Have you ever read one of the stories in the gospels, either one that was about Jesus or one of the parables told by Jesus, and been…well…bored? If you’re like me, you’ve heard those same stories so many times that they’re like an old blanket: more comforting than interesting.
What would it be like to go back and once again hear those stories for the first time?
That’s what Matt Mikalatos is trying to help us do in The First Time We Saw Him: Awakening to the Wonder of Jesus (Baker, 2014). As he explains in the introduction, the book comes from his own experience of knowing lots of facts about the Bible, but realizing that his muted responses to the gospel stories were radically different from those who were hearing those stories for the first time.
“Somewhere along the way my emotional responses to Jesus, which ranged from a mild, pleasant feeling all the way to a mild, semicrippling guilt, stopped matching the emotional responses of the people interacting with Jesus in the Scriptures.
The disciples felt terror when he calmed the seas.
The crowds experienced hate-filled, murderous impulses when they heard his teaching.
People wept in his presence. They repented of their sins. They fell at his feet in worship.
I started to wonder if maybe I was the simplistic, two-dimensional character. I needed to take a fresh look at Jesus.” (p. 10)
And he goes on to explain, then, that the real point of the book is to find a way of re-telling the gospel stories, not because he thinks that he can tell a “better” story than the original, but because he thinks it will be helpful to for us “talk about the Gospel stories in a way that might shock us out of our preconceived notions and help us approach Jesus with the same wonder, frustration, revelation, uncertainty, and nervous fear that people did in the first century” (p. 11).
So we meet Miryam, a young, teenage girl traveling by train to meet her cousin Liz, desperately trying to make sense of an unexpected pregnancy and some startling visions.And we get to know Joshua, a man with a penchant for telling rather shocking stories to complacent and comfortable church goers. We even meet a seminary professor, who instead of listening and learning tries to “test” Joshua by asking him a question about eternal life. Maybe my favorite, though, was the story of Jessica. In just a few short pages, Mikalatos walks us through the story of how she pursued a dream, fell on hard times, made understandable but disastrous choices, ended up as a prostitute, heard about this amazing teacher, was overwhelmed and ended up pouring expensive perfume all over him. In doing so, Mikalatos both helps us really to see the prostitute as a person, not just another prop in the story, while at the same time reminding us to be shocked that Jesus is letting this prostitute get that physically close to him. What happened to setting appropriate boundaries!
The book doesn’t leave us with just stories, though. In each chapter, Mikalatos also offers some reflections about the stories that help us modern readers to see the things that would have stood out and startled people hearing them for the first time. Although the re-told stories were my favorite, Mikalatos’ reflections are quite helpful as well.
I’m sure some will be concerned about the very idea of telling biblical stories in such remarkably new ways. And Mikalatos is sensitive to that concern. But here’s how he explains what he’s doing:
“These retold stories aren’t literal translations, but that’s not their purpose….These stories are meant to shake us out of our preconceptions, to give us a jolt, to make us look at our dear, beloved, familiar Jesus through new eyes. And while sometimes these retellings might seem inaccurate, I’d encourage you to think of it like this: If a child came up to you and asked you to explain what an eight-track tape is, you could find an eight-track player and buy it and show them how it worked. Or at some point you might say, ‘It’s like an MP3 player that only holds one album.’ That’s not accurate but it is insightful.” (p. 11)
If you’re looking for insightful (as well as creative and challenging), this is a book I can heartily recommend.