In his previous book, “The First Time We Saw Him,” Matt Mikalatos retold some of the stories from the Gospels in modern language. His gift for storytelling and narrative was evident as he wove and reimagined these stories together, putting them into a language and context that makes sense in a modern setting.
In “Into the Fray,” Mikalatos reimagines the Book of Acts. He asks the question about the Gospel, a term that is taken from the Middle English word that means, “good news.” While some claim to be able to describe and tell the Gospel in a nutshell, Mikalatos says that the full gospel, “can’t be presented in fifteen minutes or in a sermon or in a series of sermons.” In fact, he says, “Every new understanding we gain about the person and character of Jesus is the good news, and he is an infinite being.” If the Gospel is really the good news about Jesus and what he has done and offered to us, then we might be doing something wrong as many who aren’t part of the church don’t really know just what it is that we are trying to offer to them. If it’s good news, we might need to present it in such a way that lets it be distinguishable as such.
“Into the Fray” is the retelling of the Acts of the Apostles, which Mikalatos believes to be a terrible name. After all, the stories told throughout Luke’s book are not so much about the acts that were accomplished by the apostles but the acts accomplished by the Holy Spirit. The Book of Acts tells stories about people who are ordinary rather than extraordinary. The only way that these people become extraordinary and accomplish the astonishing is through the receiving and the power of the Holy Spirit. As one of the characters retelling the stories puts it, “It’s not the people who are extraordinary. It’s what’s inside them.”
In the stories and in his own narrative throughout “Into the Fray,” Mikalatos pushes against some of the preconceived notions and accepted norms of evangelicalism. Who is in and who is out? What does a “real” Christian look like? He reminds the reader of the apostle Paul’s words that our fight and battle is not against flesh and blood. People are not the enemy. He calls us to question the things that we have called to be sacred just as Peter was given a vision of eating the very things that had been off-limits according to the old covenant.
Mikalatos reminds his readers that we are called, as followers of Christ, to make pure Jesus followers, “people who come close to Jesus and become more like him.” He says, “As we become more like Jesus, we behave more like him, thus naturally stopping sinful behavior and embracing pure, beautiful, godly behavior.” Considering that the Book of Acts is full of stories of people who have been changed and transformed by the Holy Spirit and an encounter with the living God, it’s a good reminder that we aren’t called to change people or get them to act a certain way, we’re simply called to introduce them to Jesus and teach them all that we have been taught about him.
We enter into conversations with those who are far from Jesus by finding connection points. Sometimes those connect points are cultural or musical while other times they are spiritual. Sometimes, we find common points, points of discussion and conversation around another religion that someone has chosen to follow. Those can act as starting points, springboards into other conversations. Mikalatos write, “It’s not that the conversation ends there or that we’re allowing other religions to dictate our own. It’s that we’re sorting through two belief systems and finding the places they overlap and starting the conversation there.”
Throughout the book, Mikalatos admits to the reader that he is in process himself. He admits his own tendencies towards Pharisaism and judgment. He writes, “Whether I look at my own heart or at Christian culture, I see evidence of areas where we refuse to interact with others because, at the heart of it, we see ourselves as better, more clean, more correct, more holy, more spiritual, more righteous, more dedicated, more committed, more insightful, more innovative, or more traditional.” He reminds us that God has admitted those into his kingdom that didn’t necessarily meet the standards that were expected or even called for.
Mikalatos pushes just enough to be provocative but not so much that he becomes antagonistic or belligerent. His provocation isn’t simply for provocation’s sake, but with the intent of helping the reader to reimagine some of the stories from the Bible. He has a knack for taking them out of the context in which they were written them and transplanting them into our own context, staying true to the essence of the stories while retelling them in such a way that they are easily understandable.
“Into the Fray” ends with a discussion about story, the parts of story that matter, and how we tell our story. Mikalatos writes, “Our stories matter. We all know that a witness is someone who saw something. And as John said, our story is the story of what we have seen, what we have heard, what we have looked at, and what our hands have touched.” We tell our stories to let others know just what God has done in our lives. We come to the place in our stories and say, “That’s when God showed up,” and that’s when all the change took place. Sometimes, as followers of Christ, we make our stories simply about what happened up until our meeting Jesus, but we can’t forget that’s only the beginning of the story.
Mikalatos talks about his experience with creative writing. His ability to craft stories is evident throughout “Into the Fray” and he sticks with this strength. It might not be everyone’s style, to rethink and reimagine stories from the Bible that already seem perfectly understandable just the way that they are. If that’s your thoughts, this book is probably not for you. If you want to stretch your imagination about how some of these stories may have played out in a modern context, then “Into the Fray” is a worthwhile read. You will be challenged and stretched to think outside of the comfortable places where you’ve come to reside. If you let yourself, Mikalatos and his ability to tell stories may just help you see just how much the Holy Spirit is capable of doing as you experience some heart and life change of your own through these stories.
(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)