Matt Mikalatos. The First Time We Saw Him: Awakening to the Wonder of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014. 192 pp. $10.35 on Amazon
As a student at a liberal arts university, I took a class on biblical interpretation. When we came to Jesus’ parables in the Gospels, we were asked to contextualize the parables. Our assignment was to retell the stories Jesus told using modern characters and situations without losing the meaning or “power” of the parables. The point, we were told, in this exercise was to help bring these all too familiar stories to life. We were asked to add color to the canvas. It’s not that we were to change the meaning. Our task was simply to retell the story for the purpose of greater understanding and appreciation. We failed, and were left with less clarity, and less wonder at Jesus.
Author Matt Mikalatos attempts this very exercise in The First Time We Saw Him. Mikalatos takes some of the most recognizable stories from the Gospels and modernizes or contextualizes them. He is very clear in his intentions for this book in his introductory question, “What if we could find a way to make it all real to us again?” (11). He writes to Christians who have become so familiar with the stories of Jesus that they fail to elicit a proper emotional response.
His desire is to “talk about the Gospel stories in a way that might shock us out of our preconceived notions and help us approach Jesus with the same wonder, frustration, revelation, uncertainty, and nervous fear that people did in the first century” (11). This is an admirable goal, and was a prospect, which caused initial excitement to rise within me. My concern over the inaccuracy and inconsistency in the retelling of Gospel stories was also initially subsided. Mikalatos writes,
“Some of the stories in this book are…inaccurate in some sense, but with the purpose of revealing an underlying truth through the simple process of connecting them to some common modern experience or context” (12).
In order to give us a fresh look at Jesus, to help us awaken to the wonder of Jesus, Mikalatos retells various stories from the Gospels while providing commentary throughout. Although Mikalatos’ early promises and caveats helped me approach his work with an open mind, I was disappointed to find that while retelling Gospel stories, somewhere along the way Mikalatos lost sight of the gospel.
Mikalatos is a tremendously gifted writer. I hope that doesn’t get lost in the midst of my critique. I was genuinely moved by his retellings. For the most part they capture the meaning of Jesus’ parables, but even where they fail, they fail with creative excellence. Even though I don’t particularly love Mikalatos’ writing style (at times it feels like a teenage devotional), there is no questioning his gift for crafting a compelling story. His work is the best I’ve read at retelling gospel stories.
With that in mind, I was shocked at his inability to communicate the gospel. Given the fact he chose to comment on his new stories, and even the original accounts, he had ample opportunity to clearly explain the meaning of these stories, their biblical significance, and what they communicate about the person and work of Jesus. Instead, I only found thoughts I would expect to find from immature Christians—enthralled with the stories and events, yet unable to see their purpose.
For example, in the retelling of the birth of Jesus, Mikalatos crafts an expected story of a young modern girl who experienced Mary’s experiences only in the 21st century. It was fine. But I was disappointed in his closing commentary. He recalls sharing the story of Jesus’ birth with a girl in an underground church who had never heard it before. She asked many questions that he had never considered: “Why would [Jesus] come as a baby?…Why would he do that? Why didn’t he just come as a king? As an adult? Why let himself be born poor? Why be born to someone with no influence?” He then writes, “I didn’t have a single answer for her” (24).
I feel uncomfortable criticizing a man’s experience, especially when he so honestly recounts it. While he may not have had a single answer for her, I wish he would have given some answers for his readers now. The goal of emphasizing her wonder and amazement at Jesus had been accomplished. His point is even quite compelling. She was asking questions he had never considered because she was amazed at a story that made him yawn. But her questions and his lack of answer show that she was not amazed at the gospel of Christ, but this particular story about Jesus.
This is my primary concern with The First Time We Saw Him. It encourages adoration of Jesus by missing biblical revelation of Jesus. It raises many questions. What is the point in seeing the gospel stories in a fresh way? Does being moved by a compelling story equal adoration of the gospel of Christ? In fact, I see danger in construing and retelling stories for the purpose of giving people an awakening to the wonder of Jesus. The Jesus they will be compelled by will be the one you present in your stories, not in Scripture, which is God’s revelation. Yes, the stories in The First Time We Saw Him can move you to tears, but that does not equal adoration of the Jesus of the Bible. This book may help encourage you to go to the Word, but other than that, you will be enamored by a gifted storyteller rather than a sovereign Savior.
Readers are left to simply trust the author, that his interpretation of the gospel stories is correct. And in many places it is not. His most egregious error is found in the most important gospel account he retells. Chapter 12 is entitled “The Lynching at Skull Hill.” This was the most troubling retelling. I did not appreciate the way Mikalatos effeminized Jesus. In an attempt to bring the crucifixion to life, Mikalatos made Jesus seem like a total coward. Predictably he emphasized the physical aspects of the crucifixion. Even though the events of the crucifixion are not necessarily retold inaccurately, the meaning and significance of the cross is simply not communicated.
Pastors could be helped by Mikalatos’s storytelling ability and may even find some helpful illustrations, or at least the beginnings of helpful illustrations. But other than that, I would not recommend The First Time We Saw Him as a way to better understand gospel stories.
In the end, I must ask, “What is the point?” What is the point in retelling these stories? For clarity? Greater understanding? To shock us out of our preconceived notions? I believe the better exercise would be to better understand the historical context of these stories rather than placing them in our own context. John Stott was right. There is a bridge between the Ancient Near Eastern culture and our own that must be crossed. But in this reviewer’s opinion, The First Time We Saw Him is not the bridge we need.
I fear readers leave this book with a fresh look at Jesus without ever truly encountering his glory. Readers may leave in wonder, but not at Jesus as he is revealed in the Gospels.
Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggershttp://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, KY. He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.