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.
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:
R. L. Copple
CSFF Blog Tour
D. G. D. Davidson
Rebecca LuElla Miller
John W. Otte
Donita K. Paul
Rachel Starr Thomson