I have thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I know that you will too. You can find my review here. This is an interview, in honor of the monthly giveaway. Feel free to interact with Matt in the comment section.
1. Matt, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Let’s start with the first question I imagine that you get asked a lot: Tell us about yourself.
I suppose in honor of all those comic book geeks and Darwinists out there I should start by saying that I have an actual mutation! I am the proud owner of an extra half of a vertebra. I am thinking of fighting crime under the moniker of “BACK ACHE MAN!” If anyone is interested in starting a real life version of the X-Men, I’m available.
I am also married to a beautiful and long-suffering woman named Krista and we have three lovely daughters. I’m a graduate of Western Seminary in Portland, and I work for Campus Crusade for Christ, specifically working with our overseas ministries, which we call the Worldwide Student Network.
2. What started you on this book?
I meet people all the time who tell me that Jesus is their best friend, but can’t answer the simplest questions about him. For instance, “What would Jesus like for lunch today?” I can answer that question about my wife, but not about Jesus. As I started looking at my own life and the lives of my friends and acquaintances I realized that we all fill in the gaps of our knowledge about Jesus with our own preferences and guesses and pretty soon we see those invented Jesuses as the “real” Jesus. So I set out to write a series of humorous essays, mostly about my own discarded misconceptions about Jesus. However, when I started shopping the manuscript around, the guy who became my agent (Wes Yoder) said that it needed a stronger narrative and that he thought I wasn’t being true to my weird self… so I rewrote it as a comedy theology novel, which was way more fun for me and I hope for the reader, too.
3. Did writing out this ‘fictional’ account teach you anything about yourself?
Sure. One thing it taught me is that I’m a lot less unique than I thought. I am amazed at how many people see themselves in my own spiritual struggles, false conceptions of Jesus and occasional idiocies. Maybe I don’t talk about those things enough, to realize that there are others out there who have had the same experiences and can help walk me through it. It was a reminder, too, that we don’t really “arrive” in our knowledge of Christ. Writing a novel, you want it to have the nice clean “And then I found the real Jesus” wrap up, but it’s more like I found a level road on a mountain pass. There is more work ahead, but for now there is a feeling of peace and accomplishment and preparation for the next push into greater knowledge of Christ.
4. What is the most seen Imaginary Jesus?
I think most believers deal with some form of Legalist Jesus at some point in our journey. Americans seem particularly fond of Political Power Jesus… it seems like whether you are a liberal or conservative spiritually and politically, at some point people turn to politics as the answer for transforming the world. This is a model that Christ doesn’t seem to follow (until he comes and sets up a theocracy). Not to say we should abandon the political system, I just don’t think that we should rely on it to save the world. The weak, kind, soft-spoken Jesus is a favorite in a lot of circles, too. He’s the one who looks beatifically up to heaven to pray a calm and trusting prayer before being brutally murdered, which of course is not the story we’re told in scripture.
5. What has been the general reaction from friends and families? Others?
Surprisingly positive. I thought there would be torches and pitchforks and angry mobs in my future, but so far only two guys have shown up for that, and they just had a dinner fork and a book of matches. My wife was a little surprised at some of the more personal things from our life that I shared, or at least the amount of detail that I shared, but in the end she was okay with that. Overall, I’ve been amazed by the conversations being generated by the book… I’ve been getting notes from atheists and agnostics as well as believers from all over the Christian spectrum, most of them wanting to share some insights or ask questions about the real Jesus. That’s probably the most fun about the book, having real spiritual conversations with people searching to find Jesus. On the other hand, at least one person wrote that I am a blasphemer. I think he’s wrong, or at least wrong in this case. But I like to picture him, dramatically lit from below and wearing black robes, leaning toward me and saying in an intense whisper, “BLASPHEMY!” That cheers me up if I get discouraged.
6. Matt, what do you see is the biggest obstacle for many who have their own Imaginary Jesus?
Many of us follow an imaginary Jesus with complete sincerity, trying to follow the real Jesus. The biggest problem is being unaware that it’s an imaginary Jesus in the first place. And sometimes when someone tries to point that out to us, we so fervently defend our constructed Christ that we don’t even hear their point. Sometimes you can see these things very clearly in scripture. For instance, you’ll have someone say, “Jesus never gets angry, he is always kind and patient.” But in scripture we see that he made a whip and chased people with it while shouting at them. Or, someone will talk about Jesus being furious about sin every moment of the day, but actually we see him kindly forgiving the adulteress and telling her to go and sin no more. So, in some sense, I think our biggest obstacle is ourselves. We prefer Jesus to be comfortable and like us. We want “What Would Jesus Do?” to be interchangeable with “What Would I Do?” Because if he’s different than us, that means to become Christ-like requires that we be transformed. And we prefer a simplified, easy to explain Jesus rather than an actual person… and certainly more than the ridiculously complex person that he is… fully God, fully man, omniscient but human, powerful but laying his power aside, loving but just. It’s a lot of work getting to know someone like that.
7. Does your Imaginary Jesus ever get resurrected?
The thing about imaginary Jesuses is that they tend to go for reincarnation over resurrection. They’re always coming back in slightly different forms. Putting the nail in the coffin of some of our imaginary Jesuses can be really difficult, and sometimes we overcompensate so much that we make new ones. Leaving an imaginary Jesus behind is usually a process. In my own life, dealing with Legalist Jesus would be an example of this. It’s not like I woke up one morning and had a sudden comprehensive realization of every legalism in my life. It took time to work through that and realize, “Jesus isn’t going to be mad at me for playing cards… especially since it’s just Go Fish.” Frankly, I still wrestle with some lingering bits of legalism in my life despite rejecting a legalist portrait of Jesus. For instance, there are days when I think “Oh, God is mad at me for not reading my Bible and praying today.” Then I remember that, in fact, I did read my Bible earlier that day. Um. So I guess he wasn’t mad? And does it say somewhere in scripture that I should read my Bible every day or else God will be mad at me? There’s still lingering spiritual damage from following that twisted picture of Jesus in my past.
8. Matt, recently, you’ve been compared to James Joyce. Who do you compare yourself to? Who influenced your writing the most?
I love Gene Wolfe, who writes about faith in a consistently fascinating and challenging way. One of my old instructors, Percival Everett, writes painfully funny and deep philosophical stories that haunt you long after you’re done reading them. Kurt Vonnegut and John Steinbeck are favorites. Of course I’m a fan of C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Dostoevsky and Frederick Buechner as well. I’m afraid that I could list more books and authors that are reasonable here… Glen David Gold and Leif Enger are both recent authors who I plan to read every book they ever write, and I always buy Michael Connelly books in hardback. I enjoy P.D. James. Shusaku Endo’s Silence profoundly impacted me. I think these authors all impact my writing in the sense that they show me what excellent writers can do… that you can take a funny novel and use it to make a serious point (like Chesterton in The Napoleon of Notting Hill) or that you can write a book that is based in fact but bend it to your own purposes (Steinbeck’s East of Eden, my favorite novel of all time). These authors are all ridiculously good, and give me a target to aim for in the future.
9. I notice that you read a few blogs. If you plan a sequel, what Imaginary Jesus’ can you add from your interaction with blogs and bloggers?
Different people have mentioned a lot of great Jesuses who I missed in the book… a British reader mentioned “Stiff Upper Lip Jesus” and at least one clever lady suggested “Bridegroom Jesus” (for all the single women who know that Jesus is enough and they don’t need a husband). Adam Sabados suggested “Chewbacca Jesus” which apparently has something to do with Jesus being in Star Wars.
I’ve noticed a strange pattern on blogs when people talk about “what I would do with Jesus if we had a day together.” Apparently everyone would like to have a coffee date with Jesus. Or they would like him to hold them while they cry for an hour and also they would like him to tell them that he has forgiven them for all their sins when they start saying they feel guilty about stuff. We might need a scene or two about that. Although I guess punching Jesus in the head in a coffee shop in the first book might have dealt with that.
I am pretty sure from lurking on your blog that we would need a scene between ESV Jesus and NLT Jesus. Just to settle the question once and for all on which translation of the Bible is God’s favorite.
10. Any words of advice for future authors?
Dear future authors, if there are not jet cars in the future, I am going to be disappointed. Please write your congresspeople concerning this unfulfilled promise to the NorAm people.
Three bits of advice:
One, read the absolute best books out there. Don’t waste your time comparing yourself to the junk. Set your sights high.
Two, don’t stop writing. Every success story looks like it happened overnight, but most of them didn’t. I started writing for kicks when I was in high school, and really got serious about it in college. My first book hit the racks when I was 34. Write for blogs, magazines, newspapers, whoever will print you.
Three, get serious about your craft. Don’t use writing as a tool to get your point across, use it as a mirror to show people themselves and the world around them (Unless you’re writing a grocery list. In which case, clarity concerning what groceries to buy will be appreciated).
11. What about those struggling with Imaginary Jesuses?
Getting to know the real Jesus can be a lot like getting to know other living people. You can learn about him from books, or other people who know him well, or from getting time with him. The Bible, as the official autobiography of Jesus co-authored by his close friends is a great place to seek insight into what he is really like. And finding people today who know him well and can share their own insights is another excellent place to get to know Jesus and see your own misconceptions (and yes, I’m one of those strange people who actually likes church… go figure). And then there is this weird thing where you can talk with Jesus called “prayer” that believe it or not actually can work pretty well. I’m not saying any of this is easy, but I will say that it works. And I will say this, too… Jesus wants us to know him. He will help us to find him when we are seeking him.
All of us who are followers of Christ are in this process… we never “arrive” at perfect knowledge of Christ in this life, and anyone who thinks otherwise is following an imaginary Jesus, because the apostle John wrote that “when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” If we don’t see him as he is until he appears, then we, all of us, are still continuing to learn who he is today. In the meantime we “purify ourselves as he is pure” in preparation for his appearing!
12. Finally, Matt, let me thank you for this interview. What are your future plans for ministry and books?
Future plans in ministry mostly involve doing what I’m already doing. That involves getting people overseas who are passionate about other people hearing about Christ, and taking care of them once they are there… helping them to love God, their team, the host culture and to proclaim Christ boldly.
Next book on the docket is “Night of the Living Dead Christians” which is all about what it means to truly follow Jesus. And zombies, werewolves, mole people and vampires. I’ve also recently finished a chapter book for young readers called “The Sword of Six Worlds” which is about two grade school kids who are tasked with saving the world(s) from an evil encroaching force called the Blight. That one doesn’t have a publisher yet, but my kids would like to assure all the publishers out there that it is excellent and should have many sequels.