The First Time We Saw Him by Matt Mikalatos

I enjoy reading Matt Mikalatos. Even when I don’t particularly care for one of his books, or feel like he didn’t quite succeed in what he set out to do, I still find him worth reading.  He is creative and tackles interesting subjects.

So when I saw that he had a new book coming out, First Time We Saw Him, I was interested. I was even more interested when I found out what the book was about:

9780801016301Scripture tells us that the words of Jesus made people uncomfortable, confused, angry, repentant, worshipful, and riotous. Today, we read the words of Christ in a steady, even tone and find ourselves wondering if maybe we’re missing something. Could it be that we’ve lost the emotional power of Jesus’s words simply because we’re too familiar with them?

Having read it, however, I really struggled with how to review this book. On the one hand Mikalatos writes with energy and honesty; and he is willing to challenge the passivity of many Christians. I think he is correct to note that far too many have been desensitized to the power of scripture and the story of Jesus, his life, and his message.

But in seeking to re-introduce Jesus he mostly just dresses up conventional perspectives and theology in modern language and setting. With a couple of exceptions I don’t think his approach presents much of a challenge to current evangelical understandings of Jesus or his message.

And this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with my recent theological obsessions explorations, but the lack of historical/narrative reference or perspective is rather troubling. Mikalatos, like the vast majority of evangelicals, universalizes Jesus to the point of abstraction so that his Jewishness and his connection to his people, culture, and time are nothing more than a setting to be replaced by modern versions so that we might see Jesus in our time and place.

As far as these modern re-tellings go, Mikalatos does a fine job. He is after all a writer and story-teller. The story of the prostitute who pours expensive perfume on Jesus/Joshua’s feet and the story of Lazarus are particularly well done and effectively translate the stories into our modern perspective; our time and place. And they challenge our comfortable judgements about Jesus.

The problem is that, in my opinion, you can’t simply take Jesus out of his time and place without losing critical aspects of the story. The narrative and historical aspects are necessary parts of understanding what Jesus was saying and doing. They are not just illustrations for application or a devotional.

In the discussion of why the disciples left everything and followed Jesus there is no reference to their conception of what it meant to be the Messiah and why they would have seen Jesus as a potential fulfillment of that role.

Instead there is a focus on individual spiritual motivation. Sure, when discussing the triumphal entry and his death the tension between a political messiah and spiritual one is discussed in passing. But how can you talk about the disciples following Jesus without discussing what being the Messiah or the Christ would have meant? There is a context, a history, here that means something and we have lost it. (see N.T. Wright)

I believe this is largely an outgrowth of a focus on Jesus as God to the exclusion of all else. In fact, Jesus as human is barely touched on in these stories except in relation to his dress or social class. Jesus doesn’t come off as a human being so much as God made man; the man aspect is a form not an identity with all that goes along with that. The story, again incorrectly in my opinion, is about how the disciples came to understand that Jesus was God and then were confused when he was killed. I simply don’t believe this is the story the synoptic gospels tell (John is unique).

What also undermines the story’s power ironically is the completely different historical setting. As Mikalatos leaves out most of the context of the tension filled Jewish desire for independence and the resulting clash with Rome, and the equally strong and disastrous temptation to make peace with pagan empire, when he seeks to move these stories to modern America it sounds off-key.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stories surrounding Jesus’s death. It is nearly impossible to transpose the crucifixion into modern America (and Mikalatos admits this).

The answer lies, in my opinion, not in universalizing and spiritualizing but in scraping away the abstract theology, Christian psychology, and bad Sunday school stories and getting back to the narrative embedded in scripture. A prophetic and apocalyptic story about coming judgement on Israel and a suffering servant who would give birth to a community that would survive the end of the age and into the age to come.

If this comes across as harsh, I don’t really mean it to.  If you are interested in a creative and well-intentioned attempt to place the life of Jesus into the language and culture of today, you will enjoy this book. Mikalatos is an engaging writer and The First Time We Saw Him is a quick read.

But if, like me, you are looking for something a little more ambitious or challenging you might be disappointed.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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