In the gospel according to James Frey, the Messiah comes to rid us of stories… “the Christ story, and all the stories like it, stories that enslave us, and oppress us, and destroy us.” He’s the Messiah of the streets – and he don’t need no books, or teachers, or stories that will necessitate an intellectual tradition. He’s a Messiah for the Twitter age. His message is 140 characters, max. He says: Love. That’s it! Don’t think about it! The same way James Frey wrote this book. He didn’t talk to any theologians, or read any books on religion. He just flipped through the Bible – and realised it was bullshit! Turns out, God doesn’t care what we do. He’s not going to judge us. Even half-assed writing will apparently be excused.
Christ lives in Brooklyn, like the Beastie Boys. The gospel begins when he’s age thirty. His story is narrated by various witnesses to his miracles, including Mariaangeles, a nineteen year old stripper, who tells us: “in the Bible they be saying miracles is withering some motherfucking fig tree or some shit, but in [James Frey’s world], the real fucking world, a miracle is a vial of crack lying on the ground in an American housing project unclaimed for more than three minutes.” In line with this belief, Christ is pretty big on “edgy” miracles, like slinging crack out the window, or tugging gay men out of the closet. He approves of euthanasia, group sex, and abortion. The only thing he’s opposed to, on principle, is organised religion.
Unintentionally, this is a very funny book. The writing is terrible. The characters are crudely formed. Frey seems to regard research as optional when writing about religion, so he doesn’t bother with any. Religious people in the book are all snivelling cowards, using faith as an opiate. No-one who reads the Bible has ever had an orgasm, according to Frey. The Catholic priest who narrates one chapter is the usual pusillanimous eunuch found in secular caricatures, and most characters who profess a religious affiliation are bigoted, hate-filled, and frightened of sex. Believing in God and being an asshole are synonymous in the book, just as rejecting religion and earning James Frey’s approval are one and the same. Christ doesn’t negotiate with believers. It’s love one and all or fuck you. Doubt – the most human of feelings – has no place here.
But you wonder – how much does this Christ love humans? He wants to abolish pain and suffering, petty jealousy and power-relationships. And leave – what? – the marshmallow part of the soul? All the gooey stuff that they make Hallmark cards out of? Frey doesn’t seem to worry about the “love zombie” ramifications of his logic. He’s convinced himself that pain is a Christian racket, made up to sell Bibles. In Frey’s vision, Christ zaps you with the power to love and be happy. There’s no work involved; no need for struggle. Much like this author’s approach to writing: stress is deemed unnecessary and unproductive. We all need to reject money and vanity and blah blah blah… make wicker baskets and wear sandals.
The brainwashed-love this Christ brings is like a narcotic haze. There’s no joy in it. As this new Christ wanders New York, speaking earnestly with people who can’t contradict him, he’s like a rock star haranguing his groupies. “For him,” the book says, “Life was about love and fucking and helping other people.” He hates politics, whether global or personal. He doesn’t talk about history. His family are all miserable and hollowed-out. In short, he isn’t a whole person. He’s a spit-ball: a what if?-Christ, who slouches out of shallow reading. The great poetry of the Bible is reduced to stoner-wisdom. You cringe as you hear him spout. He’s the adolescent, apolitical Son of God, whose message is pat and unsurprising.
James Frey’s gospel is tedious and smug. Over and over again, Ben Zion, the Christ figure in this story, repeats: “Life, not death, is the great mystery we must confront.” …As if priests and rabbis and imams all over the world were unaware of life, unaware of joy, unaware that they could have human desires – and not be Lords of Death, grimly suppressing mankind. Frey wants to deny that religion is human. He wants it separate from life, an arbitrary set of rules – not part of us, expressing both our tribalism and our urge for transcendence. His one-word gospel can’t encompass humanity. That’s the crucial difference between a God who loves and a God who forgives: one’s a fan, the other’s an honest critic.