"Can I ask you a question?"
I sighed and closed my Bible. "Yeah."
"Why does your Jesus still wear a robe?"
"What do you mean?" I looked at Jesus, who had reentered the cafe. He flashed me a quick grin, which I took to mean he had taken care of the parking ticket, and sat down at a table across the cafe, by the window. Meaning I was stuck here with Pete the Christian.
"What I mean is, here's God, the creator of the universe. He becomes a human being and lives on Earth for thirty-three years. He completely assimilates to human culture. Wears our clothes. Wears a body like ours. Eats our food. But, here he is, two thousand years later, and he's still wearing robes and a sash. Seems like he might put on a pair of jeans every once in a while. They're great inventions, jeans."
I watched Jesus thoughtfully. "That is weird. I guess I never thought about it."
Pete leaned in close, and I could smell the overpowering aroma on his breath when he said, "Let's go ask him about it."
Matt Mikalatos, author and protagonist of the "not-quite-true story," Imaginary Jesus, then walks across the Red and Black Cafe in downtown Portland, with the rough and tumble Pete, to confront his Jesus -- a sash-and-robe wearing, perpetually bemused sort of deity with impeccable personal hygiene. It's only when Pete punches this Jesus in the face, and Jesus skedaddles out of that cafe at godspeed, that Matt begins to wonder if he really is the real Jesus. Pete ought to know; he is the Apostle Peter, and he's met the real Jesus. So, the two give merry chase to the impostor at the very beginning of this gem of a book that confronts in an hilarious and heartfelt way the believer's lifelong quest to get past the constructs and wish-fulfillments that are our imaginary Jesuses and to the reality of the Christ.
Mr. Mikalatos has covered nearly all the imaginary Jesus bases here. You'll find, among many others, Political Jesus, Testosterone Jesus, Magic 8 Ball Jesus, Works-Only Jesus (no mouth), Faith-Only Jesus (no arms), Free Will Jesus, Meticulous Jesus, Hip & Groovy Portland Jesus, and you even catch a glimpse of shadowy Mormon Jesus in the conversations between Matt and LDS Elders Laurel and Hardy (he thanks them in his acknowledgements, so I'm not sure whether they are realio-trulio or an extended joke -- but, either way, how delicious!). Of course, he missed my favorite imaginary Jesus, Justine-Centric Jesus, which is the one I conjure all the time who is almost exclusively interested in me -- my comforts, my troubles, my petty concerns, and, lastly, a wee little bit my salvation. But, all these artificial filters through which we pour our own prejudices, pleasures, and world-views to get a handle on a integrated picture of a tame Jesus are as amusing as they are convicting.
The work of two men kept running through my mind as I read Imaginary Jesus (it took me less than three hours in one evening -- quite the speedy read!). The first was my beloved and revered G.K. Chesterton, who is the father of Christian paradox and has given me the gift of reconciling the often disparate notions of the Trinity. This is the ability to say, "Yes, that is True, and that is True as well," when grappling with the Infinite and Holy mystery. And, the second man was the singer/songwriter Bob Bennett, who has written one of the best songs about this Glorious Paradox of Christ called "Both Things."
Oh we are living in our contradiction/But our questions are always "either/or"
To this convenient fragment of fiction/God answers with "both, and" and "more"
Whether Lamb of God at Eastertide/Or the Savior that Christmas brings
Jesus the same yesterday, today, and forever/ Is Both Things
~from Christmastide, 2009
Christ is our Both, And, and More. And the imaginary Jesuses we construct -- and I think we all do, because we must -- because we are, on this side of the veil, human and frail and finite and fickle -- cannot diminish Him, but can be impediments to getting nearer to the One we need. But can an imaginary Jesus serve a purpose, or is he just an illusion of the devil? I think, and I write this tentatively, because I am unsure; but, I think that there is a purpose to imaginary Jesuses, simply because they can be little scratches that open the path to the heart of Christ. They become dangerous only when they become the end of our search, not the beginning. Because, if your Jesus is a holy, white flame whose name you can barely whisper because you are face-forward on your knees before Him, then that is a true part of Jesus, but not the real Jesus. And, if your Jesus is a warm embrace whose name you cannot refrain from repeating in delirious joy, then that is a true part of Jesus, but not the real Jesus. The challenge and charge of our lives, I think, is to recognize when we have distorted Him into someone He is not, or into someone that only captures part of the Truth. And then, to fall anew upon His grace that is our only hope of communion with Him -- world without end. Amen.