All Testaments are Final, but Some are More Final than Others

19 September, 2011

This week on the Reading Rest I have a novel.

James Frey: The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. John Murray, London 2011.

Having spent a considerable part of my childhood in a Catholic school, run in accord with God’s Good Order (light)— fees accordingly were high and non-believers welcome, we weren’t even sexually harassed—a spring book called the Final Testament of the Holy Bible (FTHB) is exactly what’s needed a sunny weekend: again to contemplate Christianity in a deckchair, in a protected corner of your garden and wrapped in a dark blue rug perfectly absorbing the sun rays. As a final testament, implying that the other ones are fiction too, its structure, simple sentences, large types, short lines with ragged endings and the utopian liberation by love in whatever form possible, matches the world of its New York drop-out subjects and presumptive readers. And we who have read testaments before, but never been close to the day and age, when they were lived as events and understood to be testamental, are as comfortable with the distance as ever. Predictably, orthodox believers, such as tea-partying Christians, have not been beyond words in their reactions. Some, as usual are outraged and offended by finality and filth, others, weathering their phobic minds, sourly comment that Frey ’steers clear of muslims’—forgetting that ’the Final Testament’, i.e. the Quran, was always final. It’s the never-ending series of Christian testaments that meets eye. Luckily they prompt the final again and again. Not surprisingly, the novel is critical of ‘all the leaders of all the various sects and denominations, anyone on earth who thinks there is one God with the power to know all and judge all. They are all wrong’ (p. 319) – that kind of Muslims too. FTHB is a typical American novel and a good one, easy to read; disturbing and witty and as author-centred as they come.

In the autumn, commenting upon FTHB from the archaeologist’s point of view is not equally rewarding. It is a rather autumnal matter, a need to look at the links of a piece of the present to the long-term perspectives of urbanism and material culture. (Cultural historians can always read down a piece of good literature to complacency).

The meaningless, but keenly observed materiality of the city and people seen as things, is the starting point of the first chapters when the alienated bystanders or future followers of Ben Zion tell us of their first recollections of him as part of an environment, one of many living objects.

It is a sure sign of crisis, especially to politicians and authorities, when the dynamics of urban life are irresistibly focussing on the materiality of the urban rather than on interaction in a linguistic space taking place in a material setting. When objects, matter and materiality are allowed to take over, the urban dynamics takes over as well, they grow and become much less predictable because the possible meaning of the material contexts grows where it belongs, beyond moderation e.g. by verbal expression or a wish to communicate in other ways than by observation and non-verbal action. Not that actions aren’t telling.

Some rulers understand the dynamics of materiality and thus the necessity to strike against it with material agency. As soon protesters struck out and metaphorized the abstract construction on ‘Pearl Square’ to signify uplifting support, solidarity, unity, as well as democracy and civil rights, it was destroyed – struck down by rulers with a fearful and outraged semi-divine attitude to the materiality of their own creations. They adhered to the dynamics of a material understanding, which says that a deceitful monument (deceitful because it became a significant image of more than intended) must be hunted down and destroyed. It goes without saying that the image of a human being may be dangerously significant and transformed to signify almost anything. (For more than a decade I have known a land cruiser called Omar Muhtar supporting the present Libyan civil war, and the clans of Cyrenaica.) Still it is quite amazing that a concrete ball in a roundabout in Bahrein could so easily become a symbol of everything Bahrein ought to be. In view of such urban dynamics cleansing was obviously necessary – (On Gooogle, pictures, there are 19.000.000 picture hits to ‘Pearl Square’ and only 229.000 to the correct ‘Pearl Rundabout’. This colonial truth mirrors the western fact that a revolution must start in a square, not in a roundabout. ‘Roundabout’ nevertheless is very much to the point when it comes to describing the characteristics of the present revolutions).

When the dynamism of the material escalates beyond destruction, the verbal may be used to deceive. It happened when the bleeding boy in London was ‘helped’, first comforted by speech, then robbed in order for the agency of his robbing to become significant as action and a material metaphor of the dynamics of the urban mind. In fact everyone in the scene was transformed to an object – moving and non-moving, thugs, voyeurs and victim..

Interaction in the centre of a small university town: pompous buildings, lawns, bikes and conversing students. No iron-witted fools and unrespective boys to be seen anywhere.

The reason why there are so few dynamic riots in small university towns is the stability of their urban landscape and the dominant linguistic interaction taking place on their urban scenes. In such environments one may quote and refer to the Allegory of Love by C S Lewis even today, as well as to any religious variety of the phenomenon and its practitioners. That wouldn’t do in James Frey’s New York where material dynamics changing the urban landscape by construction, a ‘forty stories of steel frame rising’, supplies the factor, a glass panel hitting Ben Zion from the 34th floor, that calls him forth as God, Messiah, Son and Prophet. (chp ‘Charles’).

In JF’s New York, the actual love actually, rather than the abundant abuse is the only way out. (Some critics are appalled, but denying a Christian congregation in the making of the necessary carnal love is simply not fair) The abundant abuse makes it obvious that there is no possible reformation of the city, only people can be redeemed. When cities fail, when the urban community cannot resist the effects of its own material dynamism, radical critique is a necessary step. Usually, and not only when it comes to Christianity, radical critique of the urban mind and the expressions of urban life is a matter of moving out into the countryside to remodel yourself according to a new standard and indeed a new Good Order. The Christian critique of the Late Antique city is model. It was led by Christian men who despised life in towns and cities. They turned hermits and started to preach in the desert developing a new Christianity later nursed in monasteries before it went back victorious into the city with a new symbiotic order that made Church and City early medieval(1). In FTHB, the country chapters probably remind readers of a sectarian green community experience rather than 3-4th century CE criticism of the urban. That’s the easy way out and it doesn’t work.

Predictably, speech, i.e. meaningful conversation and reflection, makes progress during most of the book. But it takes a leap forward when Judith from upstate NY on her yearly visit to town meets Ben. Judith owns a farm ‘overrun with weeds and little baby trees’ and she has something radical to say: leave the city come and live on my farm. The country is full of decrepit houses and small towns with crumbling factories and closed and boarded shops. Churches, liquor stores, gun shops and the odd gas station still work and nobody seems to be working. Out here radical reform takes place and the new community is born. The children will follow and Ben, having created this new order, returns invincible to finish his mission.

Being archaeologists the past has already taught us that returning to the city is nothing we can chose to do or not to do. Returning to the urban is a must because that is where the dynamism is. Since the dynamism of the urban is triggered by the materiality the city, a city can never be reformed by any final testament. The quality of the urban, moreover, is the dynamism of the city itself – even when we think that dynamism goes out of hand.

There is something very final, and something very testament, about the dynamism of urbanity.


(1) In the publication The Urban Mind — Cultural and environmental Dynamics. Uppsala 2010  Mats Eskhult, pp 311-328, and Eva Baliska-Witakowska, pp 329-366, describe the the Christian attitude to the city during the Late Antiquity.


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