by Jeffrey Bridgman
Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos is an excellent book with both serious and funny material. As a depiction of the author’s journey to discover the real Jesus, it confronts some of the darkest questions of the Christian faith. At the same time it is a comedy of bizarre characters, such as a talking donkey, and strange events, such as an inner tube race down a ski slope with a philosophical intent—reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes. It also contains some exaggerated, fast-paced action, like getting smashed in the face by a metal bar in a fight between two imaginary saviors. The reader can’t help but laugh when the two are subsequently healed by a televangelist also named Jesus—Mikalatos must have drawn on his years of clerking in a comic book store for that one. In any case, this book is never boring and it leaves the reader wanting more at the end of each chapter.
The story begins with Matt and a foot-bouncin’, iPod listenin’ Jesus hanging out at a cafe in Portland. Matt’s life takes a turn for the bizarre when a stranger, who we find out is actually the Apostle Peter, walks in and punches Jesus in the face. This helps Matt to realize that the man he was hanging out with was an imaginary, powerless Jesus, who is not capable of saving him from getting a parking ticket. (Although, I think mine may have totally saved me from getting a parking ticket last week.) The story continues with Matt embarking on a wild chase to hunt down and “deal with” this impostor, hoping to uncover the real Jesus. But, you still may be wondering, what in the world is an “imaginary Jesus”?
The book does a good job articulating this, so below are some quotes that should help explain what the author means by this term.
“They’re constructs that tell you what Jesus will say or do, how he feels, what he thinks, without ever having to get to know him.”
“People invent a Jesus for one specific reason and then discard him when they don’t need him anymore…. The real Jesus is inconvenient. He doesn’t show up when you call. He asks for unreasonable things. He frightens people. He can be immensely frustrating.”
At one point Matt’s own Imaginary Jesus explains: “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, and extrapolate answers to your own questions. You’re praying to yourself Matt…. But time after time you keep returning to me because deep down you prefer me to the real thing.”
Essentially, the author is describing lies we tell ourselves, and others have told us, about who Jesus is—lies that lead us away from Christ.
One of the goals of this book is to point out the concept of error realization. We can’t correct something until we know it’s wrong. If we don’t know that our concept of Jesus is false, we won’t know to “punch him in the face,” and search for the real thing.
Matt recounts a time when his wife’s wrists were hurting. He prayed for her and within minutes the pain went away. Then he questioned, “What had just happened? As strange as this may sound, this obvious answer to our prayer frightened me. This was an unexpected and slightly terrifying Jesus…. How do you deal with a God who breaks all the rules such as the one which says, ‘God doesn’t do miracles today,’ that your confident, well-meaning friends have told you he will follow?”
Matt eventually concludes he can’t control Jesus, and is frightened by this fact. But this seemingly good, albeit scary, event later becomes the root of Matt’s doubt and causes him to invent yet another imaginary Jesus. It happens during another situation when they need a miracle, and this time God doesn’t act. Matt explains: “Sometimes seeing miracles makes the later lack of them that much harder.”
Anyone who reads this book is likely to discover they have created their own false concept of Jesus. I certainly did. In the course of my walk with Jesus, I have to admit I’ve turned my back on Him at times because, “I didn’t want to serve a God like that.” Now I understand that these times of turning away often stemmed from an imaginary Jesus who I created, but was tired of serving.
I’ve definitely met Legalist Jesus. He’s the one that speaks lies like, “I don’t know why you expect God to show up. You haven’t been good enough,”or “God doesn’t love you when you disobey Him.” I’ve also met Bargain Jesus—the one that will answer our prayers only if we keep our side of the deal. Both of these gods were so unattractive they almost made me turn away from Christ entirely. But in reality, I was missing the real Jesus, which is why it’s so important to realize we often have these false images hanging around. There are probably more of these false concepts of Jesus in my life that I’ve yet to uncover, but this book helped open my eyes to this critical issue. Following the sound advice of this book, we should seek out these false ideas of Jesus, and send them packing with “a swift punch to their faces and a good kick in their shins.” Don’t worry, the real Jesus will approve.