The Story. Because Imaginary Jesus isn’t your typical novel, the “story” is actually a frame for a theological discussion. Matt, the character, meets a time-travel version of the Apostle Peter—fondly referred to as Pete—who informs him the Jesus he’s hanging out with isn’t the real Jesus.
Thus embarks a journey of discovery, first to expose not only Matt’s customized version of Jesus but a host of other false models, then to find the Real Jesus.
Strengths. Without a doubt, one of the great strengths of this book is the humor. Matt, the author, has done a wonderful job of producing laugh-out-loud lines that simultaneously point to false ideas many of us have clung to from time to time.
The fact that the humor is not sacrilegious is an amazing accomplishment given the subject matter. That it actually works to expose error makes it all the more powerful. Any good writing device should not exist for its own sake but for the sake of the story, and Matt’s humor is just such a device.
Probably more important, however, is the truth revealed in the content of Imaginary Jesus. If the book was funny but full of theological tripe, it would be empty at best and misleading at worst.
Matt, the author, navigates that minefield by staying true to Scripture. His one time-travel scene in which he, the character, visits first-century Palestine and sees the real Jesus in action had the potential to be as imaginary as the Jesus he conjured in the twenty-first century. Instead, Jesus only spoke what the Bible says He spoke and only did what the Bible says He did.
Best of all, in broaching the subject of evil and its effects on the world, Matt, the author, does so with sensitivity and Biblical accuracy.
I think he has written the kind of story — perhaps best classified as an extended parable — few can pull off. C. S. Lewis did so in The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. More recently Paul Young wrote the commercially successful The Shack though his theology puts him in a different camp from both Lewis and Mikalatos.
Weakness. The one problem I had with the book is this: I thought in the end Matt, the author, missed an opportunity. Because he adhered to Scripture so closely, I hoped he would be able to lead Matt, the character, to a place where he would find the Real Jesus within the pages of the Bible. Instead he experienced him in what he termed a vision.
To my mind this opens the question, how then do you know this encounter was with the Real Jesus since he’d been fooled time and time before? What’s to make him think this vision was any different than his other imaginings?
Matt, the author, gave one brief explanation — truthful, but too easy to miss, I think:
I wanted more moments [with Jesus] like this one — these rare, inexplicable visions. But even as I thought this I realized it was a difference in kind, not in quality. I’ve had mystical experiences many times in prayer, when his quiet voice has shaken me with his truth. The Bible, prayer, church — these were places where he met with me often and spoke clearly.
– p 216
In essence he’s saying the character’s encounter with Jesus was more of the same he’d had in the Bible — and in prayer and in church — not different.
Because of the objective reality of Jesus, I think it’s a main point, not a side issue, that our experience of Jesus is anchored in Scripture. It’s the only way we can get out from under imaginary Jesuses, and I think this point could have been made with power rather than squeaking in through the back door.
Recommendation. My criticism of Imaginary Jesus involves revelation — where exactly can any of us find the Real Jesus — not the Real Jesus Matt, the character, finds. The main point of the book isn’t centered on this issue, however.
Primarily the book uncovers the propensity for any of us to make Jesus after our own likeness. It’s an important lesson, and worthy of review even for many of us who nod in agreement upon hearing the distilled concept.
Plus the humor is great. It’s rare to read something so inspiringly funny. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a good laugh and to anyone who wants to think more deeply about who Jesus is.