Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Jesus preaches eros in James Frey’s ‘The Final Testament of the Holy Bible’

James Frey's latest novel, "The Final Testament of the Holy Bible," features an enigmatic Christ-figure named Ben who is born in the modern United States. He is followed mainly by drug dealers and prostitutes and by most other people who happen to cross paths with him. People are impressed by his apparent lack of fear when facing persecution or pain and they are stunned by his miraculous recoveries from ghastly wounds. However, what really attracts them to him and convinces them of his Messianic nature is something ineffable about his presence, his glow, his magical handshakes and kisses. In his presence, his followers find the strength to stop using drugs; they have more loving sex; they care for their families; they stop feeling guilty. Lacking formal education in theology, they express uncomplicated, sincere beliefs about God in direct language.

James Frey is infamous for appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2005 to promote a memoir of drugs and crime that turned out to contain significant fabrications. The literary world forgives an author's sordid past - indeed, it makes for great confessional material - but is staunchly unforgiving of plagiarism. Frey has since turned his sights to fiction, which one would expect to be a better fit for him. Indeed, if he had pulled it off brilliantly in "The Final Testament of the Holy Bible," one might even have been inclined to stop mentioning his past transgression.

"The Final Testament of the Holy Bible" was self-published online on Good Friday 2011. An art gallery owner also published 11,000 print copies. Three weeks after its release, Amazon's ranking system revealed that over 15,000 other titles were selling better than Frey's new book. Nearly three years after its release, it had slipped to 72,000 in the rankings for Amazon Kindle books.

In reviewing this novel for the Guardian, Mark Lawson explained that "Fictions of this kind operate an unusual kind of suspense, in which the main tension is not what might happen but whether certain expected events still will." In other words, the reader constantly wonders: is there going to be a virgin birth, a persecution, a crucifixion equivalent? Such events from the life of Jesus, with modernized and inexact twists, are revealed gradually over the course of the 400-page novel. While Lawson seemed to find this approach sufficiently suspenseful (he described the book as "compelling as both a thriller and a provocative riposte to religious orthodoxies"), not every reader will share this fascination. After all: Either Ben will turn out to have been born of a virgin or he will not. Either he will rise from the dead or he will not. Nothing is at stake. The answers to these questions are not posed as having potential psychological effect on any characters, nor is it clear how the answers would affect the storyline or the validity of Ben's message. As such, one might easily perceive this as a long, meandering story that has been heard before, a "remake" of the old movie in which a few scenes have been changed or portrayed more graphically but the backbone remains the same.

Secondly, the presentation of Ben as an advocate of free love - any gender combination, multiple partners, in public - is a bit bewildering for a Christ figure, as is his complete rejection of the Bible as a source of wisdom. According to Ben's own "common sense" (as opposed to divine revelation), there is no reason to obey Biblical morality because we don't "live in a two-thousand-year-old mud hut with no electricity...This world is not that world. That world is dead. Those books were written for that world. Those books are dead." Likewise, "Books are for telling stories. They're not for denying people the right to live as they choose."

Point taken, but this message is not shocking to many Americans in 2011. So, why would the Messiah return to Earth and suffer pain only to preach this anti-literalist message to a group of people who largely weren't obeying Biblical morality to begin with? And if the Bible is no longer relevant, why is he repeating his same basic life story that was originally recorded in the Bible? And why, for that matter, should readers take seriously any of Ben's orgasm-afterglow fictional sermonizing unless we decide, upon reflection, that his points make sense in the real world, the one we live in?

In his review, Lawson pointed out that the story

"creates a Jesus who conveniently preaches the values of liberal America – pro-gay marriage, pro-abortion, anti-churchgoing – but there's no reason why this figure should have more validity than the historical one being dismissed. Using fiction to accuse something of not being true is an inevitably flawed manoeuvre."

In a similar vein, readers of fiction often hope and expect not to be preached to. If we must be preached to, we hope to hear something of substance or great artistry. Using fiction to deliver a simple, numbingly repetitive philosophy is a disappointment.

To be fair, this book has moments of lucid spiritual insight. For example, one character claims that

"Love is the only way to alleviate suffering. Love is the only way to find freedom. Love is the only place in all of humanity where there is security. And even love doesn't work for very long. Love always disappears or vanishes...What we know as love doesn't really make us happy. If anything, it makes us suffer more."

This paradox of love as suffering and the antidote to suffering is a valuable interpretation of the life of Jesus. We hear that "if there were a Devil, faith would be his greatest invention...[the world] is going to end, because of faith." Quite possibly true. And of the experience of witnessing the Second Coming of Christ: "It was something that scared me because it felt like I could lose control of it. And loss of control is always the source of fear. It is also, however, always the source of change." Although we know it's fiction, that has the ring of truth.

Overall, however, this story was a long slog. The third major obstacle for me was that, in the same way that the Bible tells the story of Jesus through Gospels written by various people, Ben's story is told from the perspective of the people he meets. Each character has a unique voice. Most of them are portrayed as immature, uneducated, wayward, and only partially able to articulate their experiences in interesting ways. For example, one character reports that Ben behaves "like he was Mercedes' dad and Mariaangeles' husband and the girl was part of their family somehow and it was really super cute." Any character who speaks in run-on sentences that describe the flesh-and-blood Second Coming of Christ as "really super cute" should not be allowed to have the seemingly endless monologue that she is given. This character alone could prompt a reader to take extended breaks from this book.

Perhaps part of Frey's intended spiritual lesson is in helping the reader to pay attention to their own strong reactions to the less articulate characters. Frey's version of Jesus didn't come to advise the philosophically inclined; he came to bestow a revolutionary feeling of love and empowerment to teenage moms who need to get off drugs. It isn't about you, dear reader; it's about them. If you, as the reader, are not satisfied because this Jesus character doesn't do anything for you, maybe that's part of the point.

Or maybe it's not. And maybe it's fair for readers to choose to practice their patience elsewhere.

Originally posted to Helium Network on May 15, 2011.

Image: Wikimedia Commons user 'Lestath' (Jan Mehlich) © Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license Wikimedia Commons.

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