More Imaginary Jesuses

Yesterday I started a review of Matt Mikalatos’ Imaginary Jesus. As I said before, this is a book that manages to be both fun and theological at the same time (terrifying, I know). But, I also said that I would offer a few critical comments as well (mostly because I like being mean).

My first criticism is one that I need to be careful with. Imaginary Jesus is a satire and, consequently, you should expect a fair amount of biting (though humorous) criticism. And, like all satires, there will be some places where you get a bit uncomfortable. Again, that’s the point. But, for satire to work effectively, you can’t cross the line to where the criticisms begin to feel unfair. For the most part Imaginary Jesus succeeds. But, there are a couple of places where the satire stretches a bit too far. This was particularly noticeable with Meticulous Providence Jesus. Now, I’m not a meticulous providence guy, so this isn’t me defending my own imaginary Jesus. But, I know a lot of people who hold to some version of meticulous providence, and I’m not sure that they’d see enough truth in the caricature for the satire to be successful.

Second, I think Matt lets us off too easy at the end. After all his wrestling and struggling with his imaginary Jesuses, Matt seems to suggest that we can arrive at that point where we have finally found the real Jesus. But, do we ever really arrive at that point? Is my vision of Jesus ever separated from my own culturally conditioned expectations, needs, and desires? Of course not. And Matt knows that. But, he lets the story end without offering what I think would have been a needful caution that we will wrestle with imaginary Jesuses for the rest of our lives. Maybe he intended to suggest that by offering a real Jesus at the end of the story whose face was hidden – suggesting that we will always supply our own. But, if so, I would have liked to see that made more explicit. A little less of a “happy ending” and a little more emphasis on the not-yet of our present understanding would have been appropriate.

I was also surprised and frustrated not to see the church play much of a role in the story. Matt is on this amazing adventure to find the real Jesus, but apparently that is something you do entirely on your own. (Assuming that you don’t count the Apostle Peter, the talking donkey, and the former prostitute.) I would have preferred to see Matt engage with the church at some point in the process. In this way, the atheists again come the closest. They’re at least working together in trying to understand the Bible and what it says about Jesus. So, although I liked the emphasis on finding Jesus in the text, I would have liked to see a strong emphasis as well on finding Jesus through his people.

I also think George Barna gets off too easy. Come on, George Barna in a book that satirizes evangelicalism? That’s just begging for some scathing satire in its own right.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on May 20, 2010, in Christology, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. After this part of the review I expect to see a character named “Carc Martez” in Matt’s next book! 🙂

    • I’m a little afraid that when I get back to the office the Frog of Hate will be sitting on my desk.

      • The thing about the Frog of Hate is that he wouldn’t be sitting on your desk, he’d be sort of hidden behind a pile of papers or something and then some day you would move them and say ACK! The Frog Of Hate!

        REBUTTALS!

        Okay, not rebuttals. But replies. Explanations?

        1) Honestly, Meticulous Jesus, Freewill Jesus and Can’t-See-The-Future-Because-It’s-Unknowable Jesus all got a less-than-fair shake, I think. I’m sure the meticulous providence people you know are, for the most part, gifted theologians with a really great, balanced, careful view. But most of the people I meet who are passionate on the topic of Calvin vs Arminian vs Wesleyan vs Make-Your-Own view of providence have sloppy charicatures of the positions. And even the people who have it right are often, in my opinion, so hung up on defending their point of view that it becomes definitional to their conception of Christ and something that can’t be moved beyond… they have to discuss and defend it constantly to the detriment of their continued intimacy with Christ (in my opinion). So more what I was trying to show here was that the theology of this question is rarely sufficient in and of itself to move one toward knowing the real Christ, and that people in pain engaging on the` question generally don’t find the answers particularly helpful… and they tend to choose the one they “like” the best rather than the one that fits scripture. Anyway, that’s probably too long of an answer, but Meticulous Jesus MADE me do it. 😉

        2) Yeah. Writing fiction is hard. If a fake Jesus showed up at the end, the reader would go, “Oh, so nothing has changed.” You’re right, the not-complete revelation of Christ was meant to show that there is more distance to travel…

        3) Re: the church. I agree with this, actually. I had debated having a sermon being part of a turning point, but it’s too hard to have a sermon without it being preachy. Ahem. Anyway, part of the issue here was the audience I was thinking of while I was writing… people pretty distant from Christ. So letting atheists reveal Christian truth was a sneaky way to get my audience to listen. I figured there were a lot of people who would immediately tune out otherwise. I tried to bring in little things, like Sandy, to show some of the necessity of the church, and of course the climactic discovery of the true Christ is in the church during communion, which I tried to show as being part of the community. But the basic critique that the church didn’t come across strongly enough… I have no disagreement here.

        4) I have nothing to say here, other than that George was very gracious in allowing me to present him as a nearly robotic number cruncher. I will say that in my next novel there is a great scene where George Barna and Carc Mortez get in an awesome ultimate fighting cage match.

      • Thank you very much for posting this, Matt. Your responses were very helpful. The only one that I’d still be a little inclined to push on is the issue of the church in the process. I completely agree that our society’s perception of the church is not great and that it would have been difficult to sell a prominent role for the church in solving the problem to a non-Christian audience. Even many Christian audiences will resonate with the idea that our search for Jesus should be largely a one-on-one affair between me and God. Appealing to the church in the process will feel like lapsing into the authoritarianism and traditionalism of the past. But, I worry that not making the church a part of the solution runs the risk of facilitating a tendency toward seeing the church as largely peripheral to a person’s spirituality, or even harmful altogether. Instead, I’d love to see us work on communicating a much larger vision of this church as the people of God in the world and central in his plans and purposes for the world, in spite of its brokenness and failings.

        And, I think this Carc Mortez character sounds fascinating. Will he where wear blue tights and yell “Spoon!” a lot? That would be cool.

      • A TICK reference?! You really *are* a geek. That’s amazing.

        I knew in my heart that I would eventually have to bow to your superior intellect, and that time has already come. I concede, sir. I bestow upon you my sword and my axe.

      • Yes, my superior intellect was clearly on display as I misspelled a challenging word like “wear” in my comment. I have difficulty with words that have more than three letters.

        I like to throw random geek references out there like that just to see who actually picks up on them. I see it as the geek version of a secret handshake.

  2. Also… why does the George Barna scene not count as the church moving Matt toward Christ or doing the journey in community?

    • It does, kind of. And, your companions on the journey would also hint at this. My concern wasn’t that God’s people were non-existent in the book, only that this theme didn’t come out strongly enough. And, in a society that definitely overemphasizes the individuality of the Christian faith, I just don’t think that subtle nods toward the church like this are sufficient. Particularly in evangelical circles, we need to challenge the notion that spirituality is primarily between me and God and the church is just there to help me and people like me grow in this one-on-one relationship.

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