Author Recounts Journey In “Trailing Jesus”


North County News 4/23/03


by Rita J. King

After six years of academic study and a pilgrimage that carried him to Jerusalem, writer James Campion has already sold out of the first printing of his book, Trailing Jesus.

“It’s very difficult to get past semantics to describe the intangible,” he said last Thursday before a reading and discussion at the Barnes and Noble in Mohegan Lake.

He spoke to students at his old high school earlier that same week, and echoed the words of a man he admires, Joseph Campbell.

“The main thing is to follow your bliss, but insecurities and yearning interfere with the process,” Campion said, encouraging the youngsters to approach obstacles with the same kind of fierce tenacity that landed him in the Holy Land.

Campion, a former Putnam Valley resident, was raised in a devout Catholic family and began to question organized religion at a young age. The image of the crucifixion above the altar disturbed him. “I spent 30 years of my life thinking about the historic Jesus,” he said. “And then I spent 10 years of serious study. It was an intellectual, spiritual and emotional journey.”

Campion said the one way he enjoys having written a book is to give readings, and more chairs had to be brought in at Barnes and Noble last week to accommodate the audience. Theologians and people of all ages asked him questions about his findings and beliefs, and he was cautious about his approach to avoid insulting individual beliefs. He said he differentiates in his mind and his work between Jesus Christ as an icon and as a person. Campion pointed out some of the inconsistencies between the teachings of Jesus Christ and the manner in which the Catholic Church has evolved. The Vatican, with its rare works of art and the luxuries of a palace, is very different from Jesus Christ’s rejection of opulence.

“Jesus Christ preached against owning anything,” Campion said. He pointed out the fact that Jesus lived hand to mouth, wore tattered clothing and had a long beard, unlike many of today’s high level clergy in fancy garb, preaching from pulpits painted with gold. “This journey was about exploring the unexplorable,” he said. “I asked myself what mountain am I trying to scale with very blunt instruments and no rope?”

Trailing JesusThroughout his life, the Holy Land seemed as fictitious to him as the Emerald City of Oz or Atlantis, but he learned how real it is. The mood there is unlike any place he’s ever been, with the solemnity of fervent belief and the historical context of Jesus Christ’s life heavy in the air. “People kill each other over this smallest patch of land,” Campion said. He compared his trip to a lover of the Beatles making the trek to Liverpool or a Civil War historian showing up at Gettysburg to stand on an empty field in order to feel the history that once unfolded there.

Martin Brech leads a class on spirituality at Barnes and Noble. He has a master’s degree in divinity, teaches comparative religion, and said Trailing Jesus is the “best written and most marvelously researched book” he’s ever read about the life of Jesus Christ.

Campion started off by reading the book’s first pages, which describe the time in his life when he first understood who he was, which catalyzed his spirituality. He touches on a “mysterious swirl of events, a place before the light where there is only nothing.” Brech asked what Campion means by his use of the word “nothing.”

“The nothing is everything I was before this day. The nothing is the silence of everything. All that life is, all that life is not,” Campion said. “We’re all here and we’re all afraid of what we’re not going to be, of not existing.”

Campion’s ideas, at their core, are reminiscent of the neurological perspective that the frontal lobe of the brain expanded around the same time the limbic system underwent a metamorphosis. With the expansion of the brain’s frontal lobe, human beings were able to contemplate death, which separated people from animals lacking consciousness. With the new powers of the limbic system, people were able to fantasize and imagine. Some neuroscientists credit these phenomena for the birth of religion.

But many more people believe Jesus Christ is the savior, and some even develop what is commonly known as the Jerusalem Syndrome upon visiting the Holy Land. This is when visitors begin to believe that they are Jesus Christ, John the Baptist or another person from that place and time. This belief underscores a fundamental aspect of Campion’s philosophy. “The present moment is eternal,” he frequently says. The past continues to live in the minds and hearts of those who take the time to study it, and those who place their faith in Jesus Christ. He said the benefit of icons is they can’t “lie, cheat or steal your money,” and consequently people can turn them into whatever they need because they can’t protest.

The book’s prose is tight and luminous, and Campion takes readers on the journey, his first outside the United States. Some books about Jesus Christ make him into a superhero lacking humanity, Campion said, while others strip him of his mysticism. “A book can be written about Babe Ruth’s carousing and drinking, but if the fact that he was a baseball player isn’t mentioned, a large part of his story gets left out,” Campion said.

A woman in the audience asked him the inevitable question about whether he accepts Jesus Christ as the savior and son of God. “Is he the son of God? I ask, who isn’t?” Campion said.

“Live your life,” he said. “This is not a rehearsal. Experience the now. We’re here today. This is an everlasting moment.” Trailing Jesus can be purchased along with Campion’s other two books, Deep Tank Jersey and Fear No Art on his web site, and any Barnes & Noble location nationwide, including its web site and

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