Making It New / Review: The First Time We Saw Him by Matt Mikalatos

Book Reviews / Thursday, July 10th, 2014
One of my favorite things about living in a house with people who are drawn to art and creative things is that we often find overlap happening among our current projects and interests (read: obsessions). The connections are profound sometimes, and so interesting to me that, despite our varied interests, we find so much common ground.
We’ll start with the one closest to the ground. Atticus, our three-year-old is hooked on Super Why!Thanks to this show and the benefits of having a literary mama who is obsessed with the written word—okay, mostly the show—Atticus knows nearly all his letters already, capital and lowercase. It’s impressive enough to justify my obnoxious bragging. What I like about the show is how it takes children’s stories and reinvents them by showing how changing a word or two can change the ending of a story, even save the day.  So, for example, in the story of Little Red Riding Hood, if we change the sentence to read that “slippers” were in bed instead of the wolf, boom—sad ending averted. No one dies. This model borrows from the old to make the new. It makes a story that was once passive become interactive.
Daina, our thirteen year old, has recently become fascinated with the show Once Upon a Time, a show that also takes known fairytales and makes them new by locating some of the storylines in the modern-day town Storybrooke. It’s no surprise that she loves the show since she also loves Doctor Who, which calls into question time’s being linear in nature and, consequently, conventional narratives. In both cases, there is rewriting being done. Reinvention is happening, and as a result, the same stories hit us in a new way—we are reawakened.
This is not a new concept.
The fragmentation and reassembling in an attempt to make something new is something we see in music as early as the 1960s’ dance hall in Jamaica. Prior to this, in art we see artists like Picasso fragmenting images and reassembling them, enabling us to see conventional images in unconventional ways because of how they’ve been newly pieced together—same concept, new format.
Prior to this, we have Ezra Pound’s modernist literature paired with the preaching of “Make it new!” and the hope of a new era of literature that broke away from all that had been done to death before.
Ezra Pound (poet among other things)
One of my favorite of Pound’s contemporaries is Gertrude Stein, writer and a friend of Picasso, who played with words in order to wake people up to the newness of them, to refresh the words—or at least refresh our eyes to seeing them in that new light. Of her sentence “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” she said the rose had never been as red as it was before that sentence.
Gertrude Stein (yes, she’s a woman)
My husband Jonathan designs pedals and amps and does woodworking. He loves analog and throwbacks. His book stacks are stocked with books on fine woods and dovetail joints and joiners and other words I’m not comfortable using in sentences. He is investing his time in seeing how things were done when they were done well. Through his work, he is recreating what he loves and presenting it in a new way so that we also might appreciate it in a new way.
I have no idea what this is. Location: bathroom sink, circa 2014
The idea of taking something known and adjusting our vision so that we can really see it as we had the first time when it was new and all its details soaked into our skin, that’s the goal of so much of the literature I’ve been adoring lately. It’s not changing the content so much as it’s changing my perspective so that I can see it in a new light—really see it again as if for the first time.
I finished a book this evening that offers reinventions of known stories. In The First Time We Saw Him, Matt Mikalatos posits what the Biblical accounts of Jesus’s life would be like if they were to have happened in twenty-first century life.
The book upsets routine retellings with beautiful, poetic passages that illuminate new meaning like in the modernized version of Mary who takes a pregnancy test she buys at the convenience store. She sits at home, “staring at the test, waiting, and the small blue cross slowly appeared, bright and certain and shining like a star.”
The stories are intermingled with exegesis, in which Mikalatos explores familiar questions, such as where God is during dark times, in very unfamiliar ways. This is Mikalatos’s gift: He stays true to the core of the text, but he turns it on its head in such a way that you cannot see it the same way again. You simple can’t.
If chapters got shout-outs, I’d give one to Chapters 5, 7, 8, and 12 through the epilogue. You see, I was reading along, minding my own business, until Chapter 5 called “The Billionaire and the Teacher” high fived me in the face. I want to cut and paste his casserole joke here (something all Southern church-folk should ‘get’), followed by his explanation of what it must have been like for the disciples to bring their lives full-stop and follow him. I want everyone I know to read pages 62 and 63. He is honest about how bizarre some of Jesus’s miracles were, and he is honest about how we respond to these so many years later, many of us far too close to callous. We’ve just heard them so many times. Are we really hearing them? Is it possible to experience them in the same immediate way that his disciples did? Do we get it?
On page 92, he calls me out. Just gloss that. Keep walkin’ by. Try not to cry like I did on page 94.
Around Chapter 8 is when you begin to hope the book doesn’t end. It’s powerful.
Most refreshing to me about The First Time We Saw Him is that it offers not only a new way of seeing Jesus but also a new way of seeing ourselves. It invites us to engage more deeply with these texts and to think critically about the ways we’re living—or not living—in response to them.
If I had a billion dollars, I’d buy you all a copy. Because I don’t, you’re on your own, with a pocketful of promises from me that you’ll love it.

This book does exactly what I love about books in general. When I finished, it left me different, and that’s an incredible thing and an incredibly hopeful thought, that we can rewrite ourselves and make better pages of our days, that we can make new things–be new people. That nothing’s done and nothing’s perfect, that we’re all works in progress with the power to revise and be revised. I just love that. 

Thank you for reading.

I know I write long.

Bless it—and me—and you.

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