Gimme Some New Time Religion

History's Best-Selling Author Is Back, in Time for Holidays

By Gordon Haber

Published December 25, 2011, issue of December 30, 2011.
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The accident is worthy of discussion. A plate-glass window falls 30 stories onto this messianic schlemiel, causing wounds so profound that his surgeon likens them to “a Hollywood horror movie.” This is merely one example of the Christ-like abuse that Ben endures, which includes several vicious beatings, incarceration and near-starvation. I won’t reveal the final act of cruelty, but I finished the book with the impression that Frey was somehow trying to one-up the Passion.

The indignation appears when we learn Ben’s message: This Messiah sounds remarkably like an atheist progressive. “We are animals,” he preaches, the “result of a long process of natural selection.” Religion is “the longest running fraud in human history.” God doesn’t care about “who we marry.” (Nor, apparently, about the subjective case.) In fact, “He plays no part in our lives.” If you want to get an idea of God, look up at the “infinite” sky. Evidently, the Messiah has been reading Sam Harris.

So what is the alternative to fundamentalism and the “dead books” of Scripture? Love, of course. Lots and lots of love. And “love” not only means accepting people for who they are, without judgment; it also means “sex.”

Now, I wasn’t offended by the idea of a Messiah with a sex life. I was just distracted by the extent of the sexualizing. Ben is a priapic, omnisexual Redeemer, a Messiah who gives sermons on mounting. For Frey, redemption is when everyone gets laid, even the repressed homosexuals, even the fat chicks. He gives new meaning to the term,“world-to-come.” Which is okay by me. But when a sermon ends in an orgy, I wondered if Frey forgot that in previous scenes there were kids around.

If it seems like “The Final Testament” annoyed me, that’s not the case. I couldn’t put it down. This is the first book of Frey’s that I’ve read, and I was impressed by his ability to construct an engaging narrative. I just wished that he had thought harder about his scenario, his straw man version of faith, his Messiah’s liberal platitudes.

Both authors could have thought a little harder. Why? Because both books, I think, were to some extent inspired by a distaste for the way Americans — especially American conservatives — bring God into everything. But Javerbaum and Frey respond to this arrogance with platitudes. In Javerbaum’s book, God argues that the Bible is not “the product of a particular group of people in a particular place at a particular time,” demonstrating that Javerbaum believes the opposite. And Frey writes that “The Bible was written two thousand years ago. Stories that had meaning then are meaningless now.” Neither author seems to realize that this argument is an oversimplification at best. Nor do they grasp that by reacting to such stories — even, paradoxically, by mocking them — they are, in fact, taking them seriously.

Both books are good. Really. Javerbaum’s is spit-take funny; Frey’s a page-turner. But they’re missed opportunities — I think because both authors wish to dismiss religion while using it to make their points. But maybe there’s a better way to wrestle with this material, to engage with it. Maybe there’s a way to criticize fundamentalism without relying on shtick or shock or liberal pandering.

Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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