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If Christians ignore James Frey, he will slink back into the shadows.

March 18, 2011

James Frey

F. Scott Fitzgerald got it exactly backward when he said there are no second acts to American lives — if America stands for anything, it’s self-reinvention and the second chance –but that doesn’t mean I want to read what James Frey has to say about God.

In a way, I have to admire Frey. He survived a literary scandal that saw him excoriated on TV by our secular saint, Oprah Winfrey, for making stuff up in his best-selling 2003 addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Of course writers have been mixing fact and fiction in their autobiographies since Caesar wrote how he kicked all that Gallic butt, but it’s not nice to fool Mother Naure. Or Oprah.

A less brazen striver might have taken his new riches –the book sold better after he had been exposed — and been glad to live out his days in opulent obscurity, but not Frey.

No, Frey continues to write with a success that can be attributed more to his notoriety than his skill — not that I’m saying he’s a bad writer. I don’t know, as I’ve not read him, but lots of writers whose work I do know produce excellent books without the kind of sales Frey has enjoyed for his second bestselling memoir, My Friend Leonard, or his novel, Bright Shiny Morning.

Frey’s real talent, however, is for self promotion. Like a neglected, bratty child, he doesn’t seem to care whether the attention he receives is good or bad, so long as he receives attention. Last fall “Full Fathom Five,” a collaborative writing company he developed to produce Young Adult novels, came under fire for “brutal and Dickensian” treatment of the MFA students working there.

Yet the project is a success, producing among others, the book that was turned into the blockbuster action movie I Am Number Four, currently in theaters.

Now, as reported in the Guardian this week, Frey has written a novel called The Final Testament that depicts Jesus as a whoremongering, bisexual alcoholic. As the Guardian‘s Ed Pilkington observes, Frey has chosen subject matter virtually “guaranteed to goad the Christian right into providing helpful angry publicity.”

May I please make a suggestion to my Christian friends? Don’t.

Don’t play into Frey’s cynical marketing strategy by broadcasting your outrage. If you just take a deep breath, say a little prayer, and let it go, then The Final Testament will recede into the cultural wallpaper and we’ll never have to read, hear or think about it again.

And please allow me to respectfully pose a question that has been on my mind for several years now, as I’ve watched Muslims riot over The Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons, or Christians rail against Piss Christ or The Last Temptation of Christ:

How small is your God, that he needs you? Are your days not like an evening shadow, will you not wither away like the grass? And God needs you to defend his honor?

Sometimes the most effective response to any affront, including blasphemy, is simple silence. I hope my Muslim friends are listening, too. Turn the other cheek, for pity’s sake. Who said that? Oh, yeah: Jesus. And he wasn’t kidding. And don’t do it because you’re a better Christian (or Jew or Muslim or Zoroastrian). Do it because it works.

Not being religious, I find overt, intentional provocations like The Final Testament to be simply vulgar, and therefore wearisome to the soul.  True, for every thing there is a purpose and a time under heaven: There was a time, back in the cultural revolution of the mid-20th century, when Modernism was challenging everything, that aggressive offensiveness still had artistic value. But now, it’s just a tired old cliche, a worn-out trope resorted to by the cynical –a marketing ploy, not an artistic impulse.

I had no interest in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, an exercise in fictional sacrilege by Phillip Pullman, a writer I actually admire. From Pullman, I expect more than this  — more subtlety, more nuance, than the blunt club of atheistic outrage.

From Frey I expect nothing whatsoever,  except perhaps for him to go away. But that’s too much to hope for. The man’s a canny survivor, and I give him grudging admiration for it. To paraphrase another old saying, after nuclear war the only things left alive will be cockroaches, and James Frey.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2011 10:11 am

    While I agree with you Chauncey, it’s for different reasons in general. I wish all religions would shut up and go away. They cause more problems then solve in our world. I agree that this Frey has nothing to offer but maybe entertainment for the bored in life who have nothing better to read? I guess?

    But I just get sick and tired of hearing how one religious group is mad over something said or printed…. or another that is ordering a death of said writer or artist because they offended “their religion”. All the Anti-Semitic nonsense. Most all wars and denigration and oppression is in the name of religion. It all must go! It’s all nonsense.

    In the end I agree with you on what religious people should do about this, but also think part of the beauty of America is the ugliness we get to spread. Like South Park or any of these people… it’s their right.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 18, 2011 11:42 am

      First let me say that South Park is the greatest artistic achievement of the television era.

      Second, let me say that while I find much to disparage among the world’s religions, I think it’s dangerous (if only karmically speaking) to condemn anyone who seeks the pearl of meaning just because they do so in a different field.

      Third, let me say that, karmically speaking, it is rash to condemn all the adherents of a religion on the basis of its loudest, most obnoxious and offensive members. There are a billion Christians in the world, and a billion Muslims. Do you think all the former condone the Westboro Baptist Church, or the pedophilic priests? Do you think all the latter support terrorism or the imposition of Sharia?

      Fourth, it is often said that all wars are the result of religion, but this is simply not so. Some are, indeed, but not, for example, the American Revolution, or the Civil War, or the Napoleonic Wars, or the Spanish-American War, or the Boxer Rebellion, or World Wars I & II, or Korea or Vietnam, or…but you get my drift. It’s my belief that most wars, even those ostensibly fought over ideology or freedom or whatever, are fundamentally about economics.

      Finally, while religion has brought much mischief into the world, what human institution has not? Religion has also brought much good. For every Father Coughlin, there is a Dorothy Day; for every Osama bin Ladin there is a Feisal Abdul Rauf.

      Let us seek common ground in the center rather than pushing our opponents into the margins.

      Thus ends my sermon for the day. Now we pass the basket.

      • March 18, 2011 3:28 pm

        LOL! Say a prayer and pass the ammo… as the saying goes?

        Well we definitely disagree on a few points here. First let ME say that yes, South Park is one of the greatest shows ever created! So let me just go point by point and give you my take as I am assuming that is why you have this blog as to spur on some healthy debate and talk?

        I absolutely stand by my statement of religion and behind almost all those wars you mentioned withstanding the civil wars which would actually be debatable too, RELIGION WAS behind them. You even said it. The ideology that was “formed” by beliefs being the catalyst to religion.

        I DO agree that there are many who aren’t extreme, but one of the main tenants of religion is spread “their truth”… and bring in new members. All others are sinners, and will die at our God’s hand. LOL My main problem with religion is, even with the “good believers”, as a whole it is oppressive and controlling of individuals and promotes divisiveness. You either believe our God is it or nothing. You could ask almost any Christian or Muslim if they accept someone gay and I would be willing to bet that although they may let them be, they don’t like it and think like most conservatives that we should keep oppressing them in this country.

        What human institution has not brought mischief into the world??? Non believers. Because there is no “institution”… lol People who are NOT caught up in dogma and their egos hurt very little in our society. They don’t care what you do. No moral police here. They don’t wish to control others. I’m all for common ground, but there is little or no compromise with “believers”. After all that’s what their God teaches them. No compromising their principals, right?

        Any ways, I enjoy your writing Chaunce, keep it up brother. I”m still waiting for that cup of coffee one day at Starbucks??? 😉

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 18, 2011 5:23 pm

    James, with affection and respect, you appear to me to be guilty of exactly the kind of broad-spectrum condemnation and self-righteousness that you accuse religious people of. I’m not religious myself, but I have lots of religious friends, and while I might not want my sister marrying one, I can assure you they do not fit the cliched bogeyman you describe in your remarks. You are speaking in absolutist terms — religion is ALWAYS wrong — but in fact it’s only the absolutists, of whatever stripe, who are always wrong. I would have expected more from you, James. As a seeker yourself, I would have thought you’d have some sympathy for others who have sought and found transcendence, even if you cannot share in it.

    Coffee someday, for sure.

    • March 19, 2011 8:39 am

      Perception is a funny thing. It’s never what it is in reality. Your perception of my remarks is off from the reality of them. Coming to the reality of our existence and the fact that Santa Clause doesn’t exists will be the single most important thing for humanity one day.

      In the mean time, I have nothing but compassion, understanding and COMPROMISE. Something that most all religions DON’T have. It is absolutist in most cases with religion. I don’t believe that is a perception, but reality.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        March 19, 2011 11:47 am

        Your remarks are so clear I can see no room for misperception. You hate religion because you think it is a monolithic force for evil. And you have a misperception of yourself as a tolerant person. “…the fact that Santa Claus doesn’t exist will be the single most important thing for humanity one day.” Where, may I ask, is the willingness to compromise in that statement? You know, tolerance, the greatest of modern civic and personal virtues, is not to be confused with endorsement or acceptance. You tolerate something no matter how much it irks you because other people have the right to pursue happiness as they see fit. You can be as irreligious as you please, but disrespecting believers does you no service.

        Um…where does “live and let live” fit into your blanket condemnation of religion?

  3. Connie permalink
    March 18, 2011 6:16 pm

    But of course Mr. Frey has to outrage someone to get attention. His last novel was met with utter silence and snores. A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard aren’t notable because they’re fabricated; they’re notable only for how absolutely terrible they are. Just terrible. I truly hope no one wastes time being outraged and giving him free press, but that’s probably not going to happen.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 18, 2011 6:22 pm

      People do love their outrage, I’m afraid.

  4. March 19, 2011 3:06 pm

    There is no such thing as good and evil in my world Chauncey, so again your perception of my comments is way off. I hate nothing my friend. Hate is a wasted emotion that poisons ones life. When religion stops killing my fellow man and stops oppressing individuals for THEIR beliefs or lifestyles, then you might see me more tolerant towards it. You see, that’s the problem right now. Religion is embedded itself everywhere in society and forces people to adhere to it’s moral judgment. That is wrong.

    Until that changes, we will be a backwards race believing and living in our past. We won’t recognize the true potential of the human mind and how beautiful it is. People continue to live without taking responsibility for their actions and just think some imaginary being exalts them of all bad doing. It’s almost a sickness IMO. It’s why I used the “Santa Clause” analogy… it’s like continuing to believe in Santa Clause as adults. You would think that person was silly or maybe sick, right?

    Any ways, enough of the soap box. I’ve driven this blog way off target and I apologize for that. Something tells me that coffee is never going to happen for us. LOL Have a good one guy.

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