Matt Mikalatos, author of The First Time We Saw Him (TFTWSH), was clearly raised as a “church brat.” This is an affectionate term in my home, since my husband and I are in the process of raising four of them, the eldest of whom has gone out and married a female of the species. It is our earnest hope and expectation that they, in turn, will raise another generation of church brats. Having said that, I will confess that I have puzzled over, read books, led meetings, engaged in intense conversations, and initiated activities in my church to address and, hopefully, to combat the myriad challenges posed by our beloved church brats.
Mikalatos frames the problem masterfully: “The point is not to breathe new life into the Scriptures. It’s to remind [them] that they’re already alive.” As a staff member with CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) for fifteen years, the author brings to the table his experiences of cross-cultural ministry, his theological education, and his evident desire to know Jesus and to make Him known. He’s on to something . . .
It is not merely that TFTWSH translates the most familiar Gospel stories into 21st century contexts and infuses them with present day props, although this is fascinating. For instance, Mikalatos puts a cell phone in everyone’s pocket, casts the prodigal son as a star-struck runaway, and suggests that Jesus (Joshua) might have multiplied hot dogs and rolls from the pitcher’s mound in a minor league baseball stadium if the incarnation had landed Him in modern-day ‘Merica. Teenage Mary, thrown across her pink bedspread working on rough drafts for the Magnificat with a purple pen; and Mary Magdalene, appearing as cash-strapped-college-student-turned-exotic-dancer certainly do their intended attention-grabbing job, but, remember: church brats have seen all this before. They know all about “creative methodology.” Thanks to the 21st century attempts of all those flannelgraph companies trying to re-tool for the IPod generation, they’ve probably even been challenged in Sunday School to re-write a Bible lesson in a present-day setting. They just would not have done it nearly as well as Mr. Mikalatos.
What blows the dust off the flannelgraph in TFTWSH is the author’s willingness to “go there.” Ever since the Apostle John was penning letters from Ephesus, believers have been trying to take the skin off Jesus. Like the New Testament Gnostics, we turn away from the humanity of Jesus, sanitizing our soteriology, taking the meat out of the incarnation. Do we convey to learners and feel in our own hearts the utter horror Jesus felt as He anticipated being “beaten and brutally killed?” Are we willing to admit that the Good Samaritan is not only a story about racism and cultural boundaries, but also one with serious gospel implications? After all, the split between the Samaritans and the Jews started with religion. If the hero is cast as a Muslim, we are forced to ask ourselves: “Can it be that a Muslim, with his incorrect theology and his corrupted religious practices, could be held up as an example, as a part of the answer? Could [Jesus] be saying that a man like that is somehow closer to eternal life than a respected pastor or a sharp seminary student?”
If we are to function as witnesses (clearly our job title, if we take seriously the words of “The Great Thing Entrusted to Us”), it is our job to answer the question: Who is this man? TFTWSH puts that question to God Himself by thoughtfully examining the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and death, and challenges the reader to let that question pierce his own heart — to awaken to the wonder of Jesus.
Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.