No Harm Done

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Longest Book Review You May Ever Read

I almost didn’t make it past page 5

This was not a good sign.

After setting the table for lunch, I slipped outside to check the mail, and I was delighted to find the complimentary copy of Matt Mikalatos’ new book “Imaginary Jesus” awaiting me.

Tyndale House Publishers provided me with a complimentary copy of his book. They had sent me an e-mail a week ago, advising me that my complimentary copy was on its way.

(There. That should satisfy the Federal Trade Commission. Did I mention I was given a complimentary copy?)

As the boys ate their lunch, I eagerly ripped open the envelope and sat down at the table to begin reading. I began with “Chapter Zero,” being careful to avoid reading the plot synopsis on the back cover. I knew both Matt and Tyndale House Publishers were expecting me to review the book, and I didn’t want to influence my first reading of the book with a plot summary or reader testimonials.

I have been reading forms of Matt’s writing for over seven years. Matt married a college friend, and both were missionaries overseas. We loved reading the Mikalatos prayer letters, as they were always well-written and creative. When the Mikalatos family returned and settled in the States, I began following Matt’s blog and Facebook posts. I could tell that his book was written in the same fun, whimsical style as his blog postings and letters.

I thought his idea of writing a fictional message-story with himself as the main character was pretty gutsy. The book opens with Matt in a vegan café in Portland, OR, hiding his Bible under his notebook so no one will see it, and griping about having to eat vegan chili without the tortilla chips he ordered. Seated with Matt at his table is Jesus.

Now, I’ve read books in which Jesus features as a character: “Ben Hur” and “The Robe” are the first two that jump to mind. But the Jesus seated in the café with Matt is not what I’m used to seeing in literature. He’s wearing the robe and sandals in which you always imagine Jesus. But his behavior and his words are not what I would ever imagine coming from my Savior: amused by things that are not amusing when you really think about them; mocking and avoiding one of his children.

Careful to avoid any stray peanut butter sandwich crumbs, I set down Matt Mikalatos’ new book in frustration. As much as I wanted to read it, I wasn’t sure I could take 225 pages of a book where Jesus was treated so flippantly and irreverently, and for what purpose? To be hip? To be “relatable?” To appeal to some particular demographic? Could I stomach reading this?

“Don’t give up so quickly,” said a voice to my right.

I glanced up to find an elderly gentleman, wearing robes and dusty sandals, sitting at my table.

“Apostle Matthew, why are you here?” I asked him. “I just saw you a couple of months ago. We paid our taxes this year. Believe me, everything is filed and in order.”

Matthew waved my question aside with the back of his hand. “No, no. You’re fine on that front. I came about the book. I can tell you’re concerned about reading it, and I came to help.”

I cocked my eyebrow at him. “The book? You came about the book? Have you read it already?”

“No, but I think I can help allay some of your fears about it, “ Matthew said. “Think about what you know of Matt Mikalatos. Have you ever read something blatantly blasphemous from him?”

“Noooo, “ I replied slowly. “Though he usually just writes funny observations from his life.”

“Have you ever known him to write or speak about Jesus in a disrespectful manner?” pressed Matthew.

“No,” I answer with certainty. “I’ve seen other authors do that, but never Matt. That seems unlike him.”

“Then give him the benefit of the doubt. Give the book more than five pages before you put it down. Look, do you see the cover? The title is ‘Imaginary Jesus.’ Don’t you think that’s a bit of a clue about what’s going on in the story?” said Matthew.

I frowned. “Do you mean that the Jesus he’s having lunch with isn’t actually Jesus? That he’s a representation of something else? That’s…odd. That doesn’t even make any sense.”

“Hillary, you are sitting at your table having a conversation with the Apostle Matthew. Does that seem at all odd to you?” asked Matthew.

“Well, no. It’s not like you’re the real Matthew. You’re imaginary – ooooohhhhhh,” I left the sentence hanging as I finally understood. “You’re saying that this isn’t the real Jesus. It’s a Jesus-like figure that Matt created.”

“Exactly, “ smiled Matthew, as he patted me on the head. “Now, give the rest of the book a chance. Let him tell his story and see where he goes with it.”

Matthew pushed his chair back from the table, and made his way to the front door. “And, Hillary, it isn’t easy writing a book. I wasn’t an author. I didn’t study literature. I was a tax collector, and the Lord used me to write for Him. Matt was, well, a lot of things before he wrote this book. Writing isn’t an easy process.”

He closed the door softly behind him and left me to think about his words, as I picked up the book.

I’m glad that I followed Imaginary Matthew’s advice and continued on with the book.

As Apostle Matthew implied, the Jesus that appears in the early pages of the book is NOT the real Jesus. He is a Jesus that Matt Mikalatos created out of his own imagination, and one with which Matt is very comfortable. He never points out Matt’s sin. He’s like Matt in pretty much every way, except maybe in track and field. The Imaginary Jesus is definitely a faster runner than Matt.

Throughout the book many, many forms of an Imaginary Jesus appear: Legalist Jesus, Magic 8 Ball Jesus, Perpetually Angry Jesus, and Peacenik Jesus are just a few. Each new Imaginary Jesus appears to have been created out of a small aspect of Jesus’ personality as revealed in Scripture. In other words, in each form of Imaginary Jesus there was a wee bit of truth. Sometimes we take the bits of the Jesus in Scripture that we are the most comfortable with, and fashion that into an Imaginary Jesus who is simultaneously Jesus…and yet very, very NOT. It is often much easier for us to deal with a Jesus of our own (or someone else’s) making, than the Jesus revealed in the Bible.

This was an excellent point made by Mr. Mikalatos, and I thought the way he weaved it throughout his story was fantastic. With each new Jesus I definitely was forced to square it with what I knew from the Bible.

There were only two points of contention that I had with the book. I’ll discuss them briefly here, and try not to spoil anything.

Numero Uno
At one point in the book, Matt’s Imaginary Jesus makes several statements that are clearly contrary to what is in God’s Word. He does this in order to make himself more palatable to an unbeliever.

One example of such statements is this, “ …people get all hung up on that my death on the cross was all about substitutionary atonement. Like the only reason I died was to take away the sins of other people. Does that even make sense? How does my dying make other people’s sins go away? And what sort of loving father lets his son get killed? I mean, yeah, I had to die, but not because Dad was punishing me for something you did. It’s like, ‘Dad, Matt stole some cookies,’ and Dad comes down with the belt and I say, ‘No, no, hit me instead’ and God agrees to that? No way.”

When the unbeliever questions Imaginary Jesus about the above statement, he is told not to be so judgmental. Through the entire conversation, Matt sits silently. Nothing in the conversation set off any warning bells and told him that, “Gee, this Jesus is saying things that are directly contrary to Scripture. Maybe he’s not the real thing.”

In fact, it is not until Matt, Imaginary Jesus, and the unbeliever visit a cool, hip new church that Matt realizes that he has attached himself to another Imaginary Jesus. However, it wasn’t the aforementioned gross doctrinal errors that tipped Matt off. When the unbeliever pointed out to Matt the real Jesus surely wouldn’t be found in a racially homogenous church, THAT was what opened his eyes. I can’t imagine the point of this interaction was to imply that the real Jesus is only to be found in racially and generationally diverse churches?

Numero Dos
In the “big reveal” scene at the end of the book, Matt encounters the true Jesus Christ. I thought it was respectfully done but, the language used was very vague and much of what could have been an impactful scene was lost.

Were this a book solely for Christian believers, the use of vague language when discussing such topics as sin, Christ’s death on the cross, and repentance does a disservice to the believers. Vague language waters down the meaning of His sacrifice.

Were this a book solely for unbelievers, the vague language makes the gospel unclear and doesn’t lead any reader to any sort of action. I understand the need to be sensitive when writing for unbelievers, but why shy away from clarity?

Such phrases as “friend of Jesus” or “friend of God” do not give any productive clarity to non-Christians. Someone may see himself as a “friend of God” simply because he does not see himself as an active “enemy of God.” But the Bible says this is not true. (Romans 5:8-10)
"but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life."

In another paragraph, Matt writes: “[Jesus] died so that I could …break out of those for my deeper desires, those amazing, wonderful, transcendent actions that I so badly wanted to do but couldn’t without his help. He died so I could live His life.”

But in our unsaved state there is nothing in us of any redeeming value. That which we do without Christ is still sin. All of our good works are sin, without Christ. To say that we have these deep desires to do good works, but cannot do them without Christ is only half true. We cannot do anything of kingdom value without Him. But without Him, we don’t even want to. It’s not that Christ enables me to do things, it is Him living in me.

The Gospel is powerful. There are important concepts that can be explained clearly, but not when using vague language in an effort not to scare people off.

I understand that Mr. Mikalatos is trying to present the Gospel without using such offensive words as sin, repentance, forgiveness, etc., but the end result is, I fear, confusion and no sense of direction for an unbelieving reader.

Near the end of the book, Matt does write that the Bible is the place where he met Jesus and hears Him speak clearly. I am glad that it is in the book, though I wish that this point was made a bit more strongly.

Allow Me To Sum Up
I enjoyed reading “Imaginary Jesus.” It was a fun, light-hearted, quick read. Don’t think that “light-hearted” means “fluffy and without substance.” Despite the breezy style of writing, the author gives the reader a lot to think about. There were several times when I had to put the book down and meditate over the previous chapter. Matt Mikalatos is a gifted writer, and I look forward to reading more from him.

The premise of the book is fantastic! I loved the notion of us creating an Imaginary Jesus for our own comfort. It was not something I’d ever thought of before, but I certainly see how often and how easily it is done! I can absolutely imagine myself discussing this issue with my children as they grow spiritually.

I would not recommend it as a book for unbelievers, due to the clarity issues I mentioned above.

However, I would have no problem recommending this book to other believers. I can think of more than a few who might receive this book as gifts this year! “Imaginary Jesus” is definitely a book that will make you think.


At 9:18 AM , Blogger Matt Mikalatos said...

Hillary, thanks for the great review. I think that you have written certainly the most interesting one yet... I like that the apostle Matthew showed up. That was fun.

I'll send you a note later today with a couple comments about the things you disliked. Of course I wouldn't do that for just anyone but since we're friends and all. :)

Have a great day and thanks again for the review!



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