In a Bible class I taught, a woman who was annoyed with an image of a vengeful God said, “Well, why don’t we just write a new Bible?” James Frey has written, not a new Bible, but a testament to the end times with the appearance of the Messiah, a man born of Orthodox Jewish parents in Brooklyn. His name is variously Ben Zion Avrohom, Ben Jones, or Ben.
“The Final Testament of the Holy Bible”
Gagosian Gallery, $50
The story is in the present time, written from the perspectives and in the voices of men and women who in the immediate past have known Ben. It is a compelling story and well written, holding plot, characters, and religious theme together. I hasten to add that the characters would not consider their insight, newly gained after contact with Ben, to be religious, conventionally considered. Quite the opposite, the point of view is decidedly against religion, and indeed against government. It is not, however, anarchist.
The emergence of the Messiah cuts through everything that has been previously established in the lives of the narrators, leading to the rise of a ragtag, unorganized group of followers in the way of Ben, Messiah. Yet even that is too formal to say. Please note: This testament is not for the faint of heart.
Ben was born with signs he might be an emergent Messiah. There is expectation. He doesn’t see it himself, however, not until he is about 30 years old, when events happen that begin to reveal himself to himself. He continues to develop insights in association with his epileptic seizures. (Think of Dostoyevsky and religious experience.)
Even with growing self-awareness Ben does not say, “I am the Messiah.” Others see only that he is unusual and that he has healing power. He changes lives just by his presence, by his words and touch, by love, and love is not limited to the spiritual, Christian kind; it includes the flesh of making love. God is not to be understood in received myth or word. As is stated several times in the narrative, “God is loving other people.”
Ben is so commonplace he can be missed. On the other hand, he can arrest a person’s attention by his tattered appearance and pale skin and, in time, a certain luminosity. More than commonplace, he is underclass. In the opening of the story he is living in a housing project in the Bronx. His neighbor is Mariaangeles, a stripper at a club where she services men from Westchester County.
Ben works at a construction site, where he is crushed by a falling plate of glass and is rushed to a hospital. The attending surgeon’s life is changed by Ben, who quickly recovers. Ben goes on to live with homeless men and women in a tunnel beneath Manhattan. Their leader is an apocalyptic anarchist figure waiting for the final assault. They have a stash of guns and are arrested, Ben included.
A detective interviewing Ben also finds his life changed. Ben is released under the supervision of his estranged brother, Jacob (who has become an evangelical Christian), but Ben escapes.
Another character, Jeremiah, who is gay, is freed from religious oppression because Ben loves him. Therefore Jeremiah can love himself as he is.
Ben heads upstate with a woman he meets in Manhattan off Times Square because she, too, has found herself valued as a person by him. They retreat to her farm, and over several months various people come to join them in a kind of latter-day Woodstock — in the feel of it, that is; it is different in class and expectations. Then Ben is called back to Manhattan, where, he knows, as does his sister, Esther, who had come for him, that he will have to face the authorities.
The men and women who meet Ben and find their lives altered because of him do not think of him as the Messiah — not in that moment, anyway. Near the end of the book, Ben’s public defender, Peter, is aware of others’ claims that Ben is the Messiah. Peter doesn’t believe it, though he does believe Ben is innocent of the charges against him. The first person to see that Ben is the Messiah is Mark. A Roman Catholic priest, he leaves the priesthood because of what he sees in Ben.
There are many cross-religious references throughout the book. The names of the characters are suggestive, as are the characters themselves in the roles they play: Esther, Ruth, Jeremiah, Adam, Matthew, John, Luke, Judith, Peter. Mariaangeles is the opening and closing narrator, one who announces, though she is also an intimate character in the narrative. Rabbi Schiff, with a first name of Adam, is Orthodox. Jacob converts to Christianity, and when Luke founds a church in Queens, Jacob becomes a minister there. They are looking for the Second Coming and the Rapture.
Among the abounding biblical references, there is enmity between the brothers Jacob and Ben, and their father is Isaac, to further the allusion. Ben comes to an understanding of himself when he is about 30, paralleling the consciousness of Jesus as he began his ministry. The priest, Mark, quotes from the Book of Matthew, chapter 25, about the coming of the Son of Man. There are signs of the miraculous — water turned to wine, escape from shackles (as the biblical figure Peter escaped from jail). Ben’s return from upstate to face indictment in Manhattan mirrors, as I read it, Jesus in Galilee and his journey to Jerusalem.
Then there is the name Ben: son. Son of God, or, in one of the names for Ben, Ben Jones, there is in that commonest of surnames a possible suggestion of Son of Man. Everyman.
The biblical language is characteristically masculine, but with Ben and his entourage, equality of gender, race, and sexual orientation is a given.
Mr. Frey quotes from the Apostles’ Creed leading into the narrative: “He will come again.” The book itself is printed to look like a Bible, with a black leatherette cover and gilt edges, which at the very least is clever marketing. The words of Ben are printed in red, as in some editions of scripture quoting the words of Jesus. That the book is published by the Gagosian Gallery is to suggest that “The Final Testament of the Holy Bible” is artistic in form. By association I think of the medieval mystery play as an art form. Mr. Frey’s characters have signifying roles to play, though they are also eminently human.
My argument with Mr. Frey is not with his theme, the emergence of the Messiah from an Orthodox Jewish perspective, but with his reduction of all religion to its fundamentalist or evangelical expressions. In her book “The Battle for God,” from 2000, Karen Armstrong writes of the rise of fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and about how in their extremity these movements have taken the logos of religion, its rationality, to trump the myths, which are attempts to explain meaning without taking the stories literally. Greek plays do the same.
Mr. Frey’s characters, in particular Ben, rail against the rigidity of religion tied to a book or to external authority to such an extent that Ben by his words also dismisses the possibility of myth. (I think, too, of Christopher Hitchens and his 2007 book, “God Is Not Great,” subtitled “How Religion Poisons Everything.”)
From my perspective, religion also has its mystical expression and need not be slavishly tied to its book. The image of Jesus as Son of Man comes from his Jewish roots in Ezekiel, for example. While recorded in a written text, the reference is beyond the text and is suffused with ecstatic visions. (Like Ben’s epileptic illuminations?) Or within Islam, the Sufis break free of the Koran in poetry and dance.
There is much in Mr. Frey’s book to offend many religious people, and the street language of some of the characters might also be off-putting. Or, the open revelation of love looks like a romanticized Jesus Movement, some might say.
But with those caveats, I enjoyed the story and was touched by the poignancy, and the liberation, of its characters in their affirmed beauty and in the pleasure of their nascent community. Before the End.
James Frey is the author of, most recently, the novel “Bright Shiny Morning.” He has a house in Amagansett.
The Rev. Robert Stuart is pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church. He lives in Springs.