewal, and that it just really stuck out to him.
MARTIN: It did. It stuck out to me, and it also reminded me that we’re human beings, just as he said, just as we have to go through spiritual renewal, and we’re not perfect, the cathedral is not perfect. The only perfect person was Jesus. So it was. It was kind of funny, it actually brought it back down to earth for me. I did notice, however, that by the time the Pope came all the scaffolding was gone. He obviously ranked.
HODGES: Yeah, I’ll bet. They left it up for you, though, so.
MARTIN: Yeah, right.
HODGES: Did they fill it up pretty well?
MARTIN: Oh yes. It was packed. I think that was not for me. It was because it was Ash Wednesday. Excuse me, Good Friday. Which is always very busy. The service includes music and the choir and the organ is pretty amazing. So they weren’t coming just for me.
HODGES: So how long did it take? I sat down and read this book in an evening and it only took an hour or two.
MARTIN: Yeah. That’s a good question. The Seven Last Words, the whole service takes three hours. It’s sometimes called “The Three Hours,” or in Italian, the “tre ore.” So it is that time between twelve and three. Growing up for example, I did not come from a particularly religious Catholic family, I mean my parents were Catholic but we weren’t sort of super Catholics, but even us between twelve and three were not allowed to have the radio on and the TV on. We had to be quiet. We weren’t going to church, but we were supposed to be quiet. So that time a lot of people in New York know that they want to be quiet. So naturally they would go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
HODGES: That’s cool.
MARTIN: Yeah, it was fun.
HODGES: So we’re going to dive into a couple of phrases, just one or two of them that’s discussed in your book, but before we do that your intro points out that a lot of Christians wonder why these particular utterances are scattered throughout the Gospels rather than being meticulously reported in each one. I think in the introduction you mention that one saying is in Matthew and Mark, they each have one, there are three in Luke, and then three in John. They’re not all the same. It seems like if any of his words would be passed on and meditated on it would be these, but yet we have them sort of scattered. You use this as a way to introduce people to New Testament criticism.
MARTIN: Yeah, which is really important because when you think about it, and I’m sure many of your listeners might be thinking about this too, you would think, as you said, if anything, I mean, the things that he said from the cross would be recorded and treasured and be in every Gospel, but they’re not. Why is that? Basically I start off the book with a little description of how the New Testament, how the Gospels, were compiled basically. I remind people that it took place in several stages.
So the first stage is Jesus’s actual public ministry. So he’s there and he’s preaching and he’s healing, and people are around to witness that. Not just the twelve apostles or the disciples we think may be seventy disciples, or the followers, hundreds of people, but crowds. So that’s the actual sort of doing of the living out of his life and death and resurrection.
Then came the oral tradition. So after his resurrection and his ascension, you know, people were passing around these stories orally. We have to remember a lot of people thought Jesus was going to come again. You read the scriptures, so they wouldn’t have written down those things anyway.
But then as it becomes clear that some of the original witnesses are dying and Jesus would not, as it was expected, return soon, the next stage began, which was the actual putting together of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We have to remember each Evangelist wrote for a different audience so would stress different parts of the story, they might leave out something. I always remind people, you know, if you read four different books about whomever, I’m reading a book about Theodore Roosevelt. If you read four different books about Theodore Roosevelt by four different contemporaries, you’re going to get four different stories. They’re going to leave some out. They’re going to put stuff in. They’re going to emphasize things. That doesn’t mean that each of them are wrong, but that taken together they give us a full portrait of Jesus.
So some of the Gospel writers would have left things out and left out some of the last words, but also their communities might have known them. So they might not have been passed along the same way. So taken together they give us a sense of Jesus’s emotions and experiences on the cross. It’s very hard. I had a hard time with this in theology studies, but my theology professor was a great scripture scholar and really helpful said, you know, we can’t think of the Gospel writers as reporters on the scene taking down notes. They simply weren’t. Some of them may have been there, but they weren’t taking notes.
HODGES: They didn’t have like the fedora with the card sticking out.
MARTIN: Right? And they didn’t have a tape recorder to stick up to Jesus’s mouth. Even in some of the most beloved passages like what are called the infancy narratives when Jesus is born, they’re different. Even some of the things he says in the Sermon on the Mount, you know, which scripture scholars think he would have said many times, it wouldn’t have been just one time, is it blessed are the poor or blessed are the poor in spirit? You would think they’d get that right, but it’s like four people telling the story four different ways. So they’re not all the seven last words, it’s a long way of saying, they’re not in each of the Gospels.
HODGES: One of my favorite things you write there, I have a quote here on page seven, you say, “These phrases represent not only some of Jesus’s final thoughts on the cross (at least as recorded in the gospels), but also what the original communities for which the evangelists wrote considered to be the most important sayings. So the seven last words are important for understanding not only Jesus, but also the early church.”
MARTIN: Yeah. So if I wrote a book about you and I concentrated mainly on your work at Brigham Young and not on your childhood, people would say well, okay, obviously for Jim Martin that’s a very important part of this man’s life. If another person wrote a book about, let’s say, the hometown—where did you grow up, by the way?
HODGES: I grew up here in Utah.
MARTIN: So if another person was writing a book and he himself was from Utah, he might spend a lot of time on your hometown and your growing up, and now that doesn’t mean that our books are wrong or our books are contradictory, it just means that we would stress one thing or another. Your academic career at Brigham Young might not really figure very heavily in his book. He might not quote things that you said from academic articles, and vice versa. I might not quote things that your mother said. That doesn’t mean that she never said it or you never said them, it’s just different perspectives. It shows something about me, what I think as an author, and it would show something about the other fellow or woman who was writing about Utah, what they consider important.
So you’re right. It does sort of give light to the different communities that the Gospel writers are writing for, which differ, and also they’re writing in different times as well.
HODGES: I think it’s interesting to also think about how the same sort of fit into individual Gospels. So you could see in Luke the phrases “Father, forgive them” and where he tells the thief he’ll be with him in paradise, you could see how those sayings are connected to other aspects of how Luke sort of told the Gospel story, like these might match up with key themes of his particular Gospel compared to sayings in other gospels.
MARTIN: Well put. I wish I had put that in my book that way. That’s really well put. Absolutely. So we think of Luke as sort of the person who writes, for example, the parable of the prodigal son, right, which is all about forgiveness. Then in Mark, for example, he has “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s a really strong kind of indication of Jesus’s humanity, which comes out a great deal in Mark.
HODGES: And Mark doesn’t have a nativity story in there.
MARTIN: Right, and he has very little in terms of the resurrection. So it’s focusing mainly on kind of this, what I would say, this earthy sort of almost impatient, kind of rushed Jesus. So you get that very human cry from the cross. He’s human and divine, but it really speaks to people of Jesus’s humanity. So maybe in the second edition I can put a little addendum of what you just said. It’s a great insight.
HODGES: So one of the things that you pointed out here in the book as well is as you prepared the sermons you say, “If there was an overarching theme in my own reflections, it’s the way that Jesus’s sufferings help him to understand us.” That kind of became, I think, the keystone of the book that you kind of revisit time and again.
MARTIN: Yeah, that was really important to me. It’s important to me in my own life. Basically for me, I mean the traditional belief—and pardon me if I’m not sure if this a Mormon belief as well— is that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. So fully God, fully man. At least among many Catholics, I can speak for my own tradition, we tend to focus mainly on the divine Jesus. Which is certainly part of the story. They call it two natures, human and divine, and we tend to focus on the divine nature. So for example, Jesus raising people from the dead and stilling the storm, and things that we typically associate with the divine nature, his resurrection. We see him as, and he is, Son of God.
We tend to forget that he was a human being, that he would’ve gotten sick, he may have sprained an ankle or two, he got headaches, he got tired. He had a body, basically. More to the point, he grew up in Nazareth. He worked for eighteen years, from ages twelve to thirty. He worked. He didn’t just sit on his rear end and do nothing and wait for the baptism. He was in a carpentry workshop, and that’s hard work. We tend to think of it as this kind of romantic, he has all of his seer’s craftsman tools up on a pegboard somewhere, but you know he did hard work. The time on the cross really does show us his humanity. He is suffering physically, and I suggest in the book that he’s suffering emotionally too. He’s abandoned by his disciples. He even suffers spiritually. He says, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” He feels this distance from the Father.
So what’s the point? The point is that when we pray to Jesus we’re not praying to someone who doesn’t understand us. We’re not praying to someone who is far removed from us. We’re praying to someone who understands us, not simply because he’s God and he understands all things, but because he’s a human being and he experienced all these things. He remembers these things. Remember when he comes back from the resurrection, he’s bearing the wounds. So it is that kind of connection to the human Jesus that I find really helpful for me.
HODGES: So if you’ll indulge me, there’s a really interesting passage in the Book of Mormon that touches on this. It’s in a book called Alma, chapter seven. It hits on this. It says, “Jesus shall go forth”—and this is a prophet foretelling of Christ—”Jesus shall go forth suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind, and this that the word might be fulfilled which said he would take upon him the pains and sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death, which bind his people,” and this is the part that always sticks out to me, “And Jesus will take upon them their infirmities that his bowels may be filled with mercy according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”
MARTIN: That’s beautiful. You know, I don’t know much about Mormonism, but I agree one hundred percent with what you just read. It’s interesting the use of the word “bowels,” you probably know, but in the Greek world and in the New Testament when we hear the term “Jesus’s heart was moved with pity,” it’s his bowels. So there’s this sense of he feels it in his guts.
HODGES: Yeah, deep down.
MARTIN: And he does take on—it’s a really beautiful passage—he does take on our infirmities. Now you could see that in a spiritual way, that sort of he enters into the world with all of its sinfulness, but in a very homey way, and I say this sometimes to shock people, he gets sick. He had the flu. He had stomachaches. And then more severely, you know at the crucifixion, he suffered intense physical pain. So when people who are struggling or sick or whatever, when they pray I remind them that Jesus understands this. As you say, he took on our infirmities. So it connects people more with Jesus.
HODGES: Yeah. I think so too. So I assume that you, as a Catholic you’ve spent time thinking about these phrases maybe even once a year as Easter approaches and Mormons don’t usually parse them all out and think about them that way. I think it’s a very valuable way to study the scriptures. So that’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you about this book is because I think it would be a great meditation for a Latter-day Saint.
So as you prepared the sermon, was there any particular phrase that you saw in a fresh way this time around, given you’ve seen it so many times?
MARTIN: I really go back to again and again “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is probably the most difficult word or saying or phrase for people from the cross. That is really something to hear Jesus say. I go into it in some detail, that there’s a scripture scholar named Raymond Brown, a great New Testament scholar who did a lot of work, he has a book called The Death of the Messiah, which is a two-volume study on all the passion narratives and everything you could possibly want to know. There’s two interpretations for that. The first interpretation is that Jesus–and you’ve probably heard this—is quoting Psalm twenty-two, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The rest of the psalm is kind of a prayer of thanksgiving. It ends with he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
So in that interpretation Jesus is kind of invoking the psalm in its totality, so you might just say alright, he’s actually in point of fact he’s actually sort of expressing his hope in God.
MARTIN: But Raymond Brown and most scripture scholars say no, what he is doing is he is saying he feels a sense of distance from the Father. Very interestingly, in—I think it’s good to go back to the original Greek to see what’s going on because the New Testament’s written in Greek—in the Garden of Gethsemane he prays to “Abba,” which is an Aramaic word which means more or less, “Dad.” Not exactly “Daddy,” but “Dad.” It’s a kind of affectionate term. When he’s on the cross and he feels abandoned, he says “Eloi,” which is very formal. That’s “God” or “Lord.” It emphasizes the distance.
It would be like if I said, “Oh, Blair, will you help me?” and the next time I say “Mr. Hodges.” Just the sort of nomenclature and the type of address underlines the sense of abandonment and that’s really hard for people to grasp, but he does, the Gospel writers put that in there. There’s a reason they put that in there. There’s all sorts of ways of seeing how authentic it is. One of the criterion is the Gospel writers would never put something in there that would be potentially embarrassing. That is a phrase that is sort of potential embarrassment. How could Jesus have said that?
HODGES: This is your Lord and this is him just really not looking like a Lord right now.
MARTIN: Right. In a way you’d think he might have it all together, and yet there is perhaps the most profound entree into his life. Now I don’t think he despaired. He’s not saying I don’t believe in God. He’s calling out to God. But he’s saying I feel abandoned by you. I feel sort of distanced from you, and why is that?
HODGES: It’s almost harder to believe and feel like God went away completely.
MARTIN: Yeah. Although, I bet even a lot of your listeners may have had this experience where you believe in God and yet you don’t feel God’s presence. You say, where are you?
HODGES: I’ve certainly been through that.
MARTIN: Yeah. So you would understand Jesus’s experience of that. I would imagine you probably have talked to people who in your tradition feel like that. They’re not saying I don’t believe in God, but they’re saying where are you?
HODGES: Now this saying is one of the most difficult, this one and “I thirst” are both sort of just hit you deep down because they just show Jesus’s vulnerability. This is a theme that you revisit throughout the book. Since the book’s largely a meditation on Jesus’s suffering on the cross before the resurrection, I thought it was interesting that in your introduction you took a moment to talk about joy as well. This seems to be a common theme for you.
In addition to some appearances you’ve made on the Colbert Report, you’ve also written a book called Between Heaven and Mirth. It’s sort of about humor. So talk about that theme in your writings and how it related to this project.
MARTIN: It’s very important to see that as important as certainly Lent is, and Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’s life, and certainly Good Friday, that that’s not the end of the story. The end of the story is Easter. Good Friday makes zero sense without Easter. We have certainly in the Catholic tradition, we have tended to portray Jesus as sullen and morose and the man of sorrows. You know, you go into a Catholic church and really often the first thing you see, the very first thing you see, big as life, sometimes larger than life, is the big crucifix. At Protestant churches you often go and you’ll see a bare cross, it’s this kind of symbol of the resurrection.
Now, I think there are ways to argue for both sides, one emphasizes the resurrection, the other doesn’t kind of try to get away from the sufferings of life, but the point is that many of us have made Christianity into this very somber, boring, morose religion. You see pictures of Jesus and he’s rarely smiling, even after the resurrection. He looks kind of ticked off.
HODGES: There’s some more contemporary ones that are goofy though. Like Jesus laughing with a roller blader or something—
MARTIN: Yeah, there are. That’s the irony. Because there’s maybe two or three that I’ve found that are actually, you know, decent and all that.
HODGES: It’s hard to find good, not goofy kitschy ones.
MARTIN: Right. But earlier you mentioned, which is a great line, he says look, you say to me I’m a glutton and a drunkard. Now what does that mean? Jesus in his lifetime from his own lips, is being critiqued for living it up. I mean, he turns water into wine at a wedding party, that’s his first miracle as we said, the wedding feast of Cana. Joy, joy, joy, rejoice with me that my joy may be complete in you. When he’s raising people from the dead and healing people, the response is joy. So the majority of his life is about joy and the end result of religion is about joy.
So I wanted to put that in just to remind people that Jesus is not simply the man of sorrows. Even in this book it’s important to kind of hold onto that.
HODGES: Right. Did Between Heaven and Mirth get a pretty good response? I think that was one of the times you were on Colbert Report was when that book came out.
MARTIN: Yeah, it did. People were a little surprised when it came out because ironically you go to at least the Catholic section of your bookstore and it’s all suffering, the cross, all that kind of stuff. You can look in vain for a book on joy, humor, or laughter and I wrote that for two reasons.
One, I had been giving talks around the country about the saints, and I would talk about joking or funny stories that the saints did or said. One of my favorite stories is Pope John XXIII, who was pope from 1958 to 1963, who was just named a saint, so now he’s Saint John XXIII, had this great sense of humor. I would tell these stories and people were hysterical. They’d say, I can’t believe that, I’ve never heard of a pope having a sense of humor. Now with Pope Francis it’s a little more common. But John XXII’s most famous joke came when a journalist asked him very innocently how many people work in the Vatican, and he said, “About half of them.” That kind of stuff.
As I was giving talks I realized people didn’t know about that tradition of Catholic humor, and particularly the humor of the saints, and also I met a lot of what I would call professionally religious people, I’m sure you do too, who seem ticked off all the time. As we call them in the church the “Frozen Chosen.”
HODGES: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
MARTIN: I’m sure you don’t. I’m sure there’s no one like that in your tradition. I wanted to sort of write a book to remind people of the centrality of joy in the Gospels and our spiritual lives, and also in the lives of the holy people that we know.
HODGES: That’s good. We’re speaking today with James Martin. He’s a Jesuit priest and editor at large at America: The National Catholic Review. His latest book that we’re talking about today is called Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus.
Which saying interpretation do you think would be most unexpected to practicing Catholics today? Recognizing there are diverse perspectives in Catholic pews. Is there any saying that you think might be surprising?
MARTIN: Well, I’m going to come back. I really do think that “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is just sort of terrifying to people. But also, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” or they do not know what they are doing. I mean, I think that would be more challenging.
Forgiveness, I think, is hard for all of us. We often say, this is one of the things you were saying about… to respond to your question about seeing things in a new way, we often say well, you can’t really forgive someone unless they have remorse. So if you do something terrible to me unless you really express remorse I’m not going to be able to forgive you. Well, Jesus is forgiving his executioners as he hangs on the cross. Let me tell you, they’re not expressing a lot of remorse. I mean, they’re there mocking him and teasing him. At some point they offer him some vinegar on a sponge. But for the most part they’re not saying forgive me, Jesus, I am only doing this because Pontius Pilot made me. That’s hard for people.
So I tell two stories in the book about a father who forgave the drunk driver who killed his son, and a woman—these are both true stories—who forgave the man who killed her sister, her sister’s unborn child, and her sister’s husband. Murdered them. And what the forgiveness does to people. In the first case, it freed this young man who was a drunk driver to have a full life. In the second case it freed this murderer, who was in jail, to be remorseful, because he had never expressed remorse. So that’s a hard one for people, because they say I’m not going to forgive them until they apologize, for example. But that’s not what Jesus asked us.
HODGES: That is tough. I don’t know how I would handle that, especially in the case of losing a family member.
MARTIN: Since we’re both from different traditions we’ll take another tradition. I’m sure you remember the story of the Amish people in Nickel Mines. That to me, boy, that is real Christianity. That is the community coming together. I admired them so much. The human response is to rage, and certainly anger of course, I would be angry as well.
But I think there’s something in us that’s really touched when we hear those stories, and I suggest in the book that the reason we’re touched is because it’s a glimpse of the divine. It is a glimpse of something that we are drawn to and that we know, and it’s so beautiful.
HODGES: Yeah. It’s a shocking reversal of what you would expect.
MARTIN: Yeah, just like Jesus’s life is, and the resurrection too.
HODGES: So as we talked about before, you begin the book with a very basic primer on a little bit of biblical scholarship. How much of a surprise or challenge do you think that would be to your everyday Catholic? Are there any anti-intellectual or anti-scholarship strains that you have to reckon with as a Catholic and as someone who tries to reach the public?
MARTIN: Yes. It’s not so much anti-intellectual as that Catholics in general, here comes some big stereotypes, do not know their bible as well as their Protestant sisters. As a result, and why is that? Well, for a number of reasons. One, the Bible was seen as the province of Protestant scholars.
There’s a great line that I like to repeat. My scripture professor, my New Testament professor, who died a few years ago used to tell the story of growing up in an Irish Catholic family in Boston and a door-to-door bible salesman came to the door, I guess they still have those. She opened the door—this is a true story–she opened the door and the guy said, “I’m selling a bible.” And she said, “We’re Catholics. We don’t read the Bible.” And shut the door. This is a New Testament scholar’s mother.
So part of it is they don’t know a whole lot about the, I would say, the construction of the Gospels. When you start to say things like well, there are four different people who wrote for four different audiences at four different times, they start to think whoa, whoa, wait a minute. What do you think you’re doing? Are you telling me that this is false or that this never happened? No, no, it’s just to understand how they were put together and why certain things are in one gospel but not in another, etc. They get upset because they feel that you are trying to threaten something. I said, you know, I’m not saying that this isn’t true or these things really didn’t happen or I don’t believe in these things, but to understand the Gospels and understand the differences that you come across, you know, you have to understand how they were put together.
So it’s called historical criticism. It does, yes, it does threaten, I would say a few Catholics when you bring it up to them. But then what you’re going to do is say look, why did you think the Gospels don’t agree on something? So not every Catholic, but some Catholics might be threatened by that. So that’s why I try to do it gently at the beginning and talk about it using the example of four different people telling the same story. You would naturally get four different stories.
HODGES: How about with church authorities? Do they ever get nervous with publications that talk about biblical criticism or that sort of get into those issues? Like they might fear that they might unsettle some people or that it’s somehow not appropriate in any way? Do you face any of that kind of pressure?
MARTIN: Not really. I’m always very careful in just laying out in the beginning look, you know, I believe that Jesus Christ is fully human, fully divine. I believe he’s the Son of God. I believe he rose from the dead. Don’t worry about what I’m now going to say. I’m also very clear when I speculate. What might have been going through Jesus’s head? Well, you know, in the end for the most part we don’t know. I mean, one chapter that I say, look, this is very speculative, he says it is finished.
Now, most scripture scholars say that what that means is I have completed it. I have done my mission. It is completed. But I use it as a kind of spiritual jumping off point to say that as he hung on the cross and looked at the fact that his disciples had abandoned him and that he was being put to death, did he really know what was going to happen on Easter Sunday? Might there not have been an element of sadness or disappointment? Like, I’ve done all I can do, this is it.
So I introduce an element of perhaps disappointment, but here’s the point, I’m very clear that this is speculative. I’m saying I’m not challenging any traditional teaching, but it’s good to sort of put ourselves there and put ourselves in Jesus’s place as it were, as another way of trying to understand him. So to your point, I’m very clear about what church teaching is, and I’m also very clear when I’m being speculative.
HODGES: Okay, so kind of putting your cards out on the table sort of to be forthright but also to sort of stick within the tradition and—
MARTIN: Yeah, and also I don’t know what… I mean, we have a privilege access into Jesus’s mind on Good Friday and on Holy Thursday in the Garden of Gethsemane through his actions and his words, but I’m not Jesus. So I don’t know exactly what was going through his head at the time.
HODGES: That’s James Martin. He’s a Jesuit priest and editor the Catholic publication America. He’s appeared in venues like NPR, PBS, Fox News, Comedy Central. He’s written over ten books. The latest of which just came out. It’s called Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus. We’ll take a quick break and be right back.
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HODGES: James Martin is a Jesuit priest and editor of America: The National Catholic Review. We’re talking today about his new book, Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus. It’s a meditation on the seven phrases Jesus is recorded uttering on the cross.
Now that we kind of have a sense of what the book is about, Jim, let’s zoom out a little bit and talk about what it’s like to publish a book like this in this genre. People might be surprised at your own professional and spiritual trajectory, so you didn’t always plan to be a Jesuit priest.
MARTIN: No. In fact, I never planned to be a Jesuit priest. Maybe for your audience it’s good to explain. A Jesuit is a Catholic religious order, so that would be like the Franciscans or the Benedictines, or the Dominicans. Pope Francis is a Jesuit. He’s the most well known Jesuit probably ever now—
HODGES: He’s like the first Jesuit pope, right?
MARTIN: He is. He is. What does that mean? It means we’re priests and brothers, like other Catholic religious orders. We take vows of poverty, which means we don’t own anything. We live together in a community. Chastity, which means we don’t get married, and we love people very freely but without exclusive relationships. Poverty, chastity, and obedience, which means we’re obedient to our superiors. Basically we go where they tell us to go. We live in community. Jesuits are mainly known in the United States for their universities. So Georgetown, Boston College—
HODGES: I went to Georgetown.
MARTIN: Oh, okay, there you go.
HODGES: That’s where I became familiar. I saw these gravestones with “SJ” on them.
MARTIN: Yes. Society of Jesus. So I didn’t know any Jesuits. I didn’t know what a Jesuit was, like most Catholics didn’t I think before Pope Francis, and I was working at General Electric, I went to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and then took a job at GE.
HODGES: Business. You were a business guy.
MARTIN: Yeah. Then was unsatisfied with that, or dissatisfied with that. Found the Jesuits. That’s sort of a very short version of my vocation story, but I was not always interested in the Jesuits.
HODGES: So you went to school, you were in General Electric, and you said your folks didn’t really attend church often or it wasn’t a really big part of—
MARTIN: No, we went most Sundays.
HODGES: So there was some attendance that you guys did.
MARTIN: I didn’t go to any Catholic grammar schools. I didn’t go to a Catholic high school. We didn’t say grace at meals. We didn’t talk about God. We didn’t, you know. I was on the sort of fast track, I wrote a book called In Good Company, which tells the story of my vocation, and the subtitle is The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. I mean, basically I was very happy studying business. It was a really exciting thing to do. This is the early 80s. Graduated in ’82, the height of kind of being a yuppie. Yeah, you know, Reagonomics, all of that, Wall Street. That was the world I entered into. Very exciting. Worked in New York and too a job at GE in Connecticut in their financial services RMG capital. Got more and more dissatisfied and realized I was basically in the wrong place.
HODGES: Was it just boredom? Did you just sort of feel like you didn’t have a sense of service to it?
MARTIN: There’s that. There was definitely that. There was little stress. There were some things I didn’t like about the corporate world. I always labor to emphasize this, that for many people business is a real vocation. It just is.
HODGES: They feel a calling to it.
MARTIN: Yeah, they feel they flourish. It’s funny, I’m just popping into my head is Mitt Romney, who was with Bain. That was a vocation for him. He loved it. I was sort of a square peg in a round hole, and one day I came home and saw a TV show about a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton. That got me reading his autobiography and thinking about what’s called in the Catholic world, it’s a terrible phrase, we call it religious life, which means life in a religious order. I got connected to the Jesuits and entered and never looked back. Great decision.
I learned a lot at Wharton, I learned a lot at GE, I think frankly the church could learn a lot from the business world and probably vice versa, but yeah. It was not something I planned. That is for sure. My parents were horrified. Horrified. I’m serious.
HODGES: Is partly that because of the family issue? Because sometimes people want grandkids, and if you become a priest you took that vow of chastity.
MARTIN: That’s part of it. That was certainly part of it. We’ll never have grandkids. Although fortunately my sister has two wonderful kids, so I have two nephews. That was one. Two was you’re going to be lonely. You’re going to be stuck away in some monastery somewhere, which is actually also hysterical because I’ve got a zillion friends now. What was the other thing? Oh, and you’re kind of wasting your education. What did you go to business school for if you’re never going to use it?
HODGES: Because you were a latecomer. Wasn’t it your late twenties when you kind of—
MARTIN: Yeah, though that’s pretty common these days for Jesuits, which is good because I think it’s good for people to have had a kind of a job basically. So that when you become a priest or a brother and you’re counseling people, I mean for example someone comes to me for spiritual counseling or a spiritual direction or even confession and they say, you know, “My boss is a jerk,” I worked with bosses who were jerks. It’s not like I say oh, well, you must just accept that, or that is your cross. They may have to accept it and it may be their cross, but I can understand them. I know what it means to earn a living, which I think is a good thing for a priest to do.
HODGES: It’s funny you mention Thomas Merton. I have his Life in Holiness sitting here. I’ve been going through it. It’s really good.
Another book that you might find interesting is a book called Conversions by Craig Harline. He’s a professor here at BYU. He wrote a story about a young man in the 1600s who was the son of a Dutch reformed preacher, and he converted to Catholicism, ran away with the Jesuits. This was kind of a trope back then. The Jesuits would abduct these young men. So it traces his story of being a religious person who sort of, I mean, disappoints his parents much more obviously than you ever could, but you should check it out. It’s called Conversions.
MARTIN: I’ll take a look. It’s a true story?
MARTIN: That’s fascinating. I mean, boy, from Dutch reform to Catholicism. You can’t get worse. His family was probably pulling their hair out.
HODGES: Yeah, it was huge. It’s a unique book to Yale. Yale has a series on it. It’s called “New Directions in Narrative History.” It’s sort of an experimental way of looking at historical documents and stuff. So he actually found correspondence in, I think a journal of this young man. Really rare, unusual find and traces this young man’s conversion. It’s fascinating—
MARTIN: The irony, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. The irony is that some people don’t know the Jesuits. They don’t know that they’re a Catholic religious order. When I entered or when I decided I was going to join the Jesuits a lot of my friends said “I thought you were Catholic.” Now, fortunately, I thank God for this pope for many reasons, but I no longer have to say yes, a Jesuit is a Catholic, it’s just a different religious order. So the pope has finally put all of that to rest, thank God.
HODGES: So one of your books was a New York Times bestseller. You’ve written books that have won other awards. You’ve written at least eleven. I think this might be your eleventh that’s not an edited book. Is that right?
MARTIN: I think that’s right, yes. I’ve kind of lost count, but I think that’s right.
HODGES: And you’ve also earned a pair of Master’s degrees before your ordination. You’re kind of an unusual Jesuit in that you don’t have a PhD, a lot of Jesuits do, but you’re still an educated person and you’re writing books for popular audiences. I wanted to talk about what it’s like to try to bridge the divide between pulpit and podium, university podium and sort of church pulpit. Are there things that you risk losing in the translation? is there this sort of pop Christianity type thing?
MARTIN: That’s a great question. Now, I would say no. I think the key is making things accessible and inviting for people. Like Jesus did. Jesus spoke to people… the parable is a great definition. A parable is a story drawn from nature or everyday life. It so arrests the listener as they tease his mind in active thought, something like that, and nature everyday life.
So he talks about, you know, a woman looking for her coin. Weeds growing up against wheat. A sower going out to sow. I mean, he’s talking to people in their own language and he’s trying to speak to them, and that’s what I’m trying to do. Now that doesn’t mean there’s not room for academic work and scholarly work, but what I try to do is make things accessible, just like the discussion we were having about the gospels and how they were written.
Now you can read a million books on that, and they’re wonderful, but I think most people aren’t looking for an academic textbook and frankly it’s the same with Jesus. Jesus did not come down and say alright, now I’m going to talk to you about the ineffable mystery of God, and I’m going to speak to you theologically about the vast tradition in the Jewish scriptures about forgiveness.
HODGES: I think he did, they just didn’t write it down.
MARTIN: Yeah, right. Frankly, the Gospel of John sometimes he does sound like that. But most of the time they say… well here’s a great example. Who is thy neighbor? Now Jesus does not say, this is my point, Jesus does not say “I’m now going to give you the ten things that make up a neighbor.” Instead he says, “A man was going down to Jericho…” and he tells the story of the Good Samaritan. So he’s meeting people where there are.
So there are some things that do get lost in the translation sometimes when you sort of popularize things, but for the most part I actually think that sometimes Christianity gets lost tin the translation when it gets overly scholarly.
HODGES: Yeah. It’s a double-edged sword.
MARTIN: Exactly. So I try to sort of make it inviting for people. That’s the word I like to use.
HODGES: I’ve kind of thought about it in terms of a division of labor. Paul talks about the body of Christ and the head can’t say to the hand—
MARTIN: Right. Absolutely.
HODGES: So you’ve kind of got people doing different tasks, and some people are able to write something that reaches a much wider audience. Some people, and your book kind of builds on some of that obviously—
MARTIN: That’s necessary. Yeah, I mean for example this book, Seven Last Words, and a recent book I did called Jesus: A Pilgrimage, I use the work of some of the great New Testament scholars who I know who are friends of mine. That’s what they do. They’re also supportive of me, so absolutely. We all don’t have to preach and live out the gospel the same way.
HODGES: So when it comes to commercialism and you took a vow of poverty, and yet you’re a New York Times bestseller. How do you handle that?
MARTIN: All of my royalties and earnings go to the Jesuits. So that’s part of poverty. So all the money that I make from my books, every penny, all the stipends I get from talks, all the donations I get goes to my community. So that’s part of poverty.
HODGES: Do you sort of get like a living stipend to sort of—
MARTIN: Yes. You get an allowance basically.
HODGES: That’s kind of like how Mormon missions are.
MARTIN: It is.
HODGES: For two years we get a monthly—
MARTIN: Yep. Well this is for my whole life.
HODGES: Yeah, that’s your whole life.
MARTIN: That’s the way the, I mean, you read the Acts of the Apostles, that’s how they lived. It’s actually very freeing. I love it. There are some things I don’t love. I mean, sometimes I wish I had some nicer clothes or whatever, or sometimes I wish I had a car, which I don’t have. I sometimes think I wish I had my own apartment. But let me tell you, we live in common so I don’t have to worry about food or clothing or any of that, but more importantly this, so my book Seven Last Words I can put it out there and be happy with it and see how it goes, and I’m not sort of sweating bullets if it doesn’t do well, and fortunately so far it’s done really well, but if it tanked that’s not my livelihood.
HODGES: Exactly. Yeah.
MARTIN: The other thing is I’m not, as we say in the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola founder of the Jesuits, said we can’t be attached in a disordered way to things that are going to keep us from God. So if I’m so attached to making money or success of whatever, I’m not really free. It’s very freeing actually.
HODGES: Now in terms of social justice, this is interesting. You came to be on the Colbert Report in 2010. There was an incident where a particular political commentator who Mormons might know who shall remain nameless made a remark about people should flee their religions if they see social justice on the church website, you should like run away. So how did Stephen Colbert find you as a person to bring in on that issue?
MARTIN: I had been on the show before a couple of times. I think the first time in ’07. He had seen something I wrote about Mother Teresa and interestingly this does connect with what we’re talking about, but Mother Teresa had a kind of feeling of absence of God for like the second half of her life.
HODGES: Yeah. Come Be My Light I think is her book.
MARTIN: Exactly. Exactly. So I’d been on a few times, and when this person talked about fleeing churches that preached social justice he had me on and I reminded him that Jesus asked us to take care of the poor about, I don’t know, countless times in the Gospels. It’s not enough to simply care for the poor. We have to, which I think this is a good formulation, we have to look at what keeps them poor. What are the structures that keep them poor?
One of my favorite lines, which I’m not sure if I quoted in that show, I think I did, was from a Brazilian archbishop, this real great apostle of the poor. His name was Dom Helder Camera. I love this. He said, “When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.” That’s what social justice is, just looking at structures, and also how can our society be more just and help people? Frankly, I don’t know. Now people, I understand and many of your listeners may differ on how to do that, but I think everybody’s in favor of justice. So justice on a social level is called social justice. I was not in favor of what that political commentators said, and Colbert talked about it.
HODGES: And that’s one of the difficult things for me. It’s a, I would say the main theme of the Book of Mormon, is this exact issue of the poor. It comes up again and again, and there’s a cycle in the Book of Mormon of wealth becoming a corrupting thing, where people begin oppressing the poor. So to hear that was interesting because that commentator, he’s from my own religious tradition. So when I see that publicly it’s sort of embarrassing, and I’m sure you’ve been through that.
MARTIN: Let me tell you. You’re not the only tradition that has people that say things that you’re embarrassed by. I mean, there are many Catholics who are in the public stage today who say things that just make you scratch your head and say, “Are you reading the same Gospels?” One of the litmus tests in Matthew chapter twenty-five about whether or not we’re going to make it into heaven is how you treat the poor. He can’t be any clearer. You can disagree on how best to do that, but if you set that aside you might as well set all the Gospels aside.
HODGES: I think that’s kind of what it boils down to. Like you said, there are these underlying values that most religious people, most Christians, most Mormons, most Catholics will share. But then there are internal disagreements within traditions even. Not just between traditions, but within.
So sometimes people would criticize, say, a liberal, with scare quotes around it, Catholic figures. They would say hey, stop politicizing religion. Then there are also people, like I could say that to someone in my own tradition when they say avoid social justice. hey, stop politicizing religion. But it’s difficult to separate politics in a religion. They’re imminently connected. How do traditions negotiate these internal tensions?
MARTIN: Well I think internally it’s always with charity. It’s listening to people. In the Jesuits we have a book called The Spiritual Exercises. It was written by Saint Ignatius. It’s a kind of a forward retreat where you follow the life of Jesus. The beginning of the book, believe it or not, is called the presupposition and this presupposition is basically give people the benefit of the doubt. That sort of leads off the spiritual classic. Giving people the benefit of the doubt. I think that’s really important today, where on social media or on TV, and frankly even in our political campaigns there’s a lot of demonization going on. It’s really personal attacks. So I think that’s the first thing. Giving people the benefit of the doubt, never attacking that person, never using the word “you,” you know “you’re like this,” or talking about the argument and kind of talking about it in a charitable way. I think that’s important.
The other thing is recognizing that no one person has a lock on their faith. A lot of Catholics, and I can speak for mu own tradition, some Catholics on social media or other media give the impression that they’re Jesus Christ. They know everything. Therefore they have the license to attack people. As I like to say, they’re so Catholic that they forget they’re Christian. It’s a lot of mean spirited attacks. That is so divisive. I really try to run away from that. Most Catholics are not like that, thank God.
HODGES: So the way I wanted to conclude was by having you read an excerpt from the book. Actually from the conclusion, if that’s alright.
HODGES: It begins on page one-twenty five. So this is the end of the book. So, spoiler alert to everybody out there.
MARTIN: Sure. Well I think if we’ve read the Gospels we know how they end.
HODGES: Right. I think this really captures the spirit of the book really well. I think if you read kind of from the one-twenty five to the end there, on page one-twenty six. It’ll give people an idea of the spirit of the book.
MARTIN: Okay. I’ll introduce it a bit. I’m talking about Jesus’s miracles and how dramatic and awe-inspiring they would be.
“Consequently, it can be hard for some people to feel that they can know Jesus. There are many windows into his human life. One is remembering that he lived a fully human life as a boy and adolescent and young adult in Nazareth. Another is recalling that he spent eighteen years of his life working, earning his daily bread as many of us do. Another is thinking about his friendships with the disciples and people like Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus. The Gospel of John points out in no uncertain terms Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Each of these human experiences offers us a window into Jesus’s life.
“Good Friday is another important entree into his life. Through his seven last words we are invited to come to know him more deeply. Imagine a friend asking you to accompany him or her through a difficult time. The loss of a job, the death of a parent, major surgery. You would see your friend at his or her most vulnerable, most naked, most honest. It would be a privilege to accompany your friend in that way. It’s something that would change your relationship forever. The seven last words are such an invitation. They offer us a privileged access into Jesus’s life, and therefore an entree into who he is. They help to reveal him to us more fully. Jesus then becomes someone whom we can understand better. As we would want to understand any friend, and he becomes someone with whom we can enter more deeply into relationship, which is what Jesus thirsts for.”
HODGES: That’s James Martin reading from the book Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus. Thank you so much for being on the show today, Jim.
MARTIN: My pleasure. Great conversation. Thank you.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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