(Originally published in print edition of The Oregonian, O! Sunday section, June 6, 2010 Oregonian O! Story on Matt Mikalatos)

matt.JPG (Photo: Arkasha Stevenson, The Oregonian)(Photo: Matt Mikalatos, author of “Imaginary Jesus,” has his hands (and shoulders) full with daughters Allie (center), 7, and Zoey (right), 9, and friend Gracie Martin, 9.)

Matt Mikalatos likes to talk to people about a lot of things. Especially Jesus Christ.

In his 11 years on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ, currently serving as a regional director, he has traveled to Croatia, Turkey, Spain and multiple countries in Asia, and spoken to people from various belief systems: Muslims, former Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, agnostics, atheists.

In 2008 he was asked to meet with members of a secular Bible study sponsored by the Atheist/Agnostic Students at Portland State University. And he led a Bible study for atheists at the University of Washington.

“There were six guys, we got together every week for a semester; our study was based on the book of Luke,” Mikalatos said. “It was a pretty diverse group, and they were some of the most open and honest people about what the Bible says.”

As he heard others’ views, he examined his own preconceived notions.

“Then, I started doing talks about the Jesus in our heads, the misconceptions of who Jesus is, and I started working on a bunch of comedy-type essays about these misconceptions,” said Mikalatos, who later pitched them as a book to literary agent Wes Yoder.

“But he didn’t like the initial manuscript. He could tell I was holding back. He then asked me, ‘What do you really want to write?’ and I told him I’m concerned because it will be weird. And he said ‘write it.’ So, I wrote six chapters for him and he loved it,” said Mikalatos.

Those six chapters became the seed for his book, “Imaginary Jesus,” described as a “not-quite-true story,” published in March by Tyndale Publishers. The book opens in an actual cafe in Portland, with Mikalatos, the main character, and the Apostle Peter hanging out with “Jesus,” who is the first of many imaginary Jesuses introduced. It includes a talking donkey, so perhaps his concern about it being weird was understandable.

Seeking the truth

Mikalatos, who lives in Vancouver, weaves his personal story into a quest to rid himself of his imaginary Jesus as he searches for the real Jesus.

Ultimately, Mikalatos wants to ask Jesus a question about a difficult circumstance he lived through — a miscarriage he and his wife Krista experienced — which brings up the universal question: “How can a good God allow bad things to happen to good people?”

He gives the imaginary Jesuses names based upon their character qualities, such as Perpetually Angry Jesus, Hollywood Jesus, Political Jesus, TV Jesus, and Conservative Truth-Telling Jesus.

Take for example TV Jesus, who says: “If you follow me, you will have the life you always wanted. Money! Wealth! Big house! Fancy plane! Unending health!”

“My thought was what if I could write a book so that you are having so much fun reading it, that whether you are a Christian or not, you’re not going to care; you are having a good time, so that afterward, we’d have such interesting conversation.”

He has received e-mails from around the country and world — South Africa, Slovakia and Thailand — from people reading the book.

“One woman, who is an atheist, watched the online trailer for the book and thought it was funny and sent me a note,” Mikalatos said, “so I sent her the book and we have been discussing it by e-mail ever since.”

“Imaginary Jesus” is in its second printing, and the next book he is working on for Tyndale, due Aug. 1, is titled, “The Night of the Living Dead Christian.”

“It’s a zombie book. We all have heard of people who say they are Christians — I have been thinking about that — they are like zombies, they are not dead, they are not alive. Christians talk about having a new life, but people outside the Christian community look at their life and do not want to live that way,” Mikalatos explained. “They are like living dead Christians.”

He has written another book, which he reads to his two older daughters, Zoey and Allie, at bedtime, a middle-school novel called “The Sword of 6 Worlds,” in which two kids are invited into a fantasy world.

Serious side, too

Mikalatos dedicated “Imaginary Jesus” to his former co-workers at the Flying Colors Comics store in Concord, Calif., where he worked during college breaks. The group gave themselves the nickname, the Hate Club, for their “ongoing critical evaluation among themselves of comics, movies and books,” Mikalatos explained.

You have to understand his sense of humor.

“He loves to joke and he loves to laugh,” Campus Crusade co-director Steve Ellisen said. “You could see him chasing after the donkey in the book — if it were real, he’d be doing that.”

Mikalatos’ pastor, John Johnson, from Village Baptist Church in Portland, said, “What I like about Matt is, he is this crazy, articulate and funny guy, but you can turn on a dime and he can get serious.”

And, the subject matter of his book is no laughing matter, yet Mikalatos’ approach is unique.

“I have said to my congregation, that we tend to fill in what we want God to be; that is, we have false gods, ” Johnson said. “I think Matt is really onto something. Theology books can say that, but Matt said it in a very imaginative way.”

There have been comparisons to author C.S. Lewis. Gary Thomas of Seattle, who wrote “Sacred Marriage and Authentic Faith,” said, “The use of literature to present orthodox truth in a fresh way, so that we can see truth more clearly, that is a mark of C.S. Lewis, and I think it certainly shows the path that Matt is on.”

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