Don’t miss the StoryMen interview with Matt about this book! You can win a free copy! 🙂
One of the most profound challenges in reading the Scriptures is finding an easy way to bridge the gap between our contemporary Western/American culture and the world of the Bible. As a Bible teacher, I find most of my time is spent in helping people put themselves in the shoes of the Bible’s original hearers. I’ve found if they can understand what those first audiences heard, most people can figure out how to apply that Scripture in their own world pretty easily.
But that cultural gap is profound. And it’s not easily bridged. But making the jump is essential if these texts are to shape us into God’s people.
A growing number of books out there (like this one and this one) help us navigate the ancient world. But in his new book, The First Time We Saw Him, author Matt Mikalatos takes a different approach. Rather than help us get our minds around the ancient stories, he brings the ancient stories into our modern world.
Matt asks, What if Jesus had come today? What sort of stories would he tell? What kinds of people would he interact with? So the parable of the lost sheep becomes a story about a fieldtrip gone wrong. The Good Samaritan becomes a Good Muslim. And loaves and fishes? Try 5,000 hotdogs.
The effect is a wholly new experience with some of the most powerful and foundational stories of Christian faith (and really Western culture).
Along the way, Matt offers his own commentary, walking us through his process of interpreting these parables. He reflects on his own journey and invites us to participate as well, to allow these stories to wash over us anew. To hear Jesus’ words as though it’s the first time again.
Any project like this is doomed to run into problems, and The First Time We Saw Him is no exception. Matt ends up essentially combining the four disperate Gospel narratives into one, and in doing so loses some of the larger narrative thrust of some of the stories (a Church father named Tatian tried something similar with his work called the Diatessaron, and the Church rejected it in favor of the four Gospels in all their contradictory glory).
Matt is no Tatian though – his goal isn’t to create a comprehensive retelling of Jesus’ life or to harmonize the Gospels. He’s more concerned with the individual stories. If you know enough of the Gospels to know this is a problem, you’ll either like or dislike how he rendered stuff according to your preferences. (Matt for instance most heavily uses Luke’s crucifixion account, while I prefer Mark’s. And he left Matthew’s zombies out altogether!)
I suspect the vast majority of readers won’t be bothered by this at all, and they shouldn’t be. Matt’s approach works perfectly for what he’s trying to accomplish, and he succeeds admirably.
The other big problem is that some ideas and scenarios in the Gospels simply have no ready analogue. This is especially evident in the Crucifixion, when cultural and political forces singular in world history collide. As Matt freely admits in the book, it’s impossible to provide a perfect analogy. Add to that the fact that the vast majority of us have never attended a lynching, and you have a test-case of exactly why some parts of the book don’t work quite as well as the others.
But even in these cases, Matt’s storytelling is such that the stories still feel more immediate, more relatable and real. And as that’s the main goal of The First Time We Saw Him, these problems are minor at best.
I can’t recommend The First Time We Saw Him highly enough.
As a reader of the parables, as a lover of the Scriptures, a student of the culture and a teacher, I can attest that this book is one of the best tools to make the jump from yesterday to today. Matt makes bridging the gap look easy. It’s not. That’s why you should read this book.
BOTTOM LINE: The First Time We Saw Him makes the story of Jesus (and the stories of Jesus) feel fresh and powerful. It’s a fun, profound and accessible read.
YOUR TURN: What’s your favorite parable? How would Jesus tell it today?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free for review purposes from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. But seriously, this book is awesome. Why are you reading this when you could be reading it? Anyway, I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”