Matt Mikalatos introduces a surreal world of ‘Imaginary Jesus’ where he (as author/protagonist) engages with his own personal Imaginary Jesus in the company of his wife, an aggressive but kind hearted Apostle Peter, a (literally smart-ass) talking donkey, a mystery could-be-an-angel motorbike man, a couple of Mormon missionaries and a host of other phony-Jesuses.
This is a novel and not the apologetics book I was expecting when I put my hand up (or tweet out) when asked at the Urbana 09 missions conference who would like a complementary pre-publication review copy. If you don’t like the surreal, have no or little tolerance for flights of fancy and expect your Christian literature to be straight faced and straight laced please avoid this book. However, despite a couple of misgivings (see below), I found this book quite helpful, thought provoking, challenging and even moving.
Mikalatos draws us into this surreal world of his relationship with his “Imaginary Jesus” and the subsequent chase to both capture and rid himself of this phony messiah with great wit and insight. The novel itself weaves fact and fiction together – or at least I presume it does – in order to expose the state of the church: settling for second rate facsimiles of Jesus rather than seeking genuine and transformative relationship with the One True Jesus.
It is funny and the book made me laugh out loud. There is one particular passage where the pursuit of an imaginary Jesus leads into a bookstore and there are a multitudinous plethora of Jesuses who impose themselves on the author which made me shake with laughter.
CEO Jesus came running toward us, saying that I wasn’t organised enough with my time and didn’t I want Jesus to bless my business. Feng Shui Jesus offered to rearrange my house so that the spirits would be pleased, and Cooking Jesus grabbed me by the arm and said, “If you follow my first-century dietary tips, you can live a long and happy life!” I shook him frantically and shouted, “You only lived to be thirty-three years old!” (Chapter 32)
But through laughter and at times incisive observation Mikalatos uncovers the uncomfortable reality that in the face of the reality of who Jesus is and the full gamut of life that we live, we all too often choose a Jesus of our own imaginings rather than God-Incarnate-in-Human-Flesh-Fully-Human-and-Fully-Divine-Jesus-Revealed-in-Scripture.
As well as laughter there is quiet reflection through the more sober sections of the book. Mikalatos speaks of times when God had made His power and presence known in his life and of the confusion and pain and at times aching ‘silence' of God in and through irreducible loss. These non-fiction biographical sections of the novel are profoundly moving and contrast nicely with the magical-reality of the rest of the book. They anchor the narrative to open up the reader to examine their own culpability in settling for their own flavour of imaginary Jesus and herein lies the book’s merit. However, before extolling its merit let me express my misgiving.
In exposing and deconstructing the imaginary Jesuses in the book the negative is parodied far more than the positive is expounded. The Real Jesus is spoken of and a desire to know Him, as He is, is evident but not really anchored outside of the internal reality of experience. My concern is that here it would be possible to shift to another imagined Jesus without being driven to Scripture as our primary means of getting to know Him. It is too easy to demythologise our imagination without truly turning to see Jesus for who He has revealed Himself to be. Mikalatos does much to ensure the reader doesn’t simply supplant one fanciful Jesus for another but I’m not sure that it is enough to fully do that which He intends.
That said I enjoyed this book and was moved and challenged by it. It is too easy for us to allow fakery in our imaginings of Jesus: the parabolic and hyperbolic parody in Mikalatos’ book provides an unexpected smack around the face. It is a rude awakening done with humour and devastating accuracy. For the long-in-the-tooth follower of Jesus we might see an all too uncomfortable correspondence to reality as we read this flight of fancy: for we might be dallying with a deceptive image of Jesus, a functional idol serving our whims and desires rather than the Jesus revealed in history and made accessible in Scripture. Amid the laughter we might find ourselves moving to tears of repentance and a renewal of joy in an encounter with the real Jesus, turning again to the gospels rather than a flight of fancy in order to meet with Jesus: the very real, non-imagined Jesus
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe… For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
…After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? you have the words of eternal life and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God”
“Imaginary Jesus” Matt Mikalatos will be available in the USA from April 2010. Published by Tyndale House Publishers ISBN:978-1-4143-3563-6