Book Review: Imaginary Jesus

Matt Mikalatos (2010), BarnaBooks, Fiction.

Amazon.com, Paperback ($10.19) and Kindle ($8.59)

Simon Peter punches Jesus in the face at a Communist cafe, then runs after him through the traffic of downtown Seattle. That’s the bizarre start of Matt Mikalatos’ Imaginary Jesus, and the curiosities only grow with the plot. Perhaps this book would be a great setting for the classic youth group retreat icebreaker “How’s Yours?”*

How’s your Jesus? Hip and trendy for some, maybe quiet and contemplative for others. A really good public speaker perhaps, or maybe just frail (he probably didn’t eat much because he was so poor, right?) and soft-spoken. Of course, passionate about social justice. For most of us, our Jesus is cool and accepting; loving, slow to judge, quick to forgive. He’s pretty easygoing and willing to just accept us for who we are. He doesn’t ask us to do hard things.

Imaginary. All of them. Made out of our image and cultivated out of our own ideals. To be sure, they might relate to the real Jesus (of course we know he’s loving) but even our right concepts so easily melt into distorted, disproportional views of Jesus. E.g., we know Jesus is forgiving, but is he exclusively forgiving so as to impinge on his holiness? If Mikalatos has two motives in writing this book, the first would be to make us laugh and the second, to make us reflect. How biblical is my Jesus?

Of course, the Jesus that Peter punches isn’t the real Jesus—it’s the main character’s personal distortion of the real Messiah. The M.C. is also named Matt Mikalatos (turning the book into a strange sort of autobiography), and his Jesus is accepting, comfortable, encouraging, ever-benevolent, tall and long-haired. But Peter, a rough-looking fisherman who smells like ocean, is offended by the false Jesus and takes punch-throwing action.

“If you never confront the imaginary Jesus,” Peter tells Matt, “He’ll keep popping up, perverting what you know about the real Jesus. You need to look him in the face, recognize that he’s fake, and renounce him.”

The book is simultaneously a denial of all the false Jesuses (like Hipster Jesus, Communist Jesus, Fundamentalist Jesus, King-James-Only Jesus, etc.) and a search for the real one. Matt travels to ancient Judea; gets spiritual guidance from Peter, John and a spiritually-sensitive donkey named Daisy (yeah, I know); races Meticulous Jesus, Can’t-See-the-Future-Because-It’s-Unknowable Jesus, and Free Will Jesus in an inner tube downhill to once-and-for-all resolve the sovereignty of God/Free Will of Man debate; and constantly runs into his personal imaginary Jesus along the way. He even weaves the premise into real-life pain and struggle, like his wife’s pregnancy complication that took their unborn child from them. “Where was Jesus when this happened?” Matt asks. Imaginary Jesuses have no power against very real struggles; the real Jesus does.

I should mention that while the Peter character takes Matt to all sorts of places to discover the real Jesus, he never has him, you know, open his Bible. Look, I know that might make a boring book, but Peter is the one who wrote that the divinely-inspired Bible gives us “everything we need for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (II Peter 1:3, emphasis mine). This is the same Peter who saw Jesus transfigured but wrote that “we have something more sure [than his experience]: the prophetic word, to which you would do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (II Peter 2: 17-19, esp. 19). How do we know Jesus? Peter tells us: the Bible. And I’m sure Matt Mikalatos (the real one, now) would agree with this; he just wanted to write a compelling story.

Still, Imaginary Jesus is an unusual comedy-devotional hybrid—light on plot and character development perhaps, but heavy on laughs** with plenty of orthodox theology to go with them. I commend it to you.

For Fans Of: Stuff Christians Like (Jonathan Acuff).

*You know, the one where you get asked “How’s yours?” and you say “soft and fluffy,” and the group throws guesses at you like “dog” or “pillow” or whatever else until they guess rightly.

**Often of the LOL kind, too, which I don’t normally do when I’m reading. Here’s a gem:

A swarm of denominational Jesuses trampled New Age Jesus in their hurry to get to me. Catholic Jesus and Protestant Jesus argued the whole time. Baptist Jesus was dragging an enormous bathtub full of water behind him. The various Orthodox Jesuses were carrying tasty treats from Russia, Greece, Romania, and all over the world. Stern Jesuses, laughing Jesuses, Emergent Jesus and Emerging Jesus (like good and evil twins, I guess . . . but I can never remember which is which), a few Jesuses who barely fit the description like Universalist Jesus (dressed like Buddha, six arms like Shiva) and the six-inch-tall Bahai Jesus, and all of them wanted a piece of me. Health Nut Jesus came running out of the health section wearing tennis shorts and a headband. In the back of the crowd someone had found Feminist Jesus, and she was biting Patriarchal Jesus in the shoulder. He yowled in pain but wouldn’t hit a woman in public.

Okay, just one more. About men’s retreats:

This is when men leave their wives and children for several days, go to the mountains, and yell at each other, “Stop neglecting your wife and children!”

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