I owe a great debt to the American Spectator for pointing to me to this story. By itself, it is not worth comment, but it does incarnate a disease of our age: the “brave and compelling book” that is neither brave, important, or much of a book.
Evidently James Frey dares “ignite a firestorm” by publishing a book attacking Jesus. I don’t know what the real James Frey is like and would not judge him if I could. All that is before me is the “James Frey” of the media campaign to sell his self-published book.
That “James Frey” is probably fictive, but there are four things we know about him.
Mr. Frey is a coward. He is a coward, because he has written a book that will offend nobody he likes, but that may offend those he does not. If he loved the “religious right,” and hardly anybody who loves us uses that phrase to describe us, then this might be a brave book. If I wrote it, it would cost me my job. That would be courageous, but the book would still be a bore.
Fictional Mr. Frey is pompous. Fictive Frey assumes most readers on the right are eagerly waiting his next book. Sadly for Frey the writer most of us have never heard of Mr. Frey except for his exposure as a fabulist. Given the stack of books by my bed and backing up on my Kindle, I will probably go on not reading Mr. Frey for some time.
I could spend time understanding Sophist or read Mr. Frey. I might read the Pope’s Jesus of Nazareth sitting in the queue or I could take the time to be “outraged” by Mr. Frey. Lighter reading will include The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a Dr. Thorndyke mystery, and some more P.G. Wodehouse or I could drop all of this and take the time to read a self-published book by Mr. James Frey.
Why would he think religious right readers would have the time?
Mr. Frey is badly read. His messiah figure says, “Faith is what you use to oppress, to justify, to judge in the name of God . . . a means to rationalize more evil in this world than anything in history. If there were a devil, faith would be his greatest invention.”
Hasn’t Frey read any philosophy of religion, novels on religion from the last one hundred years, or serious Evangelical literature?
Evidently fictive Frey will stir outrage, because his attack on institutional Christianity is such a new thing to say, except it isn’t. Christians have dealt with foes from Porphyry to Hitchens saying such things, but evidently now that Mr. Frey says it we will be offended. Having a “messiah” do things the religious establishment does not anticipate is so unoriginal that it is a theme of the actual gospels
Mr. Frey should read the highly regarded (by Evangelicals!) Book of Bebb to see that religious folk can write about unanticipated Christ figures as well. My Wheaton graduate wife is so outraged by such books she gave me the Book of Bebb as my engagement present.
Of course, the entire statement quoted above from Frey’s messiah is self-referentially incoherent. He could be dismissed as the “son of God” on the grounds that no real messiah should sound like a freshman term paper in an Evangelical college.
It is a judgmental statement about religion by a messiah. Is this statement from his messiah judgmental? If so, then how do we know it is not oppressive?
Mr. Frey is a bigot and a rude one.
Fictive Frey is a bigot, because he has no understanding of religious people. He generalizes from media caricatures and nobody calls him on it.
Real religious folk are constantly examining themselves for signs of self-righteousness. I have heard, I think, over one hundred sermons in my lifetime express the idea that many of us “might have missed Jesus when he came,” because he liked to hang out with sinners.
Of course, real Jesus told them to stop ruining themselves. Evidently fictive Frey has created a fictive messiah that does drugs and is promiscuous. How bold! This will surely stamp out the Puritanism rampant in Frey’s social circles. Most of us need to be told in consumerist America to indulge ourselves more! Frey has created a messiah that the Super Bowl ad agencies, with their focus on erotica and consumption, will love.
To the extent that Frey’s messiah forces us to look for God, or love, in unexpected places, he is not outrageous, but aping Jesus. To the degree he behaves as we do, then he will not be able to help us.
Fictive Frey is rude for releasing his tome on Good Friday. Is this neighborly? Assuming we are the simpletons he thinks we are, why go out of the way to offend? Is boorish behavior a necessary part of his makeup? Christians love Jesus, maybe we should not, but we do. Good Friday is a special day for us.
Frey has a right, one the Christian population of America gave him, to publish what he wants when he wants. We have the right to think him rude.
Still all this leaves me with less a sense of outrage than pity. Is there anyone who does not feel for a person trying to regain his standing after his own moral failure (in Frey’s case lying) destroyed his career?
If Mr. Frey can be made happier by attacking the Faith, then it is worth letting him attack us. The Grand Inquisitor said everything he is saying much more pointedly in The Brothers Karamazov, so nobody will lose faith over Frey’s book. In fact, if it were not for the harm success might do to Mr. Frey, one would root for the book as about the most harmless way for him to recover some measure of dignity.
Sadly, bigotry harms the soul of the bigot and so though we can forgive him his trespass against us, we cannot forgive his trespass against himself. Even spending time dealing with fictive James Frey runs the risk of placating and soothing the ego of the wounded real James Frey.
My lengthy reaction could convince fictive Frey, that he “still matters.” Sadly, he is just the best example to cross my desk in a very long time of a tendency that corrupts many of us who write as part of our jobs.
Frey has not outraged me, but he has caused me to examine my own heart.
Am I a coward? If I see someone from my team fail, I must not wimp out if it is appropriate for me to respond.
Am I pompous? Do I really think folks need to read all my thoughts on every issue? Pride and love cannot coexist and yet still I am too often motivated by egoism and not charity.
Am I well read enough? I must make time to read more books that challenge my assumptions and worldview.
Am I a bigot? Do I make assumptions about “liberals” or the “other” that are uncharitable and unfounded? Do I love my enemies and pray for them?
Am I rude? Do I attack God’s enemies in a way that leaves room for redemption?
The examined life may be worth living, but it also is painful to acknowledge that I am too often a coward, pompous, narrow, bigoted, and rude. I long to be more brave, humble, broad, tolerant, and kind. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
If the real James Frey ever reads this piece, and I assume he is too important to do so, he should know that I am praying for him, but I am not outraged by anything other than my own folly and sin. I still will not read his book, but it is because there is too much else to read and discuss in order to become a better man.