Matt Mikalatos is an author, a friend, and a fellow Western Seminary graduate. He agreed to do an interview with me to promote his new book Night of the Living Dead Christian (see my review). In this post we will cover about half of the interview and I will post the second half tomorrow. If you would like to purchase the book once you’ve read this interview you can do some from Amazon.com here.
Now to the interview:
This is the second book you’ve written in the past few years. What was the major difference between your freshman and sophomore projects? What did you learn as a writer from the first book that you used for the second?
Despite the talking donkey and the time travel, my first book was largely autobiographical, which answered a lot of plot questions along the way. Also, in Imaginary Jesus I had already come to grips with the question I was addressing. With Night of the Living Dead Christian, I started the book while I was still wrestling with some key questions being asked in the book, so the process was more like what Flannery O’Connor said, “I write to discover what I know.” This was harder work, and took more time and editing and serious reflection than Imaginary Jesus, where I had done a lot of those things before I sat down to write. Plus, the emotional weight of the second book shifted from my own personal experience to that of one of the other characters, which took some time to get used to… being the narrator rather than the main character.
What did I learn in round one that helped in round two? ”Trust your editors.” That was a big lesson of book one. They’re more objective than me when it comes to my book. It is so much easier to write well when you have professionals giving you excellent feedback than when you are sitting alone in a dark hovel re-reading your own work over and over. I was a little nervous about getting a “new” editor for my second book (new to me, anyway), butBrittanywas really great to work with. Another lesson from the first book was that it’s okay to be honest about what I think and feel… other people are thinking and feeling the same thing. Sometimes there are “secret thoughts” that I think, “No one else is wrestling with this.” But that’s often the most powerful, universal thing I can put on paper, because everyone else thinks they’re alone with those thoughts as well.
Absolutely. Except in rare cases, your family and friends are not going to be helpful. They have their relationship at risk in telling you that your work is no good. Find some people whose reading abilities you trust (i.e. you can talk about books together and find those conversations helpful and stimulating) and ask them to read. Also, it’s much easier to get professional feedback than you would think. Send out some stories or articles to professional magazines. When they reject your work without comment, that’s feedback. When they reject it with some notes or things to do differently next time, you’re moving the right direction. When you start getting personal notes you’re on track to publication. Blogs and online platforms can be great ways to get feedback from lots of people too. Just have an open mind and remember that rejection is a writer’s constant companion. You might as well make friends with it and use it to your benefit.
The first movie I remember seeing on television was a rerun of the 1954 sci-fi classic “Them!” Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title. It’s about giant irradiated ants threatening to devour all of mankind. My dad would watch the Saturday morning monster movies with me most weekends, and he always had a lot of pulp-era sci-fi magazines and books sitting around the house, so I grew up immersed in the genre.
The monster medium was a natural given my topic. We tell monster stories because we’re afraid of what we are and what we could become. Werewolf stories are inevitably about what happens when a man loses the battle to control his “natural” urges. Vampire stories (at least traditional ones) are about selfish beings who steal blood to prolong their lives, the precise opposite of Christ, who gave his blood willingly to provide the chance of eternal life for others. Zombies are all about a perverted resurrection… an eternal life that isn’t worth living, because it’s a type of continual death. It didn’t take much work to take our fears and worries from the traditional monster story and turn it into a self-conscious exploration of what it means to be human.
Of course, when you’re writing a novel like mine it also has to be funny. So I started thinking… you know what would be funny? A werewolf who goes to church. You would expect people at church to be scared of a werewolf. But wouldn’t it be funny if the werewolf was scared of church? That became the seed of the novel, really. In fact, the first few drafts had the werewolf going to a different church every week.
While I enjoyed this book a lot I admit that I would not have read it if I had seen it on a bookshelf and I didn’t know about the quality of this work. This is because I would have never thought of this genre as being one wherein Christian doctrine can be discussed. That being said, I am glad I read something that is outside of my usual selection. What would you say to a “skeptic” who thinks vampires and zombies are too silly to function as a means for theological discussion?
If we don’t frame the conversation and use it to teach theology, someone else will. Twilight teaches theology. Harry Potter teaches theology. Television shows like True Blood or The Walking Dead are teaching theology. Why wouldn’t we want to be a part of that conversation and make sure that truth is being represented? Do we really want people to think that Christians are the only ones who *don’t* see theology as intersecting with some area of life?
Theology is often life and death. It’s one of the most serious undertakings we have in life, and we shouldn’t shy away from it because of the form it takes. Sometimes looking at things in a way you’re not used to looking at it can shine some light on things in a way you’ve never considered. And fiction is particularly good at bringing out the emotional realities underlying theological and intellectual truths.
Lastly, I hope my books will serve as gateway books for theology. There are people out there that are frustrating you because you can’t get them to pick up N.T. Wright or John Piper or Barth or Hans von Balthasar. This book should help them realize that theology is not only important but also fun and interesting…; then you can introduce them to the more serious stuff. So you should read this book to see who you should give it to. I hear all the time from people (including seminary professors), “I had your book sitting on my desk but I haven’t read it yet because my son/daughter/drum instructor stole it and read it.” That’s got to be a good thing.
As I read this book it was apparent to me that the focus is on what it means to be really human. It is written with the assumption that we are not what we should be, but that we can transform (or I should say be transformed) into something closer to the ideal, closer to what our Creator intended us to be. Tell me why you felt these motifs should be addressed and why you think it is relevant for Christians?
If you’ll allow me a wide, sweeping, offensive generalization, I’ll say that Christian culture sometimes presents soteriology as a sort of magic ritual. I, the magician, say certain words like, “I repent of my sins and invite Jesus into my life” and then the genie in the bottle has to give me eternal life. That’s a simplification, obviously, but we’ve all been to a funeral for someone who lived a disturbing life of self-gratification and seen a grieving loved one stand up and say, “Little Jimmy prayed to receive Jesus into his heart when he was eight years old.” Everyone feels mildly comforted because they’ll see little Jimmy again. But it reveals a certain complacency about the fact that Jimmy’s life gave no evidence of Christ-likeness.
On the other hand, an emphasis on depravity can lead (in extreme situations) to a mild fatalism about transformation. “I can’t really become a better person because I am evil to the core.” Scripture, of course, has the opposite expectation, saying things like “be holy as I am holy.” But I’ve heard pastors explain that away more than once… “God doesn’t really mean that you have to be holy like he is, because that’s impossible.”
There are a lot of interesting questions related to this that I don’t hear anyone talking about (I could be hanging out with the wrong people, though). One that intrigues me is the relationship between human depravity and the image of God. I’ve tried in vain to find a serious engagement with the question… it seems to be mostly untouched. But if even the best of human beings are depraved, likewise even the worst of us are made in God’s image. Outside of the Eastern Orthodox church I don’t know if anyone has come up with a model for how those things relate to each other (or if they do). But if we’re all made in God’s image, that must mean that there can be hope to move toward Christ-likeness.
Anyway, why it matters for us as Christians is that it’s just too easy to rely on the salvific prayer and some mild good works (i.e. going to church once a week) and not experience true transformation in our lives. We have too many books focused on helping us learn behavioral modification (i.e. “Learn to look women in the eyes so you won’t have lustful thoughts”) rather than heart transformation. We need to take this seriously. And, in my experience, our churches are full of people who desire to change but they don’t know what the process looks like or what their part is in it.
What would you say to a Christian who is seeking change, seeking to overcome that nagging addiction, yet seemingly cannot? I know how you address it in narrative, but how would you translate that to talking with a friend at a coffee shop who confesses an addiction to alcohol, pornography, or something else that makes us feel like we will never rise above?
I wish I had the silver bullet answer to this. I think that scripture is clear that the ultimate answer has to be interaction with Christ. Unfortunately, that’s a complex thing in many ways and there’s no easy answer depending on what you’re dealing with. But I think the same things come up consistently for all of us as we work through these things: prayer, God’s help, honesty, community, self-discipline and continual reminders of God’s point of view. And, depending on the issue, of course professional help may be helpful or necessary. Or, you know, in some cases, medication. The fact is this isn’t completely figured out in my own life, and what I share with a friend over coffee is going to be encouragement from a fellow traveler rather than coaching from someone who has arrived. But I think we can all hold on to the hope that when Christ appears we will be like him, because we will see him as he is! Some days, just remembering that is the best thing I can do. Finding hope in the midst of my brokenness matters a great deal.