This isn’t the first time I have read a book by Matt Mikalatos. A few years ago, I read The Night of the Living Dead Christian, Mikalatos’s take on the monster novel genre. He humorously used werewolves, vampires, mad scientists, androids and zombies to talk about human sinfulness and our need for spiritual transformation (and its possibility). His first novel, (My) Imaginary Jesus, explored some of the false images of Jesus we Christians present. Mikalatos cast himself as a character in both novels.
The First Time We Saw Him is not really fiction, but a series of fictionalized retellings of the gospel story with commentary from Mikalatos. Jesus’ life and parables are retold in modern idiom and set in a contemporary American setting. The ‘prodigal son’ goes to Hollywood. The ‘Good Samaritan’ finds a beat up, left for dread truck driver somewhere along the I-5 corridor. Many of the stories about Jesus are not tethered to a particular geographical locale in these narratives. Sometimes I wondered if Jesus lived somewhere near Portland (where Mikalatos lives). Though his death-by-lynching (the closest modern equivalent) may suggest somewhere south east of there.
Mikalatos is not a character in these stories, though he does share some of his own story of discovering Jesus as he tells his tales. Beginning with Mary’s annunciation (Miryam) and ending with Jesus’ (Joshua’s) post resurrection appearances and ascension, Mikalatos highlights some favorite stories from Jesus life and teaching. The beauty of this book is it helps us hear Jesus through passages we’ve stopped listening to because we are pretty sure we already know what they mean. Mikalatos helps pull the scales back from our eyes so we see how remarkable Jesus is.
Certainly Mikalatos is not the first author to revamp the Jesus story. Beyond Jesus Christ Superstar, there are also some thoughtful books which retell the Jesus story. Notably, Clarence Jordon’s Cotton Patch New Testament casts Jesus as a poor white boy from Valdosta, GA. Joseph Grizone’s series of novels revolve around Joshua (a modern day Jesus). Mikalatos’s own efforts do not attain to the level of ‘great literature’ but it is well written and will give you a new window of Jesus’ life. The crucifixion/lynching scene is gruesome and heart-rending. The post resurrection account retains the magic.
There is still a sense of Jesus being lost in translation. The gospel accounts make allusions to God’s larger story. Placing Jesus in somewhere-in-America removes his particular character and life. This is where Mikalatos own comments and encouragement to explore the Jesus story yourself remain important. I give this book four stars.
Notice of material connection: I received this book free from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.