Kevin's Reviews > First Time We Saw Him, The: Awakening to the Wonder of Jesus

First Time We Saw Him, The by Matt Mikalatos
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I really struggled with how to rate this book. I am stuck somewhere in-between two and three stars. On the one hand Mikalatos writes with energy and honesty; and he is willing to challenge the passivity of many Christians; I think he is correct to note that far too many have been desensitized to the power of scripture and the story of Jesus, his life, and his message.

But in seeking to re-introduce Jesus he mostly just dresses up conventional perspectives and theology in modern language and setting. With a couple of exceptions I don't think his approach presents much of a challenge to current evangelical understandings of Jesus or his message.

And this won't come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with my recent theological obsessions explorations, but the lack of historical/narrative reference or perspective is rather troubling. Mikalatos, like the vast majority of evangelicals, universalizes Jesus to the point of abstraction so that his Jewishness and his connection to his people, culture, and time are nothing more than a setting to be replaced by modern versions so that we might see Jesus in our time and place.

As far as these modern re-tellings go, Mikalatos does a fine job. He is after all a writer and story teller. The story of the prostitute who pours expensive perfume on Jesus/Joshua's feet and the story of Lazarus are particularly well done and effectively translate the stories into our modern perspective; our time and place. And they challenge our comfortable judgements about Jesus.

The problem is that, in my opinion, you can't simply take Jesus out of his time and place without losing critical aspects of the story. The narrative and historical aspects are necessary parts of understanding what Jesus was saying and doing. Incredibly, in his discussion of why the disciples left everything and followed Jesus there is no reference to their conception of what it meant to be the Messiah and why they would have seen Jesus as a potential fulfillment of that role. Instead there is a focus on individual spiritual motivation. Sure, when discussing the triumphal entry and his death the tension between a political messiah and spiritual one is discussed in passing. But how can you talk about the disciples following Jesus without discussing what being the Messiah or Christ would have meant? There is a context a history here that means something and we have lost it. (see NT Wright)

I believe this is largely an outgrowth of a focus on Jesus as God to the exclusion of all else. In fact, Jesus as human is barely touched on in these stories except in relation to his dress or social class. Jesus doesn't come of as human in these stories so mach as God made man. The story, again incorrectly in my opinion, is about how the disciples came to understand that Jesus was God and then were confused when he was killed. I simply don't believe this is the story the synoptic gospels tell (John is unique).

What also undermines the stories is the completely different historical setting. As Mikalatos leaves out most of the context of the tension filled Jewish desire for independence and the resulting clash with Rome and the equally strong the temptation to make peace with empire when he seeks to move these stories to modern America it comes off key. No where is this more apparent that the stories surrounding his death. It is nearly impossible to transpose the crucification into modern America (and Mikalatos admits this).

The answer lies not in universalizing and spiritualizing but in scraping away the abstract theology, and the therapeutic deism, and bad Sunday school stories and getting back to the narrative embedded in scripture. A prophetic and apocalyptic story about coming judgement on Israel and a suffering servant who would give birth to a community that would survive the end of the age and into the age to come.

If you are interested in a creative and well intentioned attempt to place the life of Jesus into the language and culture of today, you will enjoy this book. If you are looking for something a little more ambitious or challenging you might be disappointed.

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Reading Progress

July 20, 2014 – Started Reading
July 20, 2014 – Shelved
July 27, 2014 – Finished Reading

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