The Messiah of Morris Avenue couldn’t have arrived at a better time. With the country sinking into theocratic rule under a right-wing government more and more each day, Tony Hendra’s timely novel tells the fable of a real messiah who comes back to preach peace, love and tolerance, and who ends up pretty much hated by those who claimed to love him most the first time around.
When Jesus returns to earth as a big Hispanic guy from a poor neighborhood, a guy who can heal people and make miracles happen, he is not well received by those who call themselves real “Christians.” In fact, he is vilified, hated even hunted down by right-wing fundamentalist fanatics with the backing of the government, which has by this time become a full theocracy run by fundies and their financiers. Jose (or Jay, as he is lovingly called by his growing legion of followers) is a good guy with a big heart and the gift of the divine shining through him. Only what he is preaching as he quietly moves across the nation doesn’t sit well with those who make war and worship money, and Jay becomes both a media sensation and a target for execution. His main enemies are the government and the most powerful man in the country, a born-again “reverend” with more sins in his closet than Imelda had shoes.
But the story really centers on the man who tries to tell Jay’s story: the narrator, a reporter trying to remake his career and his life who ultimately betrays this new savior, albeit unwittingly. Hendra, who also wrote the bestselling Father Joe and once served as editor of National Lampoon and Spy Magazine, infuses scathing social commentary and tongue-in-cheek humor into his story of salvation and damnation as he skewers the religious right and the media and shows just how “unholy” most holy-rollers truly are. In Hendra’s new America, right-wing Christians have banned sex for pleasure, changed Hollywood to Holywood, and literally rewritten all laws to reflect Biblical interpretation. And anyone who does not go along is imprisoned, or worse. All in the name of Jesus, of course.
Jay and his followers are clear parallels of Christ and his disciples, and the narrator plays the modern-day Judas, proving that if the Second Coming were to occur now, most people who claim to be Christians would not recognize a humble guy preaching an end to war, peace, love and tolerance for everyone, gays and AIDS victims included. What makes matters worse is that Jay, who claims he indeed is Jesus reborn, talks about God as a WOMAN. Honey, hush! That about drives the final nail into his cross in a nation seething with patriarchy.
That is what is so revelatory about this novel. It reveals just how hypocritical and hateful many of our government and religious leaders are, and how their followers behave more like cult members than thinking, reasoning, feeling humans. Here comes a guy who does nothing but good, spreads nothing but love, makes those who come near him feel nothing but utter inner peace…and he is put at the top of the terrorist watch list. Go figure.
The Messiah of Morris Avenue is one of those books you will never forget and will want to tell your friends about. It haunts you, and so does Jay, because we all really could use a leader like him right about now. Then again, he probably wouldn’t last a week in this brave new world.