The Final Testament and The Second Coming

Nov 24th, 2012 by Sebastian in news

I just finished The Final Testament by James Frey a few days ago; I read The Second Coming by John Niven about six months ago. Both of these books attempt to answer the same question: what would happen if Jesus Christ/the Messiah were to appear today?

Given the same central conceit, the two novels could hardly be more different. The Second Coming is a laugh-out-loud comedy, in which Jesus is indeed God’s prodigal son, but who also happens to be a somewhat lazy pot-fiend who can play the hell (forgive the expression) out of an electric guitar. God has recently taken a fishing trip, and, as time in Heaven passes much more slowly than on Earth, the world is in a sorry state when he gets back to the office. There is nothing left to do but send Jesus back to Earth with the one simple message that all prophets have been tasked to deliver: “Be nice!” (In this universe, Moses exceeded his mission statement when he crafted the Ten Commandments.) Jesus’ modern pulpit is of course a reality show, a send-up on American Idol and its ilk that manages to satirise a genre that I had frankly believed to be beyond satire.The whole story is a hilarious romp (I received many disapproving looks on public transport due to uncontrollable outbursts of laughter) that ends happily-ever-after in Heaven even after the inevitable persecution and execution of Jesus (this time by lethal injection, which predictably leads to cults that wear syringes around their necks instead of crosses).

The Last Testament on the other hand, takes a much more serious and pessimistic road. Ben Jones, born Ben Zion Avrohom, has lived his life under the shadow of prophecy. Certain signs and omens (born of a Davidic line, born on Passover, and possibly virgin birth as well) have caused him to be hated and feared by both his father and his older brother. We know little of his early life (other than it was tragic) until one day, when he is thirty years old, a piece of plate glass falls on his head at a construction site where he is working as a security guard. This mysterious accident should have killed him on the spot, but his body refuses to die, and after hours of surgery and months of recovery, he is left with horrific scars and epileptic seizures. As we eventually learn, during these seizures, which can last hours, Ben is communing with God. He has become a (or the) Messiah.

Although the book mentions the fact that certain types of epileptic seizures can cause ecstatic religious states, we can never really doubt that Ben is the real thing: his communion with God (which is nothing like the anthropomorphic God of Abrahamic religions but is rather more Deist in nature) has left him with an eidetic knowledge of every holy text and every spoken language in the world. Ben’s message is rather simple and would no doubt be approved by John Lennon: there is no Heaven, there is no Hell, there is only this life, and the only thing that matters is Love. And in this case Love includes Sex – lots and lots of sex. This is an interesting contrast to The Second Coming, in which Jesus remains for the most part celibate, but indulges in plenty of drugs (well, booze and marijuana), whereas Ben in The Last Testament is all about free love but does not take any drugs. However, Ben’s end is just as certain as the reader knows it must be.

I have one small complaint about The Last Testament: it is written from the point of twelve apostles (plus one Mary Magdalene) in a sort of biblical style, which is to say there are no paragraph indentations and no quotation marks, and I found this rather annoying at times because I would lose track of which character was saying what. However, I would not hesitate to recommend both books, assuming that the reader in question is not offended by blasphemy.

Because there is no doubt that many religious readers would consider these books to be blasphemy. At the very least for the fact that both messianic characters are depicted engaging in homosexual acts! More to the point, both authors have invented universes in which all religions are wrong. Christians are less likely to be offended by The Second Coming because of the still more-or-less traditional manner in which God and Jesus are portrayed, but I can only imagine that most of them would recoil in horror at the theological thesis of The Last Testament.

My point of view is the following: given all the world’s religions and their conflicting tenants (there are an estimated 41 thousand denominations of Christianity alone!), what are the chances that any single one of them is correct? Symmetry arguments alone strongly suggest that none of them are. Furthermore, the argument that one could approach the truth by distilling the common essence of religions (the path taken by The Second Coming, at least for the Abrahamic religions) seems rather like Richard Feyman’s parable of the Emperor of China’s nose: “…when you have a very wide range of people who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don’t improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging.” Either the people who have examined religion closely (prophets, priests, theologians, or whoever) are just guessing about the way the universe works, or just one of them (or one out of 41 thousand) has some special knowledge and everybody else is wrong. Which seems more likely to you?

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