As many Americans were catching trains or planes, or prepping the Thanksgiving table, Image Books released Pope Benedict XVI’s latest book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, the third in a series on the life of Christ. The slim volume has been gotten a fair bit of press, most of which skirts the core content of the book. It’s a brief but rich tour of the Gospels as they pertain to the early life of Jesus, and it offers theological and spiritual insights from the pope, along with some commentary and history lessons.
In a light-hearted interview, Gary Jansen, editor of the book and of Image Catholic at Random House, talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about meeting the pope, reading the pope, editing the pope, and encountering the ghosts of Christmas past, among other things.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: By now many of us know the buzz about the pope’s new book: “Pope on Nativity: Wrong Year, No Animals, No Angels,” as one Web headline put it. What’s the real message of the Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives?
GARY JANSEN: In a single word: hope. Maybe that sounds cliché or simplistic, but The Infancy Narratives are, for me, a beginning to an even greater story. It’s the overture to the greatest story ever told.
LOPEZ: If you could have written the headlines, how might you have described the book?
JANSEN: Oh, I’m the worst at headlines. This is a relatively short book, but there’s a lot to unpack in it. What struck me most — and what I’d love to see covered in the media — is the pope’s material on the Holy Family and, in turn, family in general. Obviously, the Christ child gets quite a bit of attention, but so does Jesus’s mother, Mary — the importance of her role in saying yes to God. And Joseph, the stepdad, gets some significant and thought-provoking attention. Being a dad myself, I enjoyed that aspect very much.
LOPEZ: Are you frustrated or amused by media coverage of the book — and of religion in general?
JANSEN: An author e-mailed me the other day and said he was sorry to hear all the negative press on the book. My reaction was, “What negative press?” He meant all the silliness about the pope supposedly calling off Christmas. I don’t really see it as negative press. This kind of attention is a double-edged sword. It’s great to see so many mainstream-media outlets covering the publication of the book, because it gets the word out to people who may not have even known that the pope was publishing a new book. But at the same time, it’s frustrating to see reviewers focusing so much attention on relatively minor issues in the book — whether or not animals were at the Nativity, or which exact year Jesus was born. It’s such a superficial way to approach the book. What’s truly unfortunate is that we live in such a sound-bite culture that headlines like “The Pope Cancels Christmas” will be the only thing many people hear, and I’m sure that will turn off some readers. It’s sad because the Infancy Narratives are so rich and deep and thought provoking
LOPEZ: Will Cardinal Dolan go on Stephen Colbert’s show to debunk the pope-as-Grinch rumor?
JANSEN: Ha! Did you see them at Fordham together? I missed it, but I would have loved to have been in that audience. I did see the recent segment on The Colbert Report about the book, and I thought it was funny and irreverent. I laughed out loud a few times because of the irony in his presentation. Most of the other stories about the book had pretty serious headlines. I’d love to see the cardinal stop by the show and tell Colbert that he’d been put on the naughty list for Christmas.
LOPEZ: You actually went to Rome for the book’s launch, didn’t you? What was that like?
JANSEN: Oh wow, what an experience. It was a whirlwind trip. I was in Rome for 50 hours to meet with a number of the other publishers around the world who are releasing the book. And while I was there I had the honor of meeting the pope and presenting him with our U.S. edition of the book. That meeting was beyond belief, and there’s not enough time here to talk about all the spiritual and intellectual aspects of the experience, but one thing really stood out for me about my time in Rome. I attended a press conference for the release of the book outside Vatican City, and the venue was filled with reporters — I mean filled with reporters. I didn’t do an exact count, but there were around 400 people in the auditorium — journalists, photographers, and videographers from around the world. We always hear about the secularization of Europe, but I didn’t see any sign of that from where I was. You seasoned journalists and the religious leaders out there know more than I do about the state of Catholicism in Europe, but I was amazed at how seriously everyone took the publication of this book and how the European and international media handled it. Would that ever happen here in the United States? Maybe a book would draw that kind of attention if there were some sort of scandal associated with it, but if it’s a book by a prominent Catholic leader? No way. So that experience was humbling and comforting, and it highlights the contrast between the levels of seriousness here and across the pond. The media here sometimes treat Catholicism as a joke. But the media in Europe are really serious when it comes to the Church. I was really impressed.
LOPEZ: What’s it like being the pope’s editor? Do you make your comments in red in Latin?
JANSEN: Latin? Kathryn, that’s so fourth-century. I actually Tweeted Pinwords to a special papal Facebook account — in Greek and Aramaic, of course, with a little encoded Navajo so no one would know what we were talking about. Seriously, though: What a thrill and honor it is to work with the pope. I feel blessed and humbled by it all. Not only that, but the Holy Father delivers quite a clean manuscript, so he made my job easy. I just made sure things didn’t get lost in translation. My job was to be a shepherd and lead readers to this new star of a book.
I was elated when I found out I’d get to work on The Infancy Narratives, but my mom was over the moon. I think she cried. Quick story: In grammar school, I was supposed to see John Paul II when he was visiting the States. I was part of the St. Agnes Choir, and we were going to perform for him at Yankee Stadium. But a couple of weeks before the performance, I was kicked out of the choir because I couldn’t sing. My mom was devastated. I mean devastated, and she still talks about it 30-plus years after the fact. She really wanted her son to meet the pope. Well, it happened. It just took a long time.
LOPEZ: How do you wind up being the pope’s editor, anyway? Does a priest-agent shop the book around until the best Catholic editor wins? Does a sister come around and make you take an editing test?
JANSEN: Angels, Kathryn. All angels.
LOPEZ: Had you been a reader of the other Jesus of Nazareth volumes from Pope Benedict? What stands out about them? How is this final volume different, besides being shorter?
JANSEN: I have read them and I’m a big fan. Image, then called Doubleday, actually published the hardcover of the first book in 2007, and we’re super excited to be the publisher for the third. The three books from the Jesus of Nazareth series are essentially one single, long book. With a tiny bit of editing, these three books could make a single volume that would become the definitive theological exploration of Jesus in the 21st century.
LOPEZ: Did anything about The Infancy Narratives surprise you?
JANSEN: I wasn’t really surprised as much as intellectually and spiritually stimulated by the pope’s observations. He takes familiar scenes and unpacks them in a thought-provoking but accessible way.
LOPEZ: Random House’s Image Catholic imprint seems to be releasing a steady stream of titles this year, with more to come. Is there a hunger for meaty religious reading?
JANSEN: We are blessed and so, so fortunate, because we’re not only the publisher for the pope’s book, but we also get to work with Cardinals Dolan, Wuerl, and George, Archbishop Chaput, Father Robert Barron, Scott Hahn, Mike Aquilina, Brant Pitre, John Allen, Colleen Carroll Campbell, Christopher West, Amy Welborn, and so many others. We also have two really exciting books coming out in the not-so-distant future: a biography of [the late National Review religion editor] Father Richard John Neuhaus, by Randy Boyagoda, and a memoir, spearheaded by John Henry Crosby, by the late Dietrich von Hildebrand about his anti-Nazi papers. Oh, and John Allen is writing a stellar exposé on the persecution of Christians around the world. I think there is a deep hunger for journeying into the faith and doing so with people you can trust on the ride with you. The last few years have been a tremendously exciting road trip for me.
LOPEZ: Does the Vatican know about your “(Not So) Good Catholic Boy” publishing past?
JANSEN: Thanks for outing me, Kathryn. Yes, I wrote a book called Holy Ghosts: Or, How a (Not So) Good Catholic Boy Became a Believer in Things that Go Bump in the Night. Say that title five times fast. It’s a memoir about growing up Catholic, and it’s also about a series of strange events that my family and I went through between 2007 and 2008. It looks at all that is “seen and unseen.” Or, if you prefer, “visible and invisible.” I do love the “(Not So) Good Catholic Boy” part of the title. I’m in good company, though. There are plenty of not-so-good Catholic boys and girls out there. And if you think you aren’t one, then best to get to the confessional as soon as possible.
LOPEZ: How did you come to write a book about ghosts, and what do you make of the interest in ghosts — in reality shows and consistently in pop culture?
JANSEN: I went through some really weird things between 2007 and 2008. I wasn’t going crazy. I wasn’t drinking. Wasn’t popping hallucinogens. But a series of strange events made me realize that my faith as a Catholic was a materialist sort of faith. I believed in God, yes, but my understanding of God never went below the surface, never went beyond the senses. I thought I was a spiritual person, but then I realized I didn’t really believe in Spirit. So, after a number of weird encounters and going down some strange roads, I ultimately became convinced in things like angels and demons and ghosts, things I had never really thought about in my life. Some people don’t like to talk about such things, but I wanted to explore the topic, so that’s why I wrote the book. Anyway, I think that all the shows today about ghosts are a sign that folks are looking for something beyond the material. They feel this yearning, and they try to answer the yearning in a certain way. For me, it’s like being at a banquet, but we’re all nearsighted, and all we can focus on is the saltshaker in front of us. We can sense there’s more beyond the saltshaker, but we can’t quite see it. But we can intuit that there’s something beyond what’s right in front of us. Faith tells us so, but sometimes it’s really difficult to believe. We live in a world now where, in general, many want to take the mystery out of life. But we yearn for mystery, so people are drawn to mysterious things. God is the greatest mystery, and that’s why it’s so important to explore our faith and enter into the deep mystery of God, which can ultimately bring us to a whole new level of awareness and life.
LOPEZ: Should this popular interest in the supernatural make it easier for us to connect with the Holy Spirit, to be open to a substantial, palpable spiritual life? Could it be a gateway that believers who are called to evangelize might take better advantage of?
JANSEN: When you search out mystery, you’re like a child pulling at a parent’s shirt for attention. And maybe this is what the New Evangelization is all about. We need to get rock solid in our own faith so that we can share the beauty of it with others. There are people in dire need of spiritual direction, and we all need to pay attention to that more.
LOPEZ: Besides paying your salary, how will The Infancy Narratives shape your Christmas?
JANSEN: I’m going to use it as a starting point for prayer this Advent and as a wake-up call for my spiritual life. It’s easy to get caught up in what we think we know. A lot of us think we know the story of the Christ child pretty well. But there’s a great line by Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian writer, about his wife. He says, “I know my wife so well, she’s a mystery to me.” I think the same is true for The Infancy Narratives. A certain familiarity can lull us into thinking that we know the story already. But what’s great about this particular book is that you realize as you’re reading that there’s so much more to learn, and if you take into your heart what the pope writes, you’ll elevate your Christmas in a way you probably would not expect.
“Ah, we know the Nativity story so well, it’s an utter mystery to us.” We should be thankful for that mystery because it’s in the depth of mystery that we find God and ourselves for the first time.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.