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The Messiah of Morris Avenue
Tony Hendra
Henry Holt and Company, 248 pages

The Messiah of Morris Avenue
Tony Hendra
Tony Hendra, born in 1941, is an English satirist and writer, who has worked mostly in the United States. He was a member of the Cambridge University Footlights revue in 1962, alongside the likes of John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor, and moved to America a few years later, where he became one of the founding editors of National Lampoon magazine in 1970. In the early 80s, Hendra helped create the British television puppet show Spitting Image. Hendra also edited Spy Magazine for a period in the 90s. His most notable acting role was in This Is Spinal Tap, as the band's manager, Ian Faith.

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

…When Jesus come to town, all the working folks around
Believed what he did say
But the bankers and the preachers, they nailed Him on the cross,
And they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

And the people held their breath when they heard about his death
Everybody wondered why
It was the big landlord and the soldiers that they hired
To nail Jesus Christ in the sky…

Woody Guthrie, Jesus Christ

The thesis of Tony Hendra's The Messiah of Morris Avenue is essentially that of Guthrie's revisionist folkie socialist take on the Gospels -- that Jesus was some sort of ahead-of-his-time Marxist revolutionary threat to the ruling class that resorted to crucifixion to retain the status quo. In Hendra's version, Jesus is an Hispanic (which, given the historical Jesus' racial makeup presents an accurate dark skinned portrayal at odds with some modern whitebread depictions) named José Francisco Kennedy. Yeah, that's right, JFK, an allusion to another martyr mythologized by various causes for their own agendas, the facts notwithstanding.

I'm unsure whether this reference is Hendra's way of pointing out how history is distorted by a leader's followers or this is some sort of ham-handed way of equating the real JFK with Jesus. (There's also a "Fort Oswald" where the unrepentant receive their just due, as the slogan on the 150-foot rotating cross reveals "Christ died for your sins! Now it's your turn!") If the latter, it is a highly questionable analogy. If nothing else, the actual JFK got laid a lot more and, to be more serious, approving assassination of foreign leaders isn't particularly Christ-like. Nor is there any evidence behind the crackpot conspiracy theory that the military industrial complex killed Kennedy because he wanted to get out of Vietnam. So, let's assume that the point here is the distortion of history by forces with not always benevolent motivations. Indeed, Jay explains that the reason for his return isn't to herald the Apocalypse -- which he says isn't going to happen and was never part of his teachings -- but to "refresh the message."

Here are some examples of the "Sayings of Jay" as recorded by a member of the new set of disciples calling themselves the Apostle Posse: "Selfishness is behind every kind of inhumanity. It's this country's worst failing. USA stands for United Selves of America... The homeless guy you gave a quarter to while you were gabbing on your cell phone? He'll be in paradise long before you." You get the idea. The hip-talking Jesus also has some new revelations, such as that evolution is cool and part of God's divine plan, the Bible has errors in it, and the true trinity deletes the Holy Ghost for a New Age familial unit of Father, Mother and Son. Needless to say, this kind of stuff pisses off the power brokers, particularly when Jay says that "Christianity is unrecognizable to me." Thus, history is doomed to repeat itself.

It's not giving away anything that the narrator -- a fallen cynic, onetime legitimate journalist Johnny Greco -- is fated to be Jay's Judas (we know this from the prologue, and besides, we all know how the original story goes). The Pharisees this time are played by fundamentalist, right wing Christianity in the person of the Reverend James Sabbath. This character serves to illustrate how Hendra's satire goes from being spot on to something that makes you wince. Consider the name itself: "James" simultaneously connotes the "official" authoritative King James version of the Bible as well as that fundamentalist preachers often have names like "Jimmy." But "Sabbath" is a bit pedestrian and obvious. That said, Hendra could easily have resorted to caricature in hitting an easy target, but does something more nuanced. Sabbath isn't simply a money-grabbing hypocritical charlatan out to empower himself, not Jim Bakker but Jerry Falwell (though I personally find the latter more scary). Rather, James Sabbath is a "true believer" who sees Jay not as a threat to his power base, but as the Anti-Christ opposed to God as Sabbath has always understood it. It's not a matter of good versus evil, but truth from misconception.

This nice touch is unfortunately counterbalanced by such treatments as Hendra's thinly veiled depiction of the Bush administration and an unthinking inclination to go to war. So, Bush is dumb and the generals are looking for an excuse to blow things up. This is just taking pot shots; even if deserved, it isn't particularly incisively funny or original. But, then again, there are some other very funny bits, particularly if, like me, you've ever lived in New Jersey or been in the news business.

While Hendra's parable strains to make theologically simplistic points -- this is the Jesus Christ Superstar take on theology rooted in the mid-nineteenth century rejection of Calvinism popularized by Henry Ward Beecher -- I don't think the intention here is to be inspirational, at least in the sense of promoting a "radical reimagination" (even if it's been done before) of Jesus Christ. Like most satirists, Hendra is aiming at something higher than just getting laughs. The story is less a humorous take about the return of Jesus as it is the affirmation of the narrator's difficult and uncertain return to belief. Which I imagine reflects Hendra's own state of affairs.

Hendra is a "returned" Catholic whose last book, Father Joe, was a memoir of the Benedictine monk who inspired his return to the faith, though perhaps a faith that differs from papal doctrine. Indeed, one minor character in The Messiah of Morris Avenue is the archetypical Irish priest, Father Michael Duffy, popular with the poor people of his parish even as he alienates the Church hierarchy. As the good Father puts it: "Anything real is a threat to the Church... The Church has made the wrong decision about every crisis they've faced for the last fifty years. Why would they spoil a perfect record doing the right thing about José?" It also can't be helped to note that Hendra himself has first hand experience in differing interpretations of what actually happened in the past -- he has been accused of molestation by his grown child in her own memoir, How to Cook Your Daughter.

Barring any hard evidence, one way or the other, it ultimately comes down to whom you choose to believe. Which is the point Hendra makes. As Jay himself says, "It's all about belief, Johnny, helping people believe. Belief is incredibly hard."

The problem with this is it never explains why it has to be hard, why any God would require it as some sort of prerequisite for acceptance. Which is where the liberal and conservative wings of Christianity tend to butt heads. Hendra is clearly on the left end of the dial. But, to his credit, perhaps because he knows how hard it is to believe, he recognizes that it isn't always enough to believe. That faith may not be enough. But it may be a start.

If he had only left it for the reader to figure that out, instead of tacking on the cliché genre ending of "The End... And the Beginning." At which point the reader is no doubt supposed to say, "Wow, heavy, man!"

If you're really looking for substantive theological satire, check out James Morrow's God trilogy, or Jonathan Swift, for that matter. Or even the famous Lenny Bruce bit about what happens when Jesus and Moses visit Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and Cardinal John Joseph O'Connor at St. Patrick's Cathedral. But, hey, while The Messiah of Main Street may not be the more challenging "King James version," even in the vernacular it has its moments.

Copyright © 2006 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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