When I was seven, I was fascinated by an elderly man at my church. This gentleman spoke in normal English every time we interacted, but when he prayed he let loose with beautiful, indecipherable speeches in King James English. I couldn’t understand why he talked one way to me and another way to God. Charles Martin, bestselling novelist and author of What If It’s True?: A Storyteller’s Journey with Jesus, fascinates me in the same way.
A few years ago, Martin found himself sitting with an open Bible and asking: “What if every single word of this story is absolutely true and I can trust it? What if Jesus really is who he says he is? What if the King of the universe is speaking directly to me through the words of his book?”
The great strength of this book is Martin’s storytelling. You can trust him. When he chooses a scene, starts an anecdote, or jumps into an unexpected format, you can tell he’s a seasoned pro. The storytelling is seamless and occasionally breathtaking. He retells Bible stories with a vivid, cinematic quality. In the chapter on what it means to “take up your cross,” you feel the weight of those splintered beams on your back.
It frustrated me, though, when Martin stopped telling stories to ask the reader to pray, reflect on some Scripture, or read along with his exegesis. I was enjoying the movie, but Martin kept turning on the lights, getting on stage, and explaining what had happened so far.
For instance, Martin beautifully retells the story of Jesus and the woman accused of adultery (John 8:1–11). Here’s an example:
They throw her down. “We caught her!” They laugh, letting their eyes walk up and down her body. She wraps her arms around her knees, trying to conceal herself with long hair. The scribes continue. One is tossing a stone in the air like a baseball. They are baiting Jesus. Their voices are ripe with cynicism. “Moses commands us to stone her.” They have no interest in His answer. Only their trap.
A page later, though, we’re reading verses from Matthew in the New King James Version and talking about sexual sin through the lens of King David. Eventually, we return to Jesus and this woman, but then we read a deeply personal prayer from Martin that we’re invited to pray along with him. We’re jumping back and forth between colloquial language and traditional religious language, between story and lecture, between Martin’s story and my response, and it sometimes feels like juggling four objects of different weights and sizes.
All of which means very little in the end, because despite my frustration with these feelings of whiplash, Jesus was present in these pages in a wonderful way.
We’ve all met people who capitalize divine pronouns because of religious tradition rather than genuine respect, but this is not the case with Martin (who also refuses to capitalize “satan” or “lucifer”). He’s sincere, consistent, and deeply in love with Jesus. His passionate prayers (which are often more than a page long) felt a little over the top at first, but the more time I spent with Martin the more I saw his sincerity. And the more I saw his sincerity, the more I saw Jesus not just in Martin, and not just in Martin’s story, but in my own response.
Which means I was exactly where Martin wanted me. He wants us to engage with this book, to be in conversation with him and, yes, with Jesus. Even as I read along with a critic’s eye, Martin charmed me with his sincerity, and suddenly I found myself in the middle of a spiritual experience.
Which brings me back to the old man in my childhood church. One Sunday as I watched him pray, his shaking hands gripping the pew in front of him, I saw that—in the midst of all the thees and thous—tears had begun slipping down his cheeks. I didn’t understand everything he was saying, but I knew he meant it—and that it was something beautiful.
What If It’s True? uses Jesus’ story as the center, and from there we trek out to talk about shame, death, sin, persecution, forgiveness, the wounds of the human soul, and the transformative power of love. It’s a book that takes you on a journey, with Martin as the guide. I loved the stories in this book, but even the parts I didn’t connect with had such God-infused sincerity that I found them beautiful and moving. Ultimately, I found Jesus speaking to me even there.
Matt Mikalatos is a writer and missionary. He is the author of Good News for a Change: How to Talk to Anyone about Jesus(NavPress).
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