The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey

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The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: The Messiah, Ben, is in modern day New York promoting liberal views and arguing against organised religion. Well written and interesting structure let down by a lack of substance and innovation to the Messiah's arguments. Fans of Dawkins and the 1960s will enjoy the message though.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: April 2011
Publisher: John Murray
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1848543171

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The Rabbis say that all the signs are there from the birth of Ben Zion Avrohom that he is the Messiah. That's a lot of anyone to cope with and, like Jesus, there's much of Ben's early life that is untold here. When he is involved in an horrific accident on a building site that he miraculously survives, albeit with terrible scarring, the prophecies appear to be true. He develops a form of epilepsy during which he appears to speak to God. He is fluent in ancient languages despite never learning them, knows all the Holy books by heart and yet distains all forms of religion, instead spreading his message of love to all who meet him in modern day New York.

As a rule, a book should be judged solely on its own merits without reference to the person who wrote it. Yet here the publishers fill the cover blurb with statements about Frey himself. He has, we are told, himself been called a 'saviour. A revolutionary, A genius' as well as 'a liar. A cheat, A con man'. To many a British reader, the furore surrounding Frey seems a bit overblown but the fact remains that, these days, he comes with a lot of 'baggage' and preconceptions. Since the publishers concentrate on this, it is perhaps on, this occasion, worth considering the background to the book.

I say that British readers think it's overblown because in the UK we don't place such faith in the supreme being and judge of all that is good. By that, of course, I mean Oprah. In 2003 Frey wrote an 'autobiography'. It was very good. Oprah loved it. Then it was revealed that some of the 'facts' were at least a little stretched. Oprah got mad. When Oprah gets mad, Americans, it seems take action. Publishers dropped Frey and he became something of a pariah, branded a liar and who knows what else. The fact that Frey is a gifted and interesting writer was worth nothing it seemed. That's the gist of the background. Presumably taking the line that 'you may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb' Frey here turns his focus on the lamb that is the Holy Lamb of God and has a pop at religious beliefs in general. Again, in the UK, we are less subject to the Christian Right that dominates swathes of the US, but even so, Frey is no longer afraid of controversy although perhaps the conceit that he knows what it is to suffer for his art like Jesus did is a little nauseating.

So, is the book any good? Well, in parts, yes it is. However, let me qualify that slightly by saying that at least some of strong religious beliefs will find something to offend them here, if not in the story itself, which features a Messiah who practices free love with both men and women, then in the layout which is all justified hard left to look, well, like a Bible or other Holy book. He also pretty much distains all religious belief, although he tends to focus on Christianity and avoids Islam, perhaps on legal advice? If that's likely to offend, then my advice would be to avoid it. Then there's the fairly fruity language that pervades passages - Matthew (yes chapters are named after the characters who speak them, including Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Ruth, ... well you get the idea) is particularly given to the f-word.

I approached the book expecting to either love or hate it but in fact, I never hated it and indeed I started off by loving it. The different narrators for each chapter to tell the story is carried off with aplomb and I remain of the view that Frey is a talented writer. Personally, I was never offended by the central argument, but that will depend on your own belief system. But what I did find, which was unexpected, was that by around half way through, it actually started to bore me. Judith's chapter, an over-weight and unloved woman who becomes a follower, and which in fact has one of the largest page counts, was by far the least interesting.

The reason for this is that his Messiah, Ben's solution is that we should all just love one another and, if possible have sex with one another and then it will all be OK or if not, at least we'll have had a good time in the process. That's hardly a new position (no pun intended) to take. The 1960s anyone? John Lennon? It ends up as being little more than a hippy manifesto and apart from the fact that he appears to glow, has strange epileptic episodes and survived a bad accident, there's little to suggest why people would listen to Gentle Ben.

I loved the idea of each chapter told from different people's perspectives (we never get Ben's). But there's too much of a whole at the centre in the form of Ben. It's more of a wholly book than a Holy book. Yes, fans of Richard Dawkins may well appreciate the denouncing of organised religion but Ben doesn't suggest anything terribly radical or inspiring as an alternative. All he has are some liberal beliefs, which to be fair to Frey, might be more controversial in the US than in the UK.

Of course, this is where we came in. The publisher's concentration on the so-called traits of the man (Frey) are what we tend to focus on rather than the message. I suspect it's all part of the point. Frey is nothing if not highly intelligent and he has a strong sense of self and understanding of the power of publicity. It is, after all, what has threatened his career as a writer. It's tempting to quote Monty Python at this point and say that 'he's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy', but while Frey is clearly having fun with his naughty image, the fact remains that he is a genuinely innovative and talented writer. I just wished he had more to say.

Our thanks to the good people at John Murray for inviting The Bookbag to review James Frey's latest offering.

For more recent fictional challenging of religion, you might also enjoy 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Goldstein. You might also appreciate The Music Room by William Fiennes or The Instructions by Adam Levin although we weren't keen on that one.

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Buy The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey at


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