I just finished reading Matt Mikalatos’ Imaginary Jesus (BarnaBooks 2010), and I must say that it’s a fabulous read. Any book gets my vote that includes a fistfight between Peter and Jesus, a conversation where Peter tells Matt that they need to go “find a whore,” Jesus hotwiring a car, and a whole bunch of Jesuses getting into a brawl in Powell’s. (Really, it all makes perfect sense in the story.) The whole book functions as a narrative satire on different ways that we misconceive, and in a sense “tame”, Jesus by fitting him to our preconceptions and perceived needs.
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should also say that Matt is a Western grad. But, he only took one class from me, so I can’t take any credit (or blame) for anything he’s written.
Imaginary Jesus is a satire that tells the story of Matt coming to realize that the “Jesus” he hangs out with all the time is not actually the real Jesus. Instead, he’s an imaginary Jesus that Matt has constructed out of his own needs and desires. So Matt goes on a search for the real Jesus (along with the apostle Peter, a talking donkey, and a former prostitute). Along the way, he confronts quite a large number of imaginary Jesuses as he discovers that nearly everyone has their own personal Jesus (to steal a line from Depeche Mode). And, eventually he has to struggle with his own inner needs and weaknesses that have caused him to hide from the real Jesus for so long – a struggle that will cause Matt to deal with the difficult questions of pain, death, loss, and the love of God.
Imaginary Jesus does a number of things very well. First, as you’ve probably figured out, it contains a fair amount of irreverent humor. And, it’s great. Theology can often be a discipline characterized by an almost stoic unwillingness to see the value in wit, humor, and joy. Matt has no such problem. Throughout the book he uses a whimsical narrative to address substantive theological issues. And, he does it well. He also mixes in an obvious appreciation for the wondrous side of life (art, food, friendship, children, etc.) that helps keep the story alive and fun.
The book also succeeds because of Matt’s extensive familiarity with evangelicalism, particularly in the northwest. Since the book provides a satirical look at a whole range of Jesus-like misconceptions, the book pokes into the evangelical psyche of almost every evangelical subculture. Matt spends most of his time with those subcultures that he knows best (white, middle-class, Portland), but his vision is much broader than that. And, although the satirical approach will rub people the wrong way at times (satire is supposed to do that), he is generally fair in the way he makes fun of himself and others.
Matt should also be commended for the way in which he handles the challenging issues of death, pain, and suffering as they relate to the nature and character of God. I don’t want to give away too much of the story here, but the burden of the narrative really rests on how the pain in Matt’s life affects his image of Jesus. And, throughout the story, Matt resists offering any easy answers to the questions that he asks. In the end, he offers only a hope that belies the brokenness of this present reality, a hope grounded in the goodness, faithfulness, and sheer otherness of God, as well as the fact that Jesus has entered into our pain and has promised to make all things right in the end.
Finally, I appreciate that Matt ultimately grounded his understanding of Jesus in the narrative of the Bible. I got a little nervous in a couple of places thinking that finding the real Jesus was going to be a semi-mystical “journey within”, an attempt to ground our understanding of Jesus in our own spiritual experiences. But, as important as personal experience is in the book, he clearly shows that the only reliable picture of Jesus is one that is grounded in the biblical text. And, unsurprisingly for this book, it’s an atheist who demonstrates this most clearly.
When it’s all said and done, Imaginary Jesus is a fun read, but one that will also press you to think about your own imaginary Jesus(es). It would be a great book to use with people who might find “theology” intimidating, but need some theology in their lives anyway.
Tomorrow I’ll offer some more critical comments on Matt’s book. But, they won’t change the fact that this one is worth reading.