Archive for September, 2014


Book Review: The First Time We Saw Him

FirstTimeThe Bible feels like a very foreign book.  We read about animal sacrifices, people riding around on donkeys, books written on scrolls, men dressed in robes as normal clothing.  It feels other worldly – like it’s talking about a very different place from the world I see outside my window.  When we start to read the Gospels, we have to deal with the distance in time and civilization before we can really meet the Jesus they are talking about.

Matt Mikalatos has written a fascinating little book here – The First Time We Saw Him: Awakening to the Wonder of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014) – which seeks to bridge some of that distance.  Instead of explaining the first century culture, he retells a number of the stories and parables from the gospels in a modern context.  His goal is to help us recapture how startling Jesus’ ministry was.  His retellings of the stories are vivid and powerful and sometimes outright shocking.

It’s in these retellings that the book really shines.  Right off the bat, we start with the angel visiting Mary.

She’s not a hero or a prophet or a king.  She’s ordinary.  She wakes up in the mornings in a room with posters of horses and a stuffed kitty on the pleated pink blanket, lined paper with her poems in purple ink crumpled on the floor, tacked to her walls, jumbled on her desk, and a minor obstacle course of strewn clothes stretching toward the closet (15).

I’ve already heard plenty of sermons which point out that Mary was probably pretty young, just an ordinary peasant girl.  I found this particularly gripping – suddenly I realize that she’s not so very different from my own daughter. This was the first startling moment of the book for me, and there were many like it.  Mikalatos’ description of Jesus at Lazarus’ grave will surely stick with me for a long time.  The Good Samaritan retelling has given me much to think about.  These vignettes, included on pages with a slightly shaded border, are easily worth the price of the book.

After these scenes, Mikalatos offers some thoughts on the passage – implications for 21st century America.  He has a lot of very good and very true things to say, but there are sections where I think the book suffers a bit from a lack of doctrinal precision.  For example, pointing to the Garden, he provocatively states that “Jesus didn’t want to die for you” (150).  This is partly true, but I wish he could have found a way to include texts like Hebrews 12:2 to round out the the truth.  He points out that the uneasiness the modern church has with homosexuality is like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son (46-47) and what he says is true as far as it goes, but I think it misses the real point of disagreement in that argument (with the gay community calling for celebration of homosexual love).  The book maintains a consistently Arminian theology.

On the whole, I happily recommend this book.  As always, read with discernment.  It’s likely you won’t agree with everything he says, or perhaps with some of the details in his retellings, but when you read it, make sure your argument is with Mikalatos and not with Jesus.  Jesus was indeed a shocking person and a book that helps us see these familiar stories with fresh eyes is a great blessing to the church.