James Frey's Jesus

James Frey’s new book, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, is designed to instigate a blasphemy row: it tells you so on the cover. But those who are inclined to boil about unconventional portrayals of Jesus should still their racing hearts. To be frank, the story is too ludicrous to be offensive. I’m on Channel 4 News tomorrow talking about it, and then at the ICA on Thursday talking about blasphemy with the author.

The Jesus-figure, Ben, comes back amongst New York low life, as low life: booze, pizzas, video games, lap clubs. His paternity is dodgy, or at least his father thinks so. And he works on a building site, until one day, he suffers an accident involving a lot of blood, gore and falling glass. He survives, miraculously, and the resulting epilepsy leaves him enlightened. He is recognized as a messiah. The book tells the story through various encounters he has with stock figures – a Catholic priest disillusioned over paedophilia, an episcopal priest who doesn’t believe enough, a gay man who has been ‘saved’ by an evangelical church, drug addicted prostitutes, members of his family. And he has one message, the old hippie one: love, love, love.

This he pursues in, err, practical ways, by making love to virtually everyone. In one particular encounter, a drug addict is weaned off her need because every time she feels the urge, he takes her – a performance rate that would surely require him to become addicted to viagra in the process. And if the sex sounds shocking, the excess of it – coupled to the sixties messaging and the we-fucked-until-drawn-and-it-was-great style of writing – tips it into farce.

Alongside the rabbit-like sexual healing runs Dawkins-level theology. Religion is responsible for all world ills, Ben informs us. The Bible is a stone age sci-fi text. God is a fairy tale. Man is his own worst enemy, en route to self-destruction. Faith is just an excuse to oppress. Ben knows the Bible by heart – one of his miracles, alongside turning water into wine, that are incongruous tricks given the demythologising theme – though you could be forgiven for thinking the only book of theology he’d read was The God Delusion.

I like a good retelling of the Jesus story, particularly smart blasphemous ones. Philip Pullman achieved that last year because his conceit – that the good Jesus had a bad twin, Christ – made for a brilliant reflection on how faith so readily goes wrong. Pullman is also too honest to resist the logic of his own views, so his story, unlike the original, ends without hope.

With Frey, I suspect that a big part of the problem is the way the book is presented. It is clearly out to provoke on the back of the scandal around his previous ‘fiction’, A Million Little Pieces. ‘Now James Frey has written his greatest work, his most revolutionary, his most controversial.’ We have to be told this in bold letters on the back cover of the new one, and it leaves him hostage to fortune. I hope for his sake it is not his greatest, it’s not revolutionary, and the controversy – if it comes – is contrived and feels cynical.