I wasn’t terribly blown away by James Frey’s last book, Bright Shiny Morning, but I had high hopes for The Final Testament of the Holy Bible and I am so so so so happy to say that I was not disappointed. Say what you will about Frey, but the man knows how to craft a story. And piss people off.
The publication of this book was risky on two fronts. First, of course, is the controversial subject matter. The book is exactly what the title says it is: the final testament of the Bible. The Messiah has returned. He still walks among the poor and tries to help mankind and all that good stuff but has, um, interesting (read: blasphemous) ways of going about it. The other risk Frey took was the format he released it in. When the book was first released, one could buy a printed copy of the book, specially designed to look and feel like a Bible…for $50 (the price has since dropped to about $30). Or you can buy the ebook, which is currently going for about $7 at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It was a courageous leap of faith and an acknowledgement of the rising trend in ebook sales, but it also makes the book inaccessible to fans who don’t have ereaders. The retail price of the print version is also extremely cost prohibitive for poor people and public libraries.
Now that the price has dropped, I might actually splurge on the fancy shmancy, art gallery-published hardcover. The main reason? When I finished this book, I fought the urge to go back to the beginning and start rereading. It was an exciting moment of book awesomeness (you know an author is on to something when he manages to make his atheist reader have creepy Jesus dreams)!
Like his other books, The Final Testament is written in multiple points of view. Each chapter/gospel in this Bible brings in a new perspective from people who have interacted with Ben Zion, aka Jesus. People, especially his family’s rabbi, thought Ben was special ever since birth. They suspected he was meant for greatness, and as he grew older, he exhibited more and more signs that he was the Messiah. This extra attention had always been a source of tension in the family, however, and Ben was eventually thrown out of the house to fend for himself on the streets.
No one really knows where Ben went all those years, but when he resurfaced, he was skinny, filthy, and aimless, blowing his money on video games and strippers (yes, this is still Jesus we’re talking about). He’s a good-hearted person, but then something happens that makes everything click into place and puts him in full-blown Jesus mode. He eventually develops the ability to take away people’s pain. He has an actual aura around him. Though he’s still pale, skinny, and filthy, people who encounter him almost instantly recognize him as the Messiah. He preaches–and practices–his gospel.
Except the gospel Ben preaches is unlike any gospel found in any of the major holy books. He still promotes love, but scoffs at every organized religion on the planet, saying their texts were written in the Stone Age and shouldn’t be taken literally, especially in the modern world. Instead, people should focus on living life to the fullest and spreading love.
And “spread love” he does, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Though Ben has a girlfriend named Mariangeles, a Puerto Rican single mother who works as a stripper, he also sleeps with other people (sometimes several a a time). She understands, because she knows he is helping people the way he helped her, giving people the gift of utter and complete love. (I was actually not the least bit fazed by this, although there were times when I couldn’t help but think, “I really hope y’all used a condom”). What God really wants, Ben insists, is for people to just do what they feel is the best choice; they should focus on loving themselves and each other, and raising all children in a loving environment.
Other things that might rankle people: Ben insists that God doesn’t want people telling other people what to think or how to act, be it repressing homosexual behaviors or getting an abortion. The scenarios written to illustrate all of this were some of the best (read: deliciously shocking) parts of the book.
This is James Frey we’re talking about: The Final Testament of the Holy Bible is practically begging to be polarizing, so most people are probably either going to love it or hate it. I ended up reading my sister a particularly irreverent excerpt, and she just silently shook her head at me. It’s pretty scathing with regards to the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalism/ conservatism of all flavors, though it especially rings true considering the current political climate in the United States. I know his stream of consciousness writing style aggravates some people to no end (it even aggravated me, a fangirl, in his last book), but while this book is undoubtedly Frey, he’s toned the stream of consciousness stuff down a lot.
It’s pretty safe to say that this book is going to make my end-of-year list. Frey is a terrific storyteller, and the pacing of this book is perfect; the book is 400 pages long and I devoured it in less than 24 hours. If you’re put off by sexually explicit scenes and/or the general sacrilege of most world religions, this book might give you a heart attack. If you’re still Team Oprah, then you’re probably not Team Frey. But if you have heathen tendencies…knock yourself out. It’s worth it.
The Final Testament of the Holy Bible was published on April 22, 2011 by Gagosian Gallery.