Author Matt Mikalatos just released a new book, Night of the Living Dead Christian, which I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing. The book prompted so many questions that I just had to talk to the author. The following is my interview with him. Read the review and the interview then go buy the book. It is well worth it!
Scott: Hello Matt, thank you for agreeing to answer a few interview questions for me and my readers at BookGateway.com.
Matt: My pleasure! Thanks for taking the time to invite me.
Scott: First, I have to tell you that your book came as quite a surprise for me because I was unfamiliar with your work and because Christian books with humor seem to be so few and far between. The last one I read was (the excellent and hilarious) Stuff Christian’s Like by Jon Acuff. I don’t recall a humorous Christian fictional book. Why do you think there are so few humorous Christian titles?
Matt: Yes, Jon is the patron saint of Christian comedy right now, and to make it worse he’s really, really friendly and nice. There are a few reasons Christian humor is a bit slim. One, it’s hard to be funny. You might notice, for instance, that there aren’t many Christian sitcoms on TBN. Comedy requires thought and timing, especially in books.
Two, because of our Puritan heritage, most of us remember vividly that Bible verse which says, “Thou shalt not make humorous utterances before the Lord thy God.” We get nervous when someone talks about spiritual things in a funny way. In my defense, however, I will point out that Puritan open mic nights are side-splittingly hilarious.
Three, it’s not really marketed as a genre. You won’t find “Christian humor” at Barnes and Noble or anywhere. So, while there are some funny books out there, you pretty much have to know what you’re looking for. Jon Acuff is a great example. Then there are people like myself, Michael Snyder, Rob Stennett (Editor: see review) and Todd and Jedd Hafer who are writing funny novels, but you almost have to know something about them to find them. All that to say, yes, it’s easier to find an Amish Romance than a comedy novel in the Christian fiction world. But if someone wrote a comedy Amish romance, I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we would all line up for that.
Scott: On to your book. Although I loved the monsters and what you were doing with them, one of my biggest takeaways from your book wasn’t the monsters and how we relate to them but your insights into the non-believer and their opposition to Christianity shown in the werewolf’s commentary chapters.
You wrote, “Many Christians I know have unwisely emphasized the eschatological and postmortem benefits of being “born again”… Leaving aside the fact that, in comparison to most people in human history, I already live like a king with my large house, my ability to travel enormous distances is a short amount of time, and the good that is both plentiful and prepared for me literally around the world, the description of the Christian afterlife is remarkably dull. As the fact remains that I have no intention of living a Spartan life today in the hopes of Elysian fields tomorrow…” America seems like one of the hardest mission fields in the world – probably because of our lack of lack as you described so well. In your opinion, how can Christians overcome seemingly compelling arguments from non-believers like this one above?
Matt: I don’t think our “lack of lack” necessarily makes us a harder culture to reach, but the story we’re telling about why to follow Jesus doesn’t do much for a lot of people. If I say, “Following Jesus is hard, but you’ll get to live in a mansion one day in Heaven” to people who do whatever they please and live in a mansion right now, why should they want to do that? The deeper human need (and one that is addressed at length in Night of the Living Dead Christian) is a desire to be transformed, to become people who aren’t controlled by and constantly damaged by sin. This is part of the gospel – as is eternal life in heaven – but we rarely talk about it when we’re sharing with people about Christ. We’ve reduced the gospel to “say a prayer, live forever” which is true but limited. So, in answer to the question, when a non-believer says something like, “The gospel is not compelling to me” we know that we’re not explaining it well. When someone says “Heaven sounds dull and boring” we know that there’s more to explain, plus the fact that Heaven is only this one small piece of what we get as followers of Christ. So, I think being in that relationship with people where we can talk more about what the gospel truly is and all the benefits of following Christ matters a great deal. As Dallas Willard says, we talk a lot about the cost of discipleship, but the cost of choosing not to be a disciple is considerably higher.
Scott: Of all the “monsters” in the book, it seemed the one that was least tangible but most invasive and insipid was the Christian who didn’t understand the Gospel.
You wrote, “All the signposts that Christ gave for recognizing his “true believers” seemed to have very little, in fact, next to nothing, to do with people’s beliefs.” Later you continue this line of thought with, “We believe in Jesus, we go to church, we lead semi-decent lives, but we aren’t being transformed. We aren’t changing. We don’t think the deeds matter, because we have the “fire insurance.” We’re going to get into Heaven just fine…” Reading the book we see the main characters dealing with this same issue time and again. How prevalent do you think this attitude is in the church and what do we need to do to change this?
Matt: Ha. How prevalent? I don’t know. 100%? Listen, partly this is growing pains. We are all learning about what exactly the gospel is, and what it means to follow Christ. The gospel in its broadest sense is “the good news about Jesus Christ” which isn’t something we’re going to learn by reading a thirty page booklet. Part of the work of eternity will be learning what the gospel is in greater detail as we learn more about Christ and grow in our knowledge of and relationship with him. So, for most of us, we go through a time when we think of salvation purely as a magic formula: Jesus, come into my heart. Then he does, and we get to live forever. Hopefully, as we move toward maturity, we start to learn about how Christ also desires salvation to impact our daily life, not just our eternal destiny. I think we need to talk more about this. Also, I think if we’re paying attention to what Christ is saying in scripture, it’s pretty obviously there. So, spending more time seeing what scripture says can only be to our benefit.
Scott: You wrote, “[faith without works] is ineffectual. It’s the sort of faith that fills a pew, but leads us to a moment when we are face-to-face with Jesus and show him our works and he says, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers!” In my opinion, the scariest passage in the Bible is Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats because all the characters in the story are believers (Christians) – or think they are – and yet many of them are going to Hell. Most studies say that the percentage of Americans that claim they are Christians is in the mid or high 70%s. What’s the real number if you had to hazard a guess and why do you think so many people misidentify themselves as Christians?
Matt: People a lot wiser than I have passed on that question, so I won’t hazard a guess on the percentage of American Christians. But Jesus said we would know his followers by their love, which seems to be a pretty good criterion for looking at my own life and those around me. What someone believes matters, but not to the exclusion of how they act. In other words, someone who can sign a Christian creed but is a complete jerk to everyone around them makes me skeptical. As to why so many people misidentify themselves as Christians, I think it’s partly cultural (i.e. “everyone in my town is a Christian, and I grew up as a Christian”) and partly ignorance. Someone I was very close to in the past told me that his personal philosophy was that “everything is possible” and that every philosophy and religion was, therefore, equally valid. When I asked him what he called his own “everything is possible” philosophy he said, “Christianity.” This wasn’t’ a stupid person… he had multiple advanced degrees. But he didn’t know anything about the teachings of Christ. One of the things I try to remember in my ministry is that “drawing people to Christ” means sharing the gospel with self-professed Christians as well as non-Christians.
Scott: While reading your book I couldn’t help but identify with some of the monsters. I’ve been in situations where I’ve seen abuse first hand and I was struck by how realistic your portrayal of the werewolf was. Is your portrayal of the werewolf based on experience?
Matt: Hey, that’s not a personal question at all! Ha ha. Don’t worry, we’re all friends here, I can answer that. Okay, in one sense, no. The werewolf is struggling with his anger, which is causing physical abuse in the relationships closest to him. I’ve never been directly involved in a situation like that (i.e. I’ve never been physically harmed by someone close to me, or harmed someone close to me in that way). Of course I’ve been close friends with people on both sides of that equation (you have too, whether you realize it or not… it’s more common than you want to think). On the other hand, the werewolf’s explanation of his struggle to do the right thing and his constant temptation to do the wrong thing is from personal experience without doubt. I tried to turn off that politeness filter and share my deepest, darkest moments. It was painful, liberating and slightly disturbing to be honest about it. I hope readers will find it refreshing and allow them to be honest with themselves about who they really are.
Scott: Your next book is a non-fiction. Why the switch and what can we expect?
Matt: In Imaginary Jesus, I told a funny story about our misconceptions about Jesus. In Night of the Living Dead Christian I told a story about how we can overcome sin in our lives, with a lot of laughs along the way… a spoonful of sugar to help the theology go down. Starting in January I’ll be writing a non-fiction book with the working title “Take Me to the Riots” which is a book about evangelism and the gospel. I had a fiction setup for it, but as I worked with it I realized that our conceptions of evangelism are so confused that we need a little help along the way. Non-fiction can deal with the complexity of that sort of thought more easily than fiction. Having said that, as of right now, the plan for it is still unique and fun and I think people who have loved Imaginary Jesus and Night of the Living Dead Christian are going to enjoy this book, too.
Matt Mikalatos received his BA in writing from the University of California Riverside. Like many future world leaders, he began his career as a clerk at a comic book store. Having discovered that such work caused women to shun him, Matt took control of a high school classroom and taught American literature and drama (although he was best known for his riotous “study halls”). Then Matt, in an unexpected move, joined Campus Crusade for Christ. In a moment of weakness, his best friend, Krista, agreed to marry him. He and Krista were briefly expatriated by Crusade to East Asia, where they ministered for three years. Now back in the States, Matt provides leadership to the international ministries of Crusade’s northwest region. Matt has published articles in Discipleship Journal, The Wittenburg Door, Relief, and Coach’s Midnight Diner. Matt and his wife live near Portland, Oregon. They have three beautiful daughters.(From Tyndale Media Center.)
Scott Asher is the founder and administrator of BookGateway.com. He recieved his BA in Pastoral Ministries from Vanguard University in Southern California. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people where he cartoons and writes on Christianity, Zombies, and anything else he wants to.