I said of Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos that “the book walks the fine line between slapstick comedy and insightful spiritual commentary – and in my opinion manages to pull it off for the most part.” Mikalatos follow up, Night of the Living Dead Christian, attempts to walk that same line – with less successful results. What starts out as a slapstick spoof on cheesy horror movies suddenly turns into a very serious story and spiritual commentary. The transition is abrupt and gives the book a very odd feel.
What does a transformed life actually look like?
In his follow-up to the critically acclaimed Imaginary Jesus, Matt Mikalatos tackles this question in an entertaining and thought-provoking way—with MONSTERS!!! While Christians claim to experience Christ’s resurrection power, we sometimes act like werewolves who can’t control our base desires. Or zombies, experiencing a resurrection that is 90 percent shambling death and 10 percent life. Or vampires, satiating ourselves at the expense of others. But through it all we long to stop being monsters and become truly human—the way Christ intended. We just can’t seem to figure out how.
Night of the Living Dead Christian is the story of Luther, a werewolf on the run, whose inner beast has driven him dangerously close to losing everything that matters. Desperate to conquer his dark side, Luther joins forces with Matt to find someone who can help. Yet their time is running out. A powerful and mysterious man is on their trail, determined to kill the wolf at all costs . . .
By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Night of the Living Dead Christian is a spiritual allegory that boldly explores the monstrous underpinnings of our nature and tackles head-on the question of how we can ever hope to become truly transformed.
The challenge Matt faces is trying to use the unique fictional element (the story and his own role within it) to both entertain and offer insight; to make it a story that works while making the points he wants to make. In Imaginary Jesus I thought it largely came together without any one aspect dominating and toppling over the balance. This time the balance was off and it came out as the foundation of a good story (Luther Martin) surrounded by a lot of silly distractions and ending with mostly preaching. The hook of viewing Christian living through the lens of monsters is interesting but in the end it felt like too many ingredients forced into a style and structure that didn’t quite fit.
The strongest element of the story is Luther Martin, a werewolf struggling to hold his marriage together. Estranged from his father the pastor, and disillusioned by Christianity, Luther is desperately seeking answers to his condition before he loses everything. Luther’s anger and violence is pushing the people he loves most, his wife and daughter away, but he can’t seem to get control.
Luther’s voice and back-story are revealed in interludes in between chapters and are the most compelling parts of the book. It is a strong voice of cynicism and doubt; a forceful rejection of easy answers and cheap grace. And the events surrounding Luther’s confrontation with his father that is the climax and the highlight of the book. Some of the sections are moving and deeply sad.
The problem is that Mikalatos’s voice is silly, self-deprecating and self-referential. He sets up comedic situations and throw in jokes and word play. But instead of comic relief the first half of the book just seems like fluff and disconnected from the very serious issues of the second half which focus on abuse and real pain. The book then ends by throwing off all pretense of fiction and just has Matt preach the Gospel (and Luther relating his baptism reinforces this sermon like quality).
Don’t get me wrong, I agree with much of what Mikalatos “preaches” but why not just write a non-fiction book that uses the concept of monsters to explore the ideas of sin and transformation (perhaps the Luther interludes as illustrations)? I give him credit for trying to pull off a creative and challenging book but I don’t think he quite succeeded. Outside of Luther, and to some degree Lara, the characters are thin. The plot meanders and really struggles to develop. The spiritual side is far from subtle and mostly just preaching with the characters as obvious illustrations.
The other problem is that that the various monsters don’t work together thematically. The idea of Christians as zombies is barely developed and is very different from Christians who struggle with sin in such a serious way (vampires and werewolves).
Mikalatos has a light and witty style and the book is an easy read; even the preaching isn’t particularly heavy. And as noted above, the Luther Martin element is well done and quite compelling in parts. But the rest of the story feels distracting and thrown together. The zombie aspect feels like a side joke rather than a real part of the story.
With this in mind, I think reader expectations will play a big role in reactions to this book. If you are expecting a strong story with allegorical aspects I think you will be disappointed. If you are expecting “fiction” more as sermon illustration then I think you will enjoy it; if you can appreciate the various pieces and parts without demanding them come together all that much.
For me, Night of the Living Dead Christian was an interesting experiment, with some promising elements, that just didn’t work as a whole.
I received this book as part of the Tyndale Blog Network program.
- Review of Matt Mikalatos’ Night of the Living Dead Christian (1manandhisbooks.wordpress.com)
- Review: Night of the Living Dead Christian by Matt Mikalatos (jenniferajanes.com)
- The Big Idea: Matt Mikalatos (whatever.scalzi.com)