Matt Mikalatos, Imaginary Jesus (Barna 2010) 225 pages, $14.99.
Matt Mikalatos is on a quest to encounter the real Jesus. But first, he has to deal with the imaginary Jesus that he has been hanging out with. Imaginary Jesus hangs with Matt at the Red and Black Cafe in Portland, never says no to him, and is comforting, yet "traditional" (he sports sandals and a robe with a powder blue sash). As the book opens, however, Matt doesn't even know that he's hanging with imaginary Jesus. He thinks that it's real Jesus.
That's when a burly man in work clothes wanders over to their table at the Red and Black, starts up a conversation with Matt about Jesus, and ends up punching imaginary Jesus in the face, sending him on the run. It turns out that this is the apostle Peter, here to help Matt deal with imaginary Jesus. As they chase imaginary Jesus through Portland, we learn about Matt's reason for creating this Jesus and why he needs go if Matt wants to know the real Jesus in more than a superficial way.
After the first few chapters, I was hooked. At first, I thought the book was designed to be just an amusing theological discussion (sort of a Jesus and the Victory of God with a sci-fi gimmick hook, but funny and 500-pages shorter), so by the time I met Testosterone Jesus, Magic Eight Ball Jesus, and CEO Jesus, I was a little disappointed that the theological critiques and reflections were so brief (and sometimes shallow as a result). But the book was more than amusing-- it was laugh-out-loud funny in spots-- so I stuck with it. By the time I hit page 132-- right after the snow tubing race between Meticulous Providence Jesus, Free Will Jesus, Matt, and Can't-See-the-Future-It's-Unknowable Jesus-- I realized that this really was a "not-quite-true" story about Matt's own search to find an answer to that age-old question, "Where were you, Jesus, when . . .?" And suddenly, as I shifted from reading straight theology to listening to a brother tell his story, I found the theological insights not so shallow-- and much more applicable to the know-it-all reading the book. And it was still hilarious.
The problem Mikalatos addresses is a real one. We all have a tendency to create our own "personal Jesus" to fit our own needs and hopes, to match our pet theologies, to keep us safe and comfortable. Our imaginary Jesus is often very much like Jesus, but with the hard sayings, the personal challenges, and even the deep, abiding love excised. The problem is, a relationship with an imaginary Jesus is just a relationship with . . . myself. At one point, Matt tells imaginary Jesus that he longs for the real Jesus-- he wants "the startling, bizarre, amazing relationship with the God who created the whole universe . . . . " Imaginary Jesus replies: "He's not me. I'm just you. You're a lonely man who talks to himself in the dark." To move from this place is a real and continuing journey for all of us.
Along Matt's journey, we meet some Mormons, who, as you might imagine (!), have their own imaginary Jesus, who used to be like us, but got a promotion to godhood. We meet the folks in the atheist Bible study, who take the claims of the real Jesus seriously as they read the text of the gospel of John. And in a stunning a moving exchange, we meet Mary, who tells Matt of her experience at the cross.
The story is a generous one, even as it pokes fun at our narrow conceptions and silly ideas about how to cope with the problem of life in the world. Some will be offended by certain references and the ways that Matt dismisses one imaginary Jesus after the other, and there aren't too many movements in the church that don't end up on the pointy end of Matt's humor (men's retreats, the emergent church, the hip all-white inner-city church, conservatives, liberals, etc.), but the tone is charitable throughout. Sure, he is making fun, but he is making fun of all of us and our fallen imaginations, not Jesus, the One we seek. The atheists and the Mormons, for example, have some of the most important insights in the book. Not as much as Daisy, the talking Donkey, but some good ones nonetheless.
Imaginary Jesus is a fun and worthwhile ride, a hilarious but compelling approach to narrating the quest we're all on to find the real Jesus.
PS I've only been to Portland once, and the only reason that I went was to go to Powell's Books, my second-favorite bookstore of all time. Imagine my delight, then, when imaginary Jesus leads Matt and his friends to Powell's, where they are confronted by a veritable herd of imaginary Jesuses. I can only imagine (!) what other gems native Portlanders will find.