by Matt Mikalatos
I grew up in church, and frankly, I love it. I know that’s not cool right now, and I don’t care. Don’t worry, it will come back into style.
One side effect of growing up in Christian culture can be a certain contemptuous familiarity with the Bible. I remember impatiently tapping my feet when we trotted out the Christmas story, begging for it to end so we could tear into the presents. I remember playing “Bible Trivial Pursuit” in sixth grade and thinking to myself, “I know everything there is to know about the Bible, except how to pronounce some of the names.” I knew all the answers because they had been provided for me, like an answer key at the back of the book (or, more likely, in the margins and footnotes). There weren’t questions I needed to wrestle with or even consider.
Over time, the weight of all those flannelgraphs and picture Bibles and trivia games and cinematic portrayals and the occasional agenda-driven Bible study flattened Jesus out. It washed the color from the stories. Knowing all the answers made the Gospels little more than thinly disguised theological textbooks, where I knew what would happen next and why and what that meant. Two-dimensional characters packed the Bible so tightly that I couldn’t avoid them: the bumbling disciples, the evil Pharisees, the serene Christ.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that my emotional responses to Jesus, which ranged from a mild, pleasant feeling all the way to a mild, semi-crippling guilt, didn’t match the emotional responses of the people interacting with Jesus in the scriptures. They felt terror when he calmed the seas. They experienced hate-filled, murderous impulses when they heard his teaching. They wept in his presence, they repented of their sins, they fell at his feet in worship. I started to wonder if maybe I was the simplistic, two-dimensional character. I needed to take a fresh look at Jesus.
Taking a fresh look at Jesus presented a challenge, like if someone said, “Pretend you don’t know English and learn it from the beginning.” How do you do that? I’m still figuring that out. I’ve found invaluable help at church, from my many friends and their disparate opinions about Jesus, and also from my time at seminary, where my professors pointed out that thinking you have it all figured out is a sure sign of ignorance.
I’m working on a new project now. I’m re-writing some of the Gospel stories in a way that shocks me out of my pre-conceived notions and helps me to approach the stories about Jesus with the same wonder, frustration, revelation, uncertainty and nervous terror that people did in the first century. If you’ve heard of “The Cottonpatch Gospel” it’s like that, only for 21st century Portland.
These experiments are inaccurate. There is no modern day stand-in for Pharisees that works. If I say “church-goers” for Pharisees the audience says, “Matt is saying church-goers are evil.” But the Pharisees weren’t evil, not in the black hat, gun slinging way we’d like to think. They were deeply spiritual, devout, well-intentioned and well-respected leaders in the community of faith, like John Piper and Mark Driscoll and Francis Chan and our seminary professors, our leaders, and us, the people filling the pews on Sunday morning. We have a lot in common with the Pharisees, like it or not. It should make us all uncomfortable. I’m not saying church-goers are evil. I’m saying that Pharisees aren’t, that they’re more like us than different from us.
So, all that to say that there are some posts coming from my little experiment here on the Western Seminary blog. They aren’t accurate, but that’s not their purpose. You have several accurate-ish translations sitting on your bedside table. These stories are meant to shake us out of our preconceptions, to give us a jolt, to make us look at our dear, beloved, familiar Jesus through new eyes.
It would be great to get your responses, frustrations, suggestions and comments on these stories as they post. I look forward to the conversation.
[Come back tomorrow for the first of Matt's "translations."]
About Matt Mikalatos
Matt works for Campus Crusade, providing regional leadership to the Worldwide Student Network. He and his wife Krista, both graduates of Western Seminary, have ministered to people around the world. But they currently live in Portland, OR. Matt is the author of Imaginary Jesus and Night of the Living Dead Christian: One Man’s Ferociously Funny Quest to Discover What It Means to Be Truly Transformed. And you can also follow Matt’s unique blend of humor and insight over at his blog The Burning Hearts Revolution.