My latest read is Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos.
Here’s the book description from Amazon:
Imaginary Jesus is an hilarious, fast-paced, not-quite-fictional story that’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before. When Matt Mikalatos realizes that his longtime buddy in the robe and sandals isn’t the real Jesus at all, but an imaginary one, he embarks on a mission to find the real thing. On his wild ride through time, space, and Portland, Oregon, he encounters hundreds of other Imaginary Jesuses determined to stand in his way (like Legalistic Jesus, Perpetually Angry Jesus, and Magic 8 Ball Jesus). But Matt won’t stop until he finds the real Jesus—and finally gets an answer to the question that’s haunted him for years. Be warned: Imaginary Jesus may bring you face-to-face with an imposter in your own life.
And the book trailer:
I came across the book’s website when I was searching for something or other a few weeks ago. I was intrigued by the concept: a host of Jesus imposters, in the flesh, trying to win the loyalty of one Matt Mikalatos. This concept, however, is very oddly executed in the book.
In chapter 0, Matt is hanging out with Jesus at a café in Portland, when a big, burly stranger named Pete approaches the table and punches Jesus out. It turns out that “Pete” is really the apostle Peter, come to help Matt capture and incapacitate all the fake Jesuses and lead him to the real one. Imaginary Jesus makes a run for it, and a chase ensues. But they lose him. Pete thinks that maybe his talking donkey friend Daisy can help, so they time-travel back to ancient Galilee, where Matt witnesses the calling of Peter and the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. When they return to present-day Portland, they continue on their mission of tracking down Imaginary Jesus so that they can expose him for what he truly is. Why not just let him get away? Matt asks. Pete says,
“If you never confront the imaginary Jesus, 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.” (19)
Pete, Matt, and Daisy enlist the help of Sandy, a reformed prostitute, to look for Imaginary Jesus in the bad part of town, since she knows where all the hiding spots are. They don’t find Matt’s Imaginary Jesus, but they do find Magic 8 Ball Jesus, so they take him hostage; the Secret Society of Imaginary Jesuses, whose mission is to continue to exist in the face of reality, responds by kidnapping Daisy.
The team makes its way to the headquarters of the SSIJ, which is run by Political Power Jesus, who tries to convince Matt to join his side. Together, he says, we can eradicate abortion and make sure that Creationism is taught in schools. His speech is interrupted by Matt’s Imaginary Jesus, who wants him back.
“Matt created me. I’m his ideal Christ. I always agree with him, I don’t enforce unpleasant rules, and I never tell him that he eats too much. How will you compete with that?” (81)
Matt ends up sneaking out when a fight erupts between Political and Hippie Jesus.
The book is full of other episodes and adventures—some comical, some serious, but almost all teachable. The Imaginary Jesus storyline culminates in an epic battle inside Powell’s Books, where a mob of Jesuses chases Matt through all nine rooms, furious at having been betrayed (created, befriended, then abandoned). There is dissension in the ranks, though, as the Jesuses start turning on one another: Feminist Jesus bites Patriarchal Jesus, Da Vinci Code Jesus shouts obscenities at Catholic Jesus, and Legalist Jesus and Freedom Jesus have it out. I chuckled at the part when, amid all the chaos, “Footprints Jesus came up alongside me in the Blue Room and offered to carry me because he could see I was having a rough time.”
One recurring struggle for the character Matt is dealing with the miscarriage of his child, and finding a Jesus who can adequately explain why—why God allowed his child to die. This struggle is played out in part through a downhill inner tube race between Meticulous Providence Jesus, Free Will Jesus, and Can’t-See-the-Future-Because-It’s-Unknowable Jesus. (“The winner will be the answer you adopt about God’s providence.”) This scene was funny to me, as someone who used to struggle a lot with the question of God’s providence versus man’s free will. Each contestant quips in ways characteristic of his name. For example, when a bear jumps out from the trees and snatches up Meticulous Providence Jesus, Meticulous shouts, “Don’t worry! I’ve got it under a control!” And when Matt is left careening downhill high-speed toward a crowd of people, shouting “Get out of the way!”, Free Will Jesus calmly observes, “They are choosing to ignore us.”
But this nagging question that’s on Matt’s heart and mind is also played out more tenderly inside the center chamber of a Labyrinth that Matt stumbles into at the end of the book. There he encounters for the first time in his life true and utter silence. There he partakes of Communion in a way that he never had before. And there he experiences a vision of the risen Christ, who weeps as Matt tells him his story of loss.
Matt never receives a clear-cut answer to his question. But Jesus does dissipate his anger and renew his spirit and reveal himself intimately as true and sovereign and all-loving.
My first reaction to the book was: this is way too quirky for my taste. I was so confused by the plot, which seemed disjointed and just bizarre. (But then again, my personal reading preferences exclude the genres of fantasy, sci-fi, and graphic novels.) But as I’ve been typing away at this plot description, and considering what takeaways might be gleaned from the book, I have come to understand and appreciate it more than when I was in the act of reading it. The book is definitely strange, and if I were writing a novel based on the same concept, it would have turned out completely different. But I’m glad I read it.
Among other things, I like the little lessons it contains. At one point, Matt enters an alternate reality in which the president of the United States comes to his house for dinner . . . and cleans his bathroom. This reality is Pete trying to convey to Matt what it was like for him to have Jesus wash his feet. It was embarrassing. It was dirty. It was beneath his Master to do such a thing. And yet he did it, as an act of love. And now whenever we refuse to serve people, we are saying that we are better than Christ.
In the book, the all-wise and spiritually discerning Daisy tells Matt that he need not worry about offending his Imaginary Jesus; that he needs to just dump him so that he can have a relationship with the real Jesus.
“That’s the danger of following an imaginary Jesus. The more committed you get to him and his plan, the further afield from the real Jesus you get. Your earnest attempts to be committed to your imaginary Jesus actually move you away from Christ.” (83–84)
Matt thinks about all the good times he had with Imaginary Jesus—riding bikes through the park, going out for dessert—and thinks about how much he’ll miss him. But he ultimately decides to ditch him in favor of the real Jesus. After which Imaginary Jesus lets Matt in on a little secret: their relationship was always just an illusion, and he has only ever been talking to himself.
“You say you want to get rid of me, but every time you send me away you call me back. The first problem you face, the first time you pray and don’t get an immediate answer, you call me back, your own extrapolated answers to your own questions. You’re praying to yourself, Matt. Even an imaginary Jesus doesn’t like to see that. … [The Real Jesus? . . .] He’s not me. I’m just you. You’re a lonely man who talks to himself in the dark.” (132, 134)
These words ring so true. They made me wonder how often I’m just praying to myself, and then answering myself. They made me wonder how much of my Jesus is real and how much is imaginary.
My Imaginary Jesus
I think we all have imaginary Jesuses that creep in and out of our lives from time to time. As sure as I am that I’m in a relationship with the real Jesus, this novel has forced me to confront the labels I paste on him and to revisit what my basic intention was with this whole blog to begin with: Who is Jesus? Who is he not? And how do we know?
The novel doesn’t answer these questions; it just asks them. Its point, I think, is to get readers to realize that maybe the Jesus that they’ve always known or always heard preached or have been worshiping and praying to for years is really an imposter. Maybe the real Jesus is so much more complex and holy and beautiful and mysterious than we could ever imagine him to be. Imaginary Jesus is didactic, but it’s not apologetical, and it’s not a theological treatise; it’s simply Matt’s invitation for you, the reader, to embark on your own Jesus quest. And to experience Jesus in a real and personal way.
It was amusing for me to recognize in this novel some of the Jesuses that I had talked to, raced with, and defended in the past, but have since renounced.
When I was younger, some of my imaginary Jesuses were Baptist Jesus, American Jesus, Republican Jesus, Children’s Book Jesus, and Dying Jesus. Whenever I pictured him, I pictured a good-looking white guy in a white robe and sandals, walking around with arms outspread. (This is the Jesus I petitioned—for a new toy, or a good grade, or no rain, or a healthy grandma.) Or I pictured him in a state of near-death on the cross. (This is the Jesus I confessed to.) And whenever I worshipped Jesus . . . well, I don’t know that I ever did lavish much praise on Jesus when I was young; I tended to direct my praise to God the Father, the nice old man in the sky.
These days, I’m really attracted to Peacenik Jesus. I like to think of Jesus as a laidback, peace-loving, free bird hippie. I also like Social Revolutionary Jesus. Those are two aspects of his character that appeal to me: his peaceful, loving heart, and his social action. The way he confronted corrupt practices and gave voice to the voiceless. The way he loved and restored and dignified and integrated. The way he preached his kingdom vision despite what the ruling authorities had to say about it.
I think that this is a large part of who Jesus is, but it doesn’t sum him up. And that’s why imaginary Jesuses are dangerous: they’re flat, and they’re too restrictive. They can easily become caricatures if we let them. Jesus wasn’t a hippie. And he wasn’t Che Guevera. He may share some similar values, but he also resists the comparisons in some ways.
Imaginary Jesuses are really just reflections of ourselves.
Little kids create imaginary friends so that they’ll have someone to talk to and play with, someone to share their likes and dislikes, someone to blame things on. Don’t we sometimes do the same thing when it comes to religion? Is your Jesus just a construct that you invented to bring yourself comfort or give you meaning or support your lifestyle? Or is he the real, true, living Christ?
Imaginary Jesus challenges you to consider how you interact with Jesus. Do you relate to him like he’s a Magic 8 Ball, demanding immediate answers of him? Or like he’s a counter clerk at 7-Eleven, who’s there only to ring up your convenience items (“I’ll have x, y, and two packs of z”)?
I think that Matt accomplished what he wanted to with the novel, and that is to jumpstart a conversation.
In the above interview, Matt says on behalf of all Christians, “We just want to say that we understand that we’re missing it sometimes.” None of us has Jesus all figured out. We’re all still learning. Matt says that the novel illustrates some of the ways in which he has misunderstood Jesus, and that he hopes it will cause readers to ask themselves, “What’s my picture of Jesus?” He mentions 1 John 3:2: “We know that when Christ appears, . . . we shall see him as he is.” The verse implies that right now we don’t see Jesus in his entirety. But we will one day. And when we do, we’ll likely feel ashamed of all the ways in which we made him so much less than he is, through our vain and foolish imaginings.
What’s your Imaginary Jesus like? If you’re a Christian, how did you come to know the actual Jesus?
I too found the book a little to quirky for my tastes, and I typically enjoy fantasy/sci-fi, though I liked some of the individual stories in the book. Great review/analysis of it!