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The Messiah of Morris Avenue cover The Messiah of Morris Avenue by Tony Hendra

Henry Holt hardcover - 245 pages
Copyright 2006
Cover photo by Sam Bassett

Book reviewed April 2006

Rating: 2/10  (Not Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          The Messiah of Morris Avenue tells of the second coming of Jesus Christ, from the point of view of a skeptical reporter covering the story.  The reporter expresses alarm as he begins to realize this new messiah is not a charlatan, for he says it is much more difficult to write a positive news story than to write a story tearing someone down.  I suspect this is true.  I know I find it much easier to write a negative book review than to explain what makes a very good book work.

Unfortunately, this is going to be an easy review to write.  Tony Hendra, a former editor at Spy and National Lampoon magazines, intended The Messiah of Morris Avenue as a satire of religious conservatives, but it is not funny and has no interesting points to make.

The story takes place in the near future, after fundamentalist religious conservatives, led by the Reverend James Sabbath, have taken complete control of the United States, squelching all opposition by criminalizing blasphemy, i.e., anything they disagree with.  First person narrator Johnny Greco is a former Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times who is out of place in this new America.  He despises the country's leaders and is anxious to find a story to undermine their power.  Incidentally, his narrative makes no bones about this motive - apparently Tony Hendra is in full agreement with conservatives who believe New York Times reporters write with the conscious goal of furthering a political agenda.

Greco finds a big story indeed: the second coming of Christ, in the form of Josť Francisco Kennedy of the Bronx - that's right, JFK is now a literal, not just figurative, deity.  Josť, Jay to his friends, rides around in his beat-up minivan (the answer to the question, "What would Jesus drive?") with his disciples, performing minor miracles and dispensing insipid slogans: the Rapture is "Crapture"; "Without love, the Ten Commandments are mere regulations."  God has sent Her (more on that later) only son back to earth to counsel us to watch less television and vote for Democrats.  Jay is not intended as a comic figure, mind you, but is Hendra's earnest vision of a modern-day Jesus.

There is no real characterization here and little plot, aside from the obligatory reenactment of portions of the New Testament, with Christian evangelicals standing in for the Romans.  Hendra is not interested in storytelling, he is just looking to lampoon the religious right, as he did in the 1980's with The Book of Bad Virtues, a parody of Bill Bennett's Book of Virtues.  But in The Book of Bad Virtues, Hendra's primary goal was to be funny, and he succeeded.  In The Messiah of Morris Avenue, his primary goal is to club his readers half to death with his political views.  As a result, the humor of The Messiah of Morris Avenue is flat, contrived, and just plain not funny.  Well, rarely funny - I have to admit I laughed at the Reverend Sabbath's inspirational video of his vision of Jesus: a giant Lieutenant Christ in camos, swatting fighter planes like King Kong and mowing down abortionists with His enormous machine gun.

Ironically, by sacrificing humor and story in favor of his political message, Hendra ends up making that message much less effective.  Hendra is hardly the first person to be concerned about the prospect of a Christian theocracy gaining sway in this country.  Expressing this fear through a bigoted fictionalized George W. Bush will persuade no one to his way of thinking; it merely shows Hendra's disdain for those who disagree with him.  At one point, Hendra claims through his first-person narrator to have "avoided the carping contempt with which most of my co-politicals discuss anything to do with Christianity."  I doubt anyone to the right of him on the political spectrum will agree.

I should disclose here that I am no doubt more conservative than Hendra, but I am no apologist for the religious right.  For instance, I cannot fathom the religious right's approbation of discrimination against gays, nor its reluctance for children to learn basic principles of science.  The problem with The Messiah of Morris Avenue is not that I disagree with Hendra's political views, it's that Hendra expresses those views in such an unartful, unoriginal, unconvincing way.

I sure wouldn't want our country to become a theocracy, but Hendra is remarkably ineffective at demonstrating why that would be a bad thing.  He shows journalists in the future having to slant their news coverage, but they already do that today.  He shows Hollywood (renamed Holywood) conforming to ideological norms with the result that blockbuster movies are all terrible, but they're terrible already.

The only way Hendra ever satirizes the ideas of Christian fundamentalists - rather than just how silly he thinks they look - is by having the Reverend Sabbath denounce all sex, even between spouses, that isn't strictly for the purpose of procreation.  Sadly, Hendra does nothing with this concept except to make the snide and tiresome insinuation that Sabbath is a latent homosexual.  For a far, far better treatment of the same idea, see James Morrow's "Auspicious Eggs", in his collection The Cat's Pajamas.  While you're at it, check out Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter, a much superior treatment of the second coming.  James Morrow is no less irreverent than Tony Hendra, but he expresses his irreverence in more interesting ways and he is a better storyteller.

Hendra mocks not just religious conservatives, but all conservatives and Republicans, except that he allows his narrator grudging respect for one "Lincolnesque Republican" who acknowledges the "thinly-veiled racism of his co-conservatives."  In one scene, we watch President Bernard Bee Sparrow make plans with his advisors to bomb Israel, as a bizarre pretext for then invading Europe.  The President waves away any concerns about the Israelis because they're a "buncha Christ-killers!"  Does this make a point?  Perhaps that Hendra believes there is no limit to the evil ambitions of neoconservatives - never mind that no one who has opened a newspaper in recent memory could possibly believe that the Republicans are the party hostile to Israel.  Is it funny?  I suppose some ultraliberals already convinced that conservatives are all rotten to the core may be amused, just as some ultraconservatives chuckle at Rush Limbaugh calling feminists "feminazis."  But anyone who recognizes that intelligent people can disagree about politics will find very little in The Messiah of Morris Avenue to laugh about or to think about.

The only thing distinctive about Hendra's political rants is that he stuffs many of them into the mouth of Jesus Christ.  It turns out that Jesus believes capitalism is immoral.  (P&L "can stand for peace and love or profit and loss.  But not both," He says.)  Jesus is for socialized medicine.  Jesus supports gay rights.  Jesus, I kid you not, thinks that the Trinity is a sexist concept.  I'm no expert in Christian theology, but I rather doubt that the New Testament supports this Jesus's notion that his Father created the universe but his Mother watches over it.

          The way Hendra invokes Jesus is not irony; it is hypocrisy.  By having Jesus push his own vapid religious philosophy and claiming that Jesus is on his side of all his pet political issues, Hendra is doing exactly what he denounces Christian evangelicals for doing.  Hendra's depiction of what Jesus would say if he were here today is every bit as arrogant, presumptuous, and unpersuasive as the worst of the Bible-thumpers he criticizes.
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Copyright © 2006 Aaron Hughes

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Links to other Tony Hendra reviews, articles, and websites:
Tony Hendra - Wikipedia
january magazine: Excerpt from The Messiah of Morris Avenue by Tony Hendra - THE MESSIAH OF MORRIS AVENUE by Tony Hendra

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