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Feb 24, 2011

Interview with Matt Mikalatos

Matt Mikalatos, writer of Imaginary Jesus graciously took the time to answer a few questions about his book.

JD: When did you decide to become a writer? Was this a childhood dream, or something that happened later in your life?

MM: I didn’t notice that I loved writing until after high school, although I had been writing for a long time. I did a lot of theater in high school and helped to write short plays and sketches, but I thought of that as acting, not writing. And my buddies and I did comic books and short stories and goofy movie scripts. I wrote a lot of poetry, which my ex-girlfriends could probably dredge up if you need a sugar high. When I hit college I realized that success in acting would require taking any part I could get… even if it was poorly written, or morally questionable. I suddenly saw writing as a way to control my art. No one could tell me what to write. My junior year I was serious enough about it that I decided to major in writing at UC RIverside. So it’s not a childhood dream (I really wanted to be a Jedi or at least an astronaut) but it’s something I’ve been passionate about for a long time.

JD: What did you read while you were writing IJ? I’ve heard you compared to C.S. Lewis, Charles Spurgeon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, J.B. Phillips, Kurt Vonnegut, and others. Were any of these part of your inspiration?

MM:I didn’t read anything while I was writing IJ, I was on a writing binge, filling every spare moment with writing. It’s pretty hard to write a humorous book and not at least think of Vonnegut. And certainly C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce crossed my mind. G.K. Chesterton had a big impact on me, especially books like The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which is hilarious but also deeply moving. Flannery O’Connor has always inspired me with the way that she stares straight into the worst foibles of religious people without flinching.  I should mention also the strange and wonderful novel The Plato Papers by Peter Ackroyd, which occasionally bounced around in my memory and reminded me that I could comfortably write whatever I liked. The late, great Wittenburg Door magazine was a big part of my learning process, too… I wrote a lot of satirical articles for them leading up to writing IJ.

JD:Why did you decide to make IJ a work of semi-fiction? Was that the plan from the start?

MM:The original pitch for the book was for a series of humorous essays about our misconceptions of Jesus. But Wes Yoder, who eventually became my agent, read a few chapters and told me that it needed a stronger narrative, and that he could tell I wasn’t writing what I really loved… a story. He encouraged me to write something I would want to read myself. I warned him that it would be weird, and he told me not to worry about that. So I sat down that night and wrote Chapter Zero… where I’m eating with Jesus in a Communist Cafe, when the Apostle Peter walks in and pops him one in the face. It made me laugh out loud when I wrote it, and then I just kept writing, weaving in the content from the planned essays, but making it a story. Wes and I had talked a bit about Dante’s Inferno, so that was providing some structure… a sort of tour through our conceptions of Jesus, with a couple of guides along the way.

JD:IJ is laugh outloud, make-people-stare-at-me-on-the-train funny. That’s not something you find in a lot of Christian fiction/theology. Do you think that humor can communicate an idea in a better or more engaging way than other forms of writing? How?

MM:Humor can be the best tool for communicating, sometimes. It disarms people and sets them at ease, and then you can sneak up on them and teach them a lesson when they aren’t looking. If you imagine your reader as a castle trying to keep foreign ideas out, then essays are like battering rams. Their unrelenting logic and persuasiveness can bust in the door. But humor is like building a giant wooden horse filled with warriors and parking it outside with a big red bow on it. Also, when something is funny, people want to pass it along to their friends when they’re done. Most people don’t have much of a defense against humor.

JD:At one point in the book, you’re tackled by a jesus who is angry that you cut his chapter out of the book. Are there any jesuses that you wish you had included?

MM:My readers have sent in some great ones, the sort where I slap my forehead and say, “I wish I had thought of that one!” A British reader sent the idea for “Stiff Upper Lip Jesus” who greets any inconvenience or trouble with a stony countenance and some sort of comment like, “Carry on!” My friend Jessica sent me Bridegroom Jesus, which is the Jesus at women’s retreats who keeps telling women that they need to stop trying to get a boyfriend because they are already married to him, and they should never feel discontent about anything. I thought that was a good one, too! A friend of yours, Adam Sabados, suggested Chewbacca Jesus. I’m not sure what exactly that means, but it made me laugh. I did have to cut a chapter with New Age Jesus which was very funny but also not really on topic with the rest of the book. Oh, and I had an extended scene once upon a time with a superhero version of Jesus called GODMAN! He makes a cameo in the book now, but I was fond of the original scene.

JD:You went on a fantastical journey through space and time to get rid of your imaginary jesuses. Do you have some pointers for those of us without access to an apostle or a talking donkey?

MM:Getting to know the real Jesus is not that much different than getting to know any other person, especially if you think of him as a very famous guy who lots of people know. You have three basic sources of information… literature/media about him, what people who know him well have to say, and interacting with the Man himself. We have the Bible, which is basically God’s autobiography. Looking at that book carefully and what Jesus says about himself is absolutely invaluable. Second, get with people who know him well. A good church is a great place to connect with people like this. Ask them about their experience with Jesus and what they’ve learned about him over time…ask them their own experience of removing imaginary Jesuses and how they’ve grown closer to the real Christ.And lastly, Jesus is not a historical figure. He’s still alive and still interacting with us today. Which means talking with him can be the best way to get to know him. Prayer is an enormous asset in knowing the real Jesus… we need to make it a normal part of the relational life of those of us who are following Jesus.

JD:I hear you have a book coming out later this year. Can you tell a little about that?

MM:Yes! Night of the Living Dead Christian is about our hero, Matt Mikalatos, who discovers that his neighbor is a reluctant werewolf. The neighbor has done everything he can think of to try to cure himself of his “condition” and asks Matt for help. Matt, of course, suggests going to church. So, the werewolf, a vampire, a mad scientist and a cast of other wacky characters team up to try to help find a spiritual cure for the werewolf to help him escape a werewolf killer and be reunited with his wife and daughter. There are zombies and mole men and lots of laughs, as well as an exploration of what it means to experience true transformation on the path of following Jesus. It’s a lot of fun.

You can learn more about Matt Mikalatos at his blog, The Burning Hearts Revolution, or you can follow him on Twitter, or by signing up for his newsletter.

Don’t forget, you can still download Imaginary Jesus for free at Barnes & NobleSonyChristian Book Distributors, and Amazon. And don’t forget to enter the giveaway for a signed copy of Imaginary Jesus!