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.
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.