In James Frey’s book The Final Testament of the Holy Bible (Gagosian Gallery, 2011) the controversial best-selling author gives us one of most revolutionary readings of the gospels I’ve encountered in any form of modern writing. Amazon.com describes the author and his book with these words:
James Frey isn’t like other writers. He’s been called a liar. A cheat. A con man. He’s been called a savior. A revolutionary. A genius. He’s been sued by readers. Dropped by publishers because of his controversies. Berated by TV talk-show hosts and condemned by the media. He’s been exiled from America, and driven into hiding. He’s also a bestselling phenomenon. Published in 38 languages, and beloved by readers around the world. What scares people about Frey is that he plays with truth; that fine line between fact and fiction. Now he has written his greatest work, his most revolutionary, his most controversial. The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. What would you do if you discovered the Messiah were alive today? Living in New York. Sleeping with men. Impregnating young women. Euthanizing the dying, and healing the sick. Defying the government, and condemning the holy. What would you do if you met him? And he changed your life. Would you believe? Would you? The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. It will change you. Hurt you. Scare you. Make you think differently. Live differently. Enrage you. Offend you. Open your eyes to the world in which we live. We’ve waited 2,000 years for the Messiah to arrive. We’ve waited 2,000 years for this book to be written. He was here. The Final Testament of the Holy Bible is the story of his life.
So what has James Frey to do with Ross Douthat’s thesis about Bad Religion? Well, for starters, James Frey has been a controversial guest on Oprah’s popular TV program and, here and elsewhere, has created more than his share of culture-wide debate. Further, his writing has a great deal to do with Ross Douthat’s thesis if you understand one of the major points Douthat makes in his book, Bad Religion (2012). Douthat believes that Christianity was able to establish orthodox belief and practice because, among other things, it clearly and strongly rejected the kind of sexual individualism that we now embrace. In it’s place, early Christians created a matrix of standard sexual practice that became normative for those inside the church. The modern era has created a new problem, one that challenges the church in a way that the ancient era did not. The ancient church saw itself as standing outside the culture, thus creating a separate community, a community of the baptized rooted in the radical teachings of Jesus. The modern Western church faces the most profound challenge to this matrix of belief and practice in all of Christian history.
The very popular God Within writer Donald Walsch says God’s only specific sexual commandment is that “no action involving another may be taken without the other’s agreement and permission” (Bad Religion, 237). Another central thesis of the modern culture and church is that “some forms of promiscuity may well be wrong, but that a strong emotional attachment, whether in or out of marriage, is enough to elevate sex from ‘casual’ to licit. Undergirding both of these standards are two deeper assumptions. First, that the urge to have sex is both irresistible and more fundamental to personal identity than other impulses and appetites. Second, that the act of sex itself is basically a small thing, a little spasm of delight which an all-powerful God can’t possible care that much about, at least so long as you’re a kind and charitable person whose heart is fundamentally in the right place” (Bad Religion, 238).
So back to the controversial best-selling author James Frey. Frey says that Jesus Christ himself would teach us [if we read him correctly into our day] that “Love and laughter and fucking are what make life better. God doesn’t care what we say or who we fuck or what we do with our bodies or who we love or who we marry” (cited by Douthat, Bad Religion, 238).
I am sure that this kind of statement is shocking to many Christians who just read the words above. But their shock factor must not be lost in understanding what is plainly going on around us. These bombastic words of Frey’s chillingly express an all too common view held by many of our peers, peers both in and out of the church. Douthat says this stance is extraordinary precisely because “in the context of basic moral reasoning and simple common sense . . . almost nothing human beings do in life is freighted with as many potential consequences, and above all, the world-altering consequence of creating an entirely new human life” (Bad Religion, 239).
What is needed is not a revival of prudishness or sexism but a deeper respect for human sexuality, a respect that is missing in much of our modern religious practice. Fidelity and continence are hard sayings in any culture but in our present context they place extraordinarily difficult demands on almost everyone.
What has this to do with heresy and bad religion? Our religiosity, argues Douthat, is real enough but our piety doesn’t come near our actual numerical and emotional profession of that religion. America has some of the most liberal divorce laws in the developed world yet our divorce rate remains very high. We “sentimentalize the family more than certain cultures, yet we also have one of the highest rates of unwed births” (Bad Religion, 239).
Philip Rieff predicted, more than four decades ago, that a therapeutic culture, and the kind of religion that will support it, will (in the end) weaken human relationships and kill true friendship. This is “roughly what’s been happening” says Douthat (Bad Religion, 240). I completely agree.
In the final paragraph of chapter seven Douthat concludes:
The result is a nation where gurus and therapists have filled the roles once occupied by spouses and friends, and where professional caregivers minister, like seraphim around the throne, to the needs of people taught from infancy to look inside themselves for God. Therapeutic religion promises contentment, but in many cases it seems to deliver a sort of isolation that’s at once comfortable and terrible–leaving us alone with the universe, alone with God Within (Bad Religion, (241).