Monday, June 21, 2010

June Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour

Imaginary Jesus
Reach out and have a chase scene with someone.

This month's blog tour goes out to Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos, who takes the concept of the Mary Sue...and takes it too far.

Yet again, I regret not reading the book for the blog tour.  This novel, if it can be called a novel exactly, is by all accounts an irreverent and dizzying romp starring Mikalatos's MegaTokyo-like self-insert character as he goes on a Quest for the Historical Jesus somewhat different from that taken by John Dominic Crossan.  The book opens with Mikalatos sipping coffee with Jesus in a cafe before St. Peter comes in and punches Jesus in the nose, revealing him to be a fake.  And, from what I gather, the book kind of goes on from there with a lot of chase scenes as Mikalatos wades his way through various fake Jesuses in search of the real one.  The consensus verdict is that it's irreverent and weird, but successfully mocks a lot of goofy ideas about Christ.  Apparently, Mikalatos is out to tell us that Johnny Cash is wrong.  You can't have Your Own Personal Jesus.

This particular blog tour comes at an opportune time.  The gospel reading for Mass yesterday was Luke 9.18-24, in which Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do the crowds say that I am?"  After they list a few of the people's speculations, he gets personal and asks, "But who do you say that I am?"  St. Peter of course answers, "The Christ of God."  The various imaginary Jesuses that Mikalatos skewers are not entirely new, not entirely the product of today's pop culture.  People have been having difficulty pinning Jesus down for some time now.

I don't know what Mikalatos eventually lands on as the real Jesus.  Reviewers are good enough not to give that away, in spite of my desperate hunt for excessively detailed reviews I can rip off to make it look like I read the book myself (you have failed me for the last time, Commander Miller!).  If we ignore the silliness of historical "scholars" who play arbitrary games with their limited source material in order to discover that Jesus was really a hippie from the sixties just like them (I'm talkin' t' you, Marcus Borg), and if we accept creedal statements of the religion Jesus founded and the canonical texts depicting him, then a few important facts about Jesus are reasonably easy to find out:  he was a Jew of first-century Palestine, his birth was miraculous, his foster father was a skilled laborer and he likely was too, he was a controversial itinerant preacher who worked miracles, he was executed for sedition, he rose from the dead, he's God incarnate, etc.  Also, he molded birds out of clay when a young boy and then used his miraculous powers to turn them real and make them fly away when a religious teacher upbraided him for creating idolatrous images...oh, wait, that one's not from a canonical text. Anyway, my point is that the basic data about Jesus are not too difficult to grasp, though the teachings of Jesus take more than a lifetime to understand.

If Mikalatos wants to strip things back to the basic facts, then fine.  Based on what I've read, his main goal is dismantle some of the more obviously phoney depictions of Christ; his imaginary Jesuses have names like "Perpetually Angry Jesus" and "Testosterone Jesus," which, though I haven't read the book, I can easily imagine.  Indeed, although I don't meet Perpetually Angry Jesus much these days, I've known people who worship Testosterone Jesus, believing Christianity has been "effeminized," though I've yet to hear an articulate explanation of what that means, and imagining real manhood as involving a lot of flexing and posturing.  It's easy to see that Mikalatos has a lot to make fun of.

However, if Mikalatos is, Marcus Borg-like, trying to reveal the true human personality of Jesus, I doubt whether he can do a better job than those who have gone before.  The Evangelists did not think it meet to give a detailed biography of Jesus, either factual or fantastical.  They were concerned mostly with his teaching, his miracles, and, as mentioned above, his identity.  A full life story or a psychological analysis (or the ancient version thereof) were apparently not too important to them.

Of course, this does produce an interesting quandary.  How do you have a close, personal, Johnny-Cash-like relationship with a guy you don't really know all that well?  Charles Sheldon's famous novel In His Steps, which started that whole WWJD thing, invites people to live closely to Jesus and imitate him as well as they can, but though Sheldon seems pretty sure about what Jesus would do as a novelist (which I've discussed before, and I bring that up only because it's still probably the best essay on this website), he ends up telling everybody else that Jesus's identity and actions are the sort of things they have to figure out for themselves.  Their own personal Jesuses.  Imaginary Jesuses they carry in their heads.

I don't have a good answer to this question of how to make the relationship with Jesus intensely personal.  Were I a better mystic myself, I could tell you how to be a good mystic, but I'm not.  Telling Jesus you want it to be intensely personal is a good start.  Speaking to him frequently.  Assisting Mass and consuming the Eucharist.  I rather suspect that the answers to this question aren't supposed to be clear and obvious:  I'm inclined to believe the gospels contain--and lack--what they do by design.  We are not supposed to have an analysis of Jesus' personality.

I can think of (that is, "imagine," or "make up") at least one possible reason for this, and that brings me from the gospel reading for yesterday to the gospel reading for today (Matthew 7.1-5), in which Jesus says, "Stop judging, that you may not be judged.  For as you judge, so will you be judged" (NAB).  A more startling passage on the same theme comes from Psalm 18.26:  "With the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse" (NRSV)  Perhaps the historical Jesus scholars who try to look at Jesus but only end up seeing reflections of themselves have observed, as through a glass darkly, an important truth.  In at least one way, at one time, Jesus will in a sense match us and our expectations--at our own Judgment, when he promises to measure it out to us as we have measured it out to others.  Then, those of us who are perpetually angry can expect to meet a perpetually angry Jesus, except the anger won't be aimed where we'd like.  Some hints of this do seem, at least to me (perhaps I imagine it), to come through in the gospels, and it may be that which produces the paradox making it so difficult to grasp Jesus' personality:  to the terrible sinners who shows repentance or humility, Christ is tender and compassionate, but to the people convinced of their own righteousness and everyone else's lack thereof, he is impatient, angry, and condemnatory.  Much like themselves.  Good thing to remember, that.

You too can imagine Jesus at the author's blog and website.

Your own personal blog tour:

(Dude, notice how many pop culture references I made in this post.  Duuuuuuude.)
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