Christ's Glory, Not Mine

by science fiction author Andrea J. Graham

CSFF blog tour: Imaginary Jesus

This month, the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy blog tour is featuring Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos, starring Matt Mikalatos, and published by Tyndale. This is a thought-provoking mildly amusing tissues-grabber that will challenge your Christology (your beliefs about who Jesus is) and your general world view and theology as well.

Mildly amusing may be an understatement. It provoked me to laughter twice, not an easy feat. However, truthfully,  I am not sure what it’s doing on this tour, as it is not even a novel, let alone speculative fiction. It’s actually a non-fiction theology book (read: sermon) disguised as a semi-autobiographical novel, with some self-depreciating humor in the pages quite conscious of this. And also shows awareness of why I concluded by the end of chapter two or so that, this was either an allegory for a far-more-boring spiritual journey the author went through, or the spiritual equivalent of an acid trip. So literalists, if you want to enjoy this, throw reality out the window and enjoy Matt’s nightmare and hopefully your sense of humor won’t be quite so dry as mine.

Far as theology books go, the format works for him for the most part. It’s definitely more interesting to read than a standard theology book, even if it’s not as entertaining as a real novel, that is but my subjective opinion. Considering none of us are perfect and we all have blind spots and areas we’ve been lied to in, for the most part, he stays well on the narrow path, and is careful to point out the errors one can fall into on either side of the narrow way. If you’re discerning and know how to take the meat and throw away the bones, this book will effectively challenge you to grow.

However, I would submit he did miss or bungle an imaginary Jesus or two.

Missed—Ugly Jesus.

This one sneaked by because he overly relied on his own imagination. The textual evidence on the Lord’s earthly physical appearance is scant, so any time we try to describe that, we’re likely to get ourselves in hot water. That said, the best textual evidence points to Average Working Class Joe Jesus being the real deal. Judas needed to kiss the rabbi to identify Him because it was difficult to tell Him apart from His disciples based on appearance (note ugly also stands out.) Blending in also provides a natural explanation for His ability to disappear in the midst of a crowd. It may also be partly why the disciples on the Emmaus road didn’t recognize Him after the resurrection (if He’s Joe Ordinary, and He’s supposed to be dead, the natural thinking is, “Guess this guy has one of those faces, too.”

In fairness, “one of those faces” is culturally subjective—what was to first century Hebrews an average and plain face that totally blended into a crowd could well seem ugly to Mikalatos, if he could go back in time and meet the earthly Lord. We’ll find out if He kept the Joe Ordinary looks for all eternity soon enough.

Bungled—Political Power Jesus.

This is indeed as pernicious a fellow as Mikalatos made him out to be, but his blind spots hid from him that both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill worship Power Jesus. There is one distinction that makes this a beam in his eye and a straw in ours: when Republicans do what he criticizes, they are going against conservative principles and the design our founders established for the US government. When liberals do it, they are completely in line with liberal ideology, even if the Christians among them are going against Christ’s teaching when they help their party’s efforts to establish their secular utopia through political advances, bringing back the unaccountable State-God who is all powerful and, I’m told, able to take care of our every need.

The author also mistakenly shorted this idol’s name to Political Jesus, feeding the common misconception that withdrawing from the political process is godly. This is based on the notion the King of Kings is apolitical and unconcerned with politics. At least four books of the Old Testament focus on ancient Israel’s politics and tell us God cares whether politicians are wicked or following Him. He tells us why it matters, too: wicked governments lead the people’s hearts astray from Him.

Further, if Jesus was apolitical, he would not have been crucified. Christ’s seemingly other-worldly claims were a threat to a State that considered itself God and did not want to be unaccountable to anyone. That’s why he died, and why his followers were killed also. As for the early Church being politically disengaged and simply sharing the gospel, back then, Christians had no other choice—we had no right to protest, no right to vote, no right to free speech, or any other right we take for granted today. If you’re going to speak out when it means death, you are going to save those words for Jesus Christ is Lord–which was itself political speech, as Caesar was Lord to the Romans.

And we did win; the martyr’s tact is proven and effective, make no doubt about that. Our ancestors’ mistake was, once we came into power, for millennia, we ignored the Christian teachings our founders built the United States on—including the deists who lived like pagans in their personal lives.

Thus, contrary to the lie Miklatos would have been taught all his life in places like California and Portland, if Jesus Christ didn’t exist, neither would the USA. Nations don’t come any more Christian than that. We’re backslidden as a nation today, and the slide off our foundation began early in our history, but that doesn’t change it’s design. Before Christianity came along, Democracy and the Republic were failed experiments. Athens and the Roman Republic fell back into tyranny. Our founders knew that, which is why they said our system of government was created for a religious and moral people and is unsuitable for any other. History had already proven that.

But they also knew the old system of power-grabbing kings and men lording it over each other contradicted what Christ taught us in Mathew 20:26-28, where he says, “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (NIV) This teaching of Christ is why the US founders turned to a failed experiment when they set up the US government. Our battle cry in the American Revolution was likewise, “No King but King Jesus.” Instead, as ambassadors of Christ, the people would all equally share the weight of governance—and weight of the sword, hence the second amendment granting the right to bear arms. The people elect officials to serve and represent us.

Further, the US founders also believed in the Lord’s command to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Anabaptists who first colonized the US came here to worship God as they pleased, so our founders extended that freedom to all who came to our shores, including the very sect that persecuted them.

The US founders weren’t perfect, they had their blind spots, too. (Women, blacks, and non-land owners come to mind right off.) And while the American Experiment will always be the first modern day Democratic Republic, we are no longer alone. Still, those of us who live in countries where we have so many rights as citizens have been given a great gift, and the Lord warned us strictly in the parable of the talents not to misuse or bury our gifts. And the one apostle who had rights as a Roman citizen, the apostle Paul, took full advantage of his rights to the advancement of the gospel and the glory of God.

We should do likewise, and do our best, at the very least, to elect to public office humble servants who will represent us and Christ as best as we understand Him. And, if we do run for office, we should govern ourselves as the servants elected officials are supposed to be, not like the wannabe kings currently duking it out in DC.

Miklatos is correct that politics alone is not enough. King Josiah of Judah found out the actions of a godly king can’t reverse a nation’s backsliding if the people’s hearts remain unchanged. But if we do change the majority of US citizens hearts, and they too withdraw from the political process, then our nation will also continue to be governed by wicked, power-grabbing politicians taking the US down the path to ruin both on the right and the left.

Ultimately, however, in Imaginary Jesus, this is one small point, which the author committed less ink space to than I have. If the rest of the description appeals, even if you agree with me on the historical facts and true biblical teaching on this particular issue, it’d be wise to overlook his blind spot—because you have them, too, and don’t want the rest of your words totally dismissed because of one “mistake” (from your perspective), either.

We’re all on a journey to better knowledge of Christ. I’d pray the author, if he read this, would prayerfully consider it and research the actual, historical facts of the Christian origins of the United States, but regardless, he is still our brother, still clearly following hard after the heart of God, and that is to be commended.

I do have two related general concerns that may have significance to the reader.

First, other than Ugly Jesus, and a few of the Lord’s personal tastes that none of us can know for sure, the author plays it safe and sticks very close to the core of the gospel. Probably wise for him, but in the process, he neglects to point out that many of the falsehoods about Christ are half truths. The Lord’s greatest mystery is that he is a paradox. He is the angry Lord who drove the merchants out of the temple and simultaneously the merciful Savior who spoke kindly to prostitutes. He both freed us from bondage and told us if we love him, we’ll keep his commands.

The answer to most of the Church’s divisive disputes (including Providence vs. Free Will) is “He is Both.” When we focus on one attribute of God to the exclusion of it’s paradoxical companion, we end up with a false depiction of Him. I suspect the author knows this; the book simply didn’t communicate this truth well in my opinion.

Second general concern—far as I can tell, this review cites the actual text of the Bible and chapter and verse more often than Imaginary Jesus. It would have been stronger as a theology book if it stuck closer to the Word. The novel format lent too easily to theological speculation and to resorting to using church slogans and dogma rather than citing where it says that in the Bible. He does allude to scripture quite often, don’t get me wrong. But his arguments are occasionally weakened by lacking a clear scriptural basis. I would remind the author, next time he’s tempted not to cite the actual scripture (for fear of boring the reader, I’m guessing), the Lord said if they will not hear the words of scripture, they won’t hear our words, either, not even if we’d risen from the dead.

So, in summary, while the over-all message of Imaginary Jesus and its challenge to self-examination is good, without a clear, unmistakable scriptural foundation for it’s theological claims, it can only take you so far. But one might want to simply read it for a few laughs, a few tears, and to appreciate the challenge to take your own journey.

Other blogs on the tour:

Brandon Barr
Keanan Brand
Grace Bridges
Beckie Burnham
Valerie Comer
R. L. Copple
Amy Cruson
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Andrea Graham
Tori Greene
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Jason Joyner
Julie
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Dawn King
Leighton
Rebecca LuElla Miller
John W. Otte
Donita K. Paul
Crista Richey
Chawna Schroeder
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Phyllis Wheeler
KM Wilsher


7 comments

  1. Excellent post, and salient points. I, too, had some of the same thoughts, though I did not articulate them in any posts yet — I was going to do so for Day 3 of the tour, but may just point folks here instead.

    On the positive side, I enjoyed the book, laughed out loud, was challenged in my relationship with Christ — all in all, I’m glad the book exists.

  2. Hey Andrea–

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful review. I really appreciate you highlighting the strengths as well as weaknesses in what you read into the book.

    A few quick responses to your excellent points above:

    1) re: ugly and Political Jesus. There is a description of Jesus in Josephus referenced in an ancient letter (not in our extant Josephus texts) which describes Jesus as hunch backed, balding, with a monobrow (the description goes on from there), which is not scripture but is more description than we have in scripture. I would say there are other ways to interpret, for instance, the kiss of Judas than that Christ was unable to be differentiated from his disciples (which I don’t recall that the text ever says). The point being merely that the cult of “good leaders are good looking” for the American people has caused us to create a beautiful Jesus. I’m more interested in shaking people out of their misconception of Jesus as Adonis than in saying “Jesus was ugly.”

    As for politics, Daisy specifically says that Jesus does, indeed, care about politics. I’m not at all suggesting that we should remove ourselves from the political process. On the other hand, I don’t think that the eternal kingdom will be a democracy. 🙂 You needn’t pray for me to understand the founding of the USA. I did go to Christian school as a kid. 🙂 I DO think that those who say that Christ’s primary strategy in introducing societal change to the world would be politics seem to be missing something in the way he interacted with society during his earthly ministry.

    2) re: “chapter and verse.” I think we might have a slightly different philosophy here, but for me to allude to scripture or quote it without stating “This is from I Corinthians 13:1” is sufficient. This is how scripture refers to itself (since chapter and verses were added by commentators much later). As you mention, there is quite a bit of scripture in the book. Certainly to suggest that there is more scripture referenced in this post than in the entire book of Imaginary Jesus is an exaggeration. I believe that saying “God loved the world so much that he sent his only begotten son so that whosever believes in him may have eternal life” is equally powerful without a footnote saying it’s from John 3:16.

    Anyway, I appreciate you taking the time to write this and look forward to hearing more of your thoughts!

    Matt

  3. Wow, what a thorough treatment of the book, Andrea.

    I actually thought Matt did a good job anchoring the book in Scripture whenever he spoke of the Real Jesus—except that physical description. True, he didn’t give chapter and verse, but He didn’t have Jesus do or say anything outside Scripture—unless perhaps there was something in the vision scene. I don’t remember it too clearly, since my mind was on, Why didn’t Matt have Matt find Jesus in the Bible?

    Anyway, I love the way you interacted with the text.

    Oh, and about CSFF touring the book—it was a tough call because it was so different. The “time travel” gave it a speculative feel, though it is a fairly minor part of the book. But all the other—talking donkey, imaginary Jesuses with whom he interacts physically—if not speculative, I don’t know what category this one fits in. I called it “Different Fiction” in the post on my editing blog. It sort of defies classification—in the way that some of C. S. Lewis’s fiction does.

    Becky

  4. Thanks for commenting, everyone.

    Matt–someone probably should have warned you about me! I do that to everyone. I knew what you were going for with Ugly Jesus, I just only had the text of the book to go off on for where you got that from, again the limits of the novel. We’ll never actually know with any certainty whether He had a bald spot developing at 33 or not because I doubt anyone will suffer that affliction in Heaven, though.

    Politics–that is a relief, but consider I was basing what I said off the impression given by what you said in the book. It’s a concern only because I see so many responding to the political corruption, etc. by leaving the process entirely, and I hate to see that reinforced (even inadvertently as it may have been.) I’m also sensitive because I have friends called to missions that lend a lot of political activism, who serve the Lord faithfully, and I hate to see even the appearance of Christians bashing each other’s callings. There’s enough non-Christians slandering the work of Christ without Christians getting into the act. Capitol Hill aside, I have never known a politically active Christian to be neglecting the gospel or even showing love in practical ways. For instance, many of the most ardent pro life activists spend as much time or more volunteering at pro-life pregnancy centers as they do the more overt political actions. (BTW, though the potshot truthfully seemed unfair to me, I also think the “Let’s all move to ___ and cede from the Union!” crowd are a bit nuts. Though, I hear that mainly from Ron Paul people.)

    Rebecca–for the most part, I agree with you on his handling of the Real Jesus. Though, he may have made up some likes and dislikes trying to make the point the Lord’s a real person. (In my experience, He is very tight-lipped on that sort of thing because we truthfully would turn it into a legalistic burden if we knew His personal preferences.)

    My gripe about chapter and verse, etc., only applies if you read it as a non-fiction theology book. When I’m feeling lazy (which is embarrassingly often), I tell myself the text is just as powerful whether I look up where it says that or not, but in non-fiction, any time you’re making an argument, you’d better have the proof to back it up. Footnotes citing his research, etc. would have been helpful to me, and that’s all I’m saying on that.

    If you read it as an inspirational satire novel, however, it’s entirely appropriate to sit back and enjoy the acid trip, er ride. (You know I’m only teasing about the acid trip thing, right?)

    CSFF tour–that was simple head scratching. I appreciate that you interpreted it differently than I did. Though I mentioned how I would pigeon hole it as fiction just a minute ago :)Allegorical satire would be appropriate, too.

  5. Thanks, Andrea. No worries about the acid trip thing… I think it’s probably a fair description. 🙂

    As for the pot shot at the seceding folks. Well. Here’s my inspiration: http://www.christianexodus.org/

    I told Becky when I sent the book as a possible book for CSFF that it would have to be “speculative.” It probably depends on how wide your definition of SFF goes. I mean, I know plenty of people who consider “Lord of the Flies” to be science fiction purely because it takes place in the future (which you can only tell in the final scene). I think IJ is more firmly in place than that… as firmly speculative as, say, Slaughterhouse Five or something along those lines. I did think more people on the tour would probably go after the “What is speculative fiction and does this fit?” topic.

    The next book has zombies, werewolves and vampires. Might be a more obvious pick. 🙂

  6. I didn’t mean to imply no Christian is that nutty. I know a guy who has fled to the mountains to bunker down for the Great Tribulation (post-tribber), which is coming tomorrow . . . for the last ten or fifteen years. I’m more familiar with the Ron Paul folk’s schemes mainly because MY state was on their list of possible places to move! I’m a Northerner; I like being part of the Union, thank you very much!

    It did come across to me as a bit of a straw man; the implication seemed to me that all Christian conservatives want to do that. And the general accusations levied seemed totally unfair given the tactics criticized were originally the property of liberals and they still employ them with a vengeance, and most effectively, as it’s native to their ideology, while it’s against the fundamentals of Conservatism. Power-grabbing by anyone goes against how this nation was designed to operate and sends us down the tube–the choice between the Republican Establishment and the Democrat Establishment is truthfully a slow slide into corruption versus the fast track. But Conservatives at best can be accused of responding to the Liberal tactics in kind.

    Leftists love to project their own sins onto Christian activists, so the media will have given anyone who listens to it a horrible impression of them. but the ones I know are faithful servants of God and not at all in this for personal gain. In fact, you pay dearly for being a voice for the voiceless in America today. I’ve seen my friends pay a high cost, their names dragged through the mud and their personal safety and property attacked. It’s a take up your cross and follow me road requires great courage and guts. They get enough trash from the enemies of the cross without Christians unwittingly repeating it.

    I didn’t want to make a big deal about it; that’s a very small portion of the book and I don’t want to condemn an otherwise inspiring work (if you read it as fiction) for one small issue. I’m betting you’ve already risked making a lot of Portlanders most unhappy as it is. 😉 But I wanted the truth known, too. Probably should have made two posts in retrospect.

    I’ll agree the genre aspect is subjective. I didn’t get it, but that could always just be me and I know that.

    Try to work in your research next time. If character Matt had taken two minutes to attempt to prove the vision wrong, he could have found what you did. Otherwise, for all we know, you’re just making more stuff up. The point is lost if people shrug it off as “well, that’s just his new Imaginary Jesus; I still like mine.” Truth be told, I don’t think either of our opinions is all that significant. The bible doesn’t make an issue out of his physical appearance, so we shouldn’t, either.

    Though, one thought occurs to me–what bride thinks her bridegroom is ugly?

  7. “We have learned, however; that the chains of our slavery and dependence upon godless government have more of a hold on us than can be broken by simply moving to another State.”

    Wow, who woulda thunk it?

    “In order to accelerate the return to self-government based upon Biblical principles, Christian Exodus recommends planned resettlement to areas more amiable towards the practices of independent Christian living. With fellow believers of like mind nearby, support structures can be provided to encourage cooperation and community living.”

    “Idaho has earned a reputation as a place where one can still breathe free, and relatively inexpensively, in a beautiful natural environment. Idaho is perhaps the most home-school friendly place in America. No government notification is required, nor any reporting of curriculum, nor progress in schooling.”

    HEY! Apparently these are the Ron Paul guys. (Either that, or we attract this type.) Though, I did see his name on their front page. They might want to stay out of Boise if they want to breathe free . . . LOL.

    Still, they’re starting to sound like they should become Amish and be done with it.

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