Gutsy, irreverent, hilarious, courageous, poignant, eye-opening, bizarre, quirky, mold-breaking --- that's a lot of bold adjectives to describe one little book. But IMAGINARY JESUS deserves every one of them and many more. That's because Matt Mikalatos accomplishes so much in one slim novel that your brain struggles to keep pace with the thoughts that go whooshing through it.
So Matt (you're on a first-name basis with him by the end of Chapter 0) begins his "not-quite-true-story" with this opener: "Jesus and I often grab lunch at the Red and Black Café on Twelfth and Oak." Okay…so Jesus the flesh-and-blood man exists somewhere other than first-century Palestine. Fair enough. You think you're all prepared now for a different kind of story, and then BAM! In storms the apostle Peter, who decks Jesus with one blow of his hammy fist. (Warning to the easily offended: Peter utters a word that sounds an awful lot like "dam.")
This is clearly not your nice, safe, predictable Christian novel.
What could Jesus possibly do to merit such abuse from Peter? Well, there's the rub. The guy lunching at the café with Matt isn't the real Jesus at all. Peter should know, right? The guy on the floor is Imaginary Jesus, the picture of Christ that Matt has been carrying around in his head for a very, very long time. Oh, and in case you're wondering, yes, Matt is both the author and the star of his own novel, defying another convention of fiction writing.
But back to our sort-of-true story. Imaginary Jesus flees the scene, with Matt and Pete in hot pursuit. Thus begins a wild romp through the streets of Portland, Oregon, and other locales where Matt meets an abundance of Jesuses and a talking donkey to boot. There are so many Jesuses in this story that you're bound to meet the one you carry around in your own head: Perpetually Angry Jesus, Magic 8 Ball Jesus, Liberation Theology Jesus, Harley Jesus, Free Will Jesus, Meticulous Jesus, and so many more. But just when you think he'll never find the real Jesus, Matt meets --- George Barna. Yep, that George Barna. The pollster. Back at the Red and Black. Eating a tasty taco salad because he did his research on the food in advance. I said this was a quirky book, didn't I?
Matt also meets up with a host of other humans in his quest to find the real Jesus, including the members of an atheist Bible study and two Mormons, Elder Laurel and Elder Hardy. The book boasts such chapter titles as "Return of the Frog of Hate," "Stupid Atheists and Their Stupid Insights" and "Holy Mother of God," which may or may not give you a clue to their contents. Probably not, I'm thinking.
Lest you think this is all fun and games, let me assure you that it's not. Matt's encounter with the real Jesus is as compelling a scene as you'll find anywhere in contemporary literature. The only comparable image that comes to mind is the magnificent river crossing toward the end of Leif Enger's PEACE LIKE A RIVER. That's high praise, and Matt is deserving of it.
True to his style, Matt wraps up his awesome encounter with the real Jesus by doing crafts with the apostle John.
What a joy it was to find this treasure! I'll take this book over a thousand sermons and a library full of theological tomes on who Jesus is.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on November 13, 2011