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