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Friday, April 13, 2012

Book Review: My Imaginary Jesus

"Matt Mikalatos likes Jesus a lot. In fact, he can't believe how much they have in common. They share the same likes, dislikes, beliefs, and opinions. (Though Jesus does have better hair.) So imagine Matt's astomishment when he finds out that the guy he knows as Jesus…isn't."

So declares the back cover of My Imaginary Jesus, the spiritual adventures of one man searching for the real God. The front cover quotes Relevant magazine: "Think Monty Python meets C.S. Lewis…" After all the heavy duty stuff I'd been reading lately, I grabbed this up off the Tyndale Blog Network list, figuring I could use a fresh breath of snark in my life, and snark I did receive.

The book follows Matt on a wild goose chase through the streets of downtown Portland in an effort to discover the real Jesus in a sea of imaginary ones… characters like Magic 8 Ball Jesus, King James Jesus, Testosterone Jesus, Political Power Jesus, Hippy Jesus, and Pure Reckless Fantasy Jesus. Here's a clip, taken from page 76:

"Nearby I could see a Jesus with a gray uniform and no mouth sweeping the floor.

'That's Liberal Social Services Jesus,' Bargain Jesus said. 'He thinks the best way to tell people about God is through service, but he never talks about God. He's great to have around because he keeps the place spotless. […] Sometimes his brother, Conservative Truth-Telling Jesus comes around. He has no arms. He thinks the only way to tell people about God is through hard truth, and he never raises a hand to help people with their physical needs. He's difficult to handle, honestly.'"

What I Liked
I loved that the book was set in downtown Portland, and as an ex-Portlander, some favorite PDX haunts popped up like unexpected friends dropping by… places like The Red and Black CafĂ©, Highway 26, Sauvie Island, Multnomah Falls Lodge, and even obscure ones like Pix Patisserie and Muchas Gracias. This probably accounted for a lot of my positive association with the book – there's something about Portland's comfortable weirdness that makes it the only acceptable city for a story this… well… comfortably weird.

I think Matt addressed some serious and vitally important issues in an approachable and humorous way. The book makes you laugh but also makes you look honestly at your version of Jesus, the biography you've written about him in your head, and compare it to the real One. It awakens the reality that we all are biased by a variety of false notions and we allow that to influence our faith and lifestyle. For this reason alone, I'd recommend it. I also think it's a perfect text for someone who isn't sure where they stand on the faith issue, or someone who thinks Christians are hypocritical or legalistic.

Believers and non-believers alike can gain something here and honestly enjoy themselves in the process. I think that's a tricky thing to do, and I applaud the author for that. Plus, the questions at the back are great, and in hindsight, I wish I'd have read this alongside a group of people and allowed it to open up some group conversations about the issues this book presents. There are enough philosophical and theological springboards here to engage a lively discussion that doesn't have to be a debate.

You know those movies you watch and think, "That would have been so much funnier or so much better if I'd have watched with a bunch of friends?" That's sort of what I mean. This is a perfect spark, funny and positive but serious at the same time, to start a discussion in a respectful way between people with differing viewpoints.

What I Didn't Like
What started out as familiar and fun, snarky and even genuinely convicting eventually turned daunting. I loved the Imaginary Jesus angle (and found that his favorite fake Jesus was a lot like mine), but I think Matt belabored the point a bit and I honestly think the story would have worked just as well with 50 less pages. Perhaps because it's written in a style I'm not used to reading (though I read plenty of snark and satire) – the sort-of-true, half-fiction, half-truth, sort-of-random-absurdity just kind of got old for me after a dozen chapters. It was a great concept, but I got impatient to be done with it when it became apparent that the wild goose chase was going to last 225 pages and end rather abruptly with the big question of the book feeling to me like it wasn't really answered. Perhaps that was the point, but it just felt a little weak and unsure and I had to actually re-read a bit to make sure I didn't miss something.

I personally would have liked more truth and less seemingly inconsequential drop-in characters. I did find myself wanting to know more about the real stuff he reveals in the story – more about some of his personal experiences that he half-shares, but were genuinely intriguing and interesting. It sort of felt like he wasn't completely committed to sharing his story, and so he made up some and filled some in, leaving the reader wondering what is true and what is made up, and it kind of killed the credibility of some otherwise powerful testimony.

Ultimately, I think it's a book a lot of people will enjoy, especially those who like (or need) to challenge their perceptions on faith and life and Scripture. It presents a huge and heavy spiritual challenge in a totally approachable and relatable way, and because of that, it's worth the read.

Disclaimer: Tyndale House Publishers provided a free copy of this book for me to review. All opinions are always my own. Product links above include my personal affiliate links. 


  1. Hey Cara -- thanks for the great review. I'm glad you enjoyed My Imaginary Jesus. Great thoughts on things to do better... my next book, Night of the Living Dead Christian, goes more for straight humorous fiction with theology packed in, and it looks like the book I'll write next is going to be a memoir... we'll spread things around a bit! Thanks again for a great review.

  2. Really helpful post, Cara.

    Definitely intriguing segments of the book -- made me curious to see more.



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