A Novel Messiah
An interview with Tony Hendra, author of The Messiah of Morris Avenue
It is 2016 and America, led by President Sparrow 3 (the third member of his family to hold the office), is now an established theocracy. The Academy Awards are now faith-based and are broadcast from Grauman’s Christian Theater in the newly christened “Holywood.” The news has been reduced to rumor and gossip and an overwhelming number of Americans are certain that the Second Coming is imminent.
Such is the satiric (and unsettling) backdrop for The Messiah of Morris Avenue the first novel by author/satirist/actor Tony Hendra. In it, Hendra imagines a world in which the Second Coming may in fact be occurring in the person of Jose Francisco Lorcan Kennedy, a 29-year old Hispanic/Irish-American from a poor neighborhood in the Bronx. Jay, as his friends call him, is hardly what American Christians have been expecting and Messiah tells his story through the eyes of Johnny Greco, a world-weary reporter whose career is on a downward spiral.
Hendra’s credentials as a satirist and actor are well-established. His resume includes stints as an editor for National Lampoon and Spy as well as his portrayal of Spinal Taps’ manager Ian Faith in the legendary film This is Spinal Tap. But it was his moving spiritual memoir, Fr. Joe, about his longtime friendship with a Benedictine monk that landed Hendra on the New York Times bestseller list a little over two years ago.
Hendra recently dropped by our podcast studio to talk about The Messiah of Morris Avenue and how the America he depicts in 2016 might not be that far-fetched a reality.
BusteHalo: You’ve written a number of books and appeared in movies, what was it like doing your first novel?
Tony Hendra: Well there are several answers to that. But the simple writer’s one is that I thought it would be relatively easy in the sense that as a satirist, I’ve spent most of my life writing fiction. I mean satire deals with what I like to call “super facts”, which are really great lies that get at truth quicker than the facts do. So, I thought it would be quite easy to fictionalize this story and the other thing is that the premise of it is a very simple premise that I thought would work itself out nicely. But I found out as one always finds out with books, you don’t write them, they write you. Once I got into this character, the Messiah, it became necessary for him not to become only a satiric device, although the book is in some ways a satirical book. But he had to be a flesh and blood creation and that actually became the chief challenge of the book. I must have written about five times before it was actually published. It was much, much more difficult than I expected.
BH: Well, the last time we spoke in June 2004 you had some inklings of what the next book would be. But how much of this was inspired by the 2004 election?
TH: Well, you put your finger on it. It really was the spectacle of these guys preening over a victory they basically attributed to their Christian values. It struck me then–it obviously struck me before this–that for some reason just how far those Christian values were from the one’s that Father Joe [taught me]. And it seemed to me that this was a great thing to write about. But not as everyone else was in a non-fiction way but instead in a fiction way. To cast it as a sort of giant parable if you like and to have in a putative theocracy. In other words in my book the simple premise is that the Christian right, as we call it, which is neither Christian nor right (laughter), it’s about 10 years in the future and America is effectively established as a theocracy. And obviously what holds this together, and indeed what holds a lot of the fundamentalist right together, is that these are the end times and that Christ is most certainly on his way, maybe as soon as next Tuesday. But the important part of that is that the Christ that they expect is this retributive Christ. It’s sort of Lieutenant Christ, USMC who’s going to return with gigantic fire power and kill billions of Pat Robertson’s enemies, starting with Susan Sarandon. But it’s kind of faith-based genocide, this gigantic blood bath. So into this putative society come this person who might just be the Messiah but he is more dissimilar than the Christ expected by the leaders of the theocracy.
BH: You call the new messiah Jay throughout the book. While there’s an element where he is a satiric device element to what he does but how long did it take for him to become a multi-dimensional character?
TH: Well, it actually took a long time. And the crucial chapter was where this jaded sort of journalist named Johnny Greco who is like the gospel writer finally meets Jay face to face. It’s chapter eleven and it was definitely the most difficult chapter of all. I mean in part, like I said, this was a satirical device and not one I’m unfamiliar with. And the interesting thing, for me anyway, is as a satirist, I have quite often returned to this premise that Christ returns to expose the hypocrisy, the new Pharisees is you will. In fact at the Lampoon we wrote several different versions of the Christ story, which we needn’t go into. So this is a premise that is very dear to me, but this time I had to write it for real.
BH: And you had to write it after Father Joe. After you were already publicly known.
TH: What this character really forced me to do was that first of all I had to make him a really real person. And I think he is a real person. He comes from the Bronx. He played varsity basketball in high school. He wears a hoodie. He drives an old battered GM van. I mean, he’s a very ordinary flesh and blood American male of the 21st century. But what I really had to do and this was the difficult part, that I had to examine what I actually believed to be what Christ teaches. I have to say that although I’m a practicing Catholic, which I like to constantly point out means, I need a lot of practice. It isn’t easy for me to accept everything that the church teaches, as I’m sure it is for many people, as doctrine. Especially as a returning Catholic that spent many years in the wilderness. Um, it has been very difficult for me to decide what I believe as a Catholic. And on the other side of the coin is what I would like the return Christ to say, should he return. In other words, what defects are there in the current spread of dogma that need addressing. And so these two categories of things were very difficult to pin down. But I think in the end I arrived at something that is close to what I believe or what I would like to believe. Let’s leave it at that.
BH: How much in your research for this did you make use of the Left Behind series. Did you have to go into it and read about them?
TH: Actually that pre-dated the conception of this book. I have been sort of yakking and ranting about the Left Behind series for quite some time. You know, liberal left rants. And saying, this is a phenomenon that is truly, truly dangerous in the culture and you need to be more aware of it because they’ve sold 80 million copies. Once you start examining, even though they’re supposed to be fiction, the subtext–which isn’t very subtle–you begin to realize what literally scores of Americans say to each other. One good example is in the Left Behind books, which are supposed to be set in the last days, in other words, now. It truly is the conviction. Fundamentalist preachers preach on this every Sunday. That the end times are not only with us, but that every single bad thing that happens, whether it be Katrina or the tsunami are all wonderful signs to be welcomed that the world is coming to an end. And that is perhaps is why a lot was not done about Katrina because a lot of people go, Well this is good news. So, that’s one kind of attitude. And the other is that since it’s the end times the anti-Christ is rising and taking over the world so that we are ready for this climactic battle when Christ returns. In the Left Behind books, the anti-Christ is the Secretary General of the United Nations. And he’s not only Secretary General of the United Nations, but this also helps prove he is the anti-Christ, his great goal is peace.
I read these books fairly soon after the third or fourth came out, and they’ve been coming out for years, and I was just amazed and horrified, staggered by this. And it isn’t really fiction. A lot of people believe that this is what is going to happen.
BH: Any other inspirations?
TH: The other [research] was really reading, or re-reading in some cases the pre-cursors of this. Like the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers’ Karamazov and Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ, which is actually a fascinating re-telling of the Christ story. It’s not a modern re-telling but from a different point of view. One of the really interesting things it espouses is that Judas and Jesus were indeed, as these new Judas books are saying, colluding on the act of betrayal. And there were several other books of that kind that were intriguing to read.
BH: You have a very frightened view of what’s come down the pike so far. Has there been much response to this satire where you are clearly taking aim at something as popular as the Left Behind books?
TH: Well, there have been some rather weird responses. To tell you the truth I haven’t been approached by CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) to promote the book. But I’ve been in the south and done some radio shows there to promote the book. And I was in one in particular that sounded like fairly rural Georgia, the sort of opening of my usual pitch, as author’s call it, is that the landscape of America has changed. The Ten Commandments are everywhere. The Supreme Court is now the Supreme Court under God. American Idol has been charged with idolatry. And there are federal statutes against blasphemy, sodomy, and witchcraft. So, I paint this picture. And usually with most people, there are one-liners in there are there are a few chuckles. So, this very nice friendly sort of guy listened to this without a single reaction. And he then started to praise my book, although he admitted he hadn’t read it. And it took me about a minute to realize that this guy saw this vision as a wonderful, utopian vision. It was the future he expected. And that was pretty scary. I didn’t quite know how to continue the interview.
BH: I know you talked a lot in Father Joe about how humor was a big part of your faith and even Fr. Joe helped you to see that. Can you talk a little bit about that and writing The Messiah of Morris Avenue?
TH: I think one of the most popular chapters in Father Joe and certainly one of the most pivotal for me was when I talk to him about the nature of satire. What satire is, what it does, and what it does to the people who practice it. And although there are a lot of laughs in that chapter, it actually has a serious purpose. Which that series of conversations did. He made me realize that there is an enormous amount of assumed lack of charity behind satire. That you don’t even know that damage you could be doing. Now with some people I don’t think that’s a real big problem. But it raises some moral questions. So I had to be very careful with that. I think the breakthrough of this book as a satirist was that rather than be a sort of two-dimensional standard southern Baptist preacher, Bible thumping Leviticus quoting preacher man, that I actually made my Reverend Sabbath, which is actually the CEO of fundamentalist Christianity. I made him a sort of smooth character. Very winning. Very corporate and sympathetic. Because they are. Joel Osteen and these guys they are very charming. And in some ways that’s a much more insidious way at satire than to just paint this two-dimensional figure. And the other thing is, the Messiah who might be the savior that returned is called Joe, Jose in Spanish, for a very good reason. A lot of his fundamental beliefs are essentially a continuation of what I learned from Fr. Joe. So I guess you could look at The Messiah of Morris Avenue as a sequel to Father Joe.
BH: The journalist character, Johnny Greco, is a hard-drinking, hard-living, struggling sort of guy. How much was he based on you?
TH: Well, this was another breakthrough. I actually wrote several different versions of this book before I got it right. And one of the things I realized was that I needed a voice to tell the story. And I needed a skeptical voice. I think any modern telling of the gospel has to be told from the point of view of skepticism. If it’s written from a point of view of total, uncritical belief, or even critical belief for that matter, it wouldn’t work. So I had Johnny Greco, which of course means John the Greek, a once New York Times reporter who had won a Pulitzer Prize–as it says in the book–that was before they started awarding Pulitzers for “best rumor.” He’s now fallen on very hard times and he’s working for some terrible webzine that’s sort of a cross between “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “Jerry Springer.” Anyway, they’re always on the look out for interesting freaks. And that’s how Johnny becomes aware of Jose, who’s going around south Jersey apparently doing miracles. And Johnny is immediately skeptical of this guy, as he would be. But he naturally sort of meets him and sees him and falls under his spell, but not believing him. Not believing he is the Son of God because he doesn’t believe in God. And he holds that position essentially right through to the end. I think it would have been a very phony moment had John said, “I now believe.” But I think it’s in the sense that some of your main characters have to remain unchanged for reader to be anchored…But he actually ends up being devoted to Jay and longing to believe in him but not being able to.
BH: You’re doing some Godcasting on your own site?
TH: Well, the site is actually, www.henryholt.com/messiahofmorrisavenue. One of the things we thought we would do was to make the web site out and out comedy. So we recorded these Godcasts, some of them with the Reverend Jimmy Sabbath holding forth on various subjects, including the rapture. The idea was that I would explain what would happen between now, let’s say 2007 and when I think this book is set, 2015 or 2016. So, it’s all these developments in the way that the theocracy came to be and the changes in the media and the web. There are quite a few jokes in there needless to say.
BH: Messiah, takes a skeptical view of the connection between faith and politics. Do you have any sense of how faith and politics could mix in a healthy way?
TH: I don’t blame the Christian right for what they’ve done. They said very clearly they were going to do it and the Democrats and their cultural allies didn’t pay attention until it was too late. I’ve been reading Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy, which is just a splendid book I highly recommend it. And one of the things he points out is one of the things I have also been pointing out: it’s that, in America, whether you like it or not, no great social or cultural change takes place without some help from religious groups. One of the great examples of this is civil rights. The thing is there seems to me this fatal, almost suicidal reflex on the side of the left to just ignore religion and hope it will go away and you don’t have to be disrespectful but just ignore it. And as I said, that’s suicidal.
You see it all the time that I don’t think that people are even conscious of it on the left. They just say thing all the time that are offensive to moderate Christians. For example, I was in Kansas promoting The Messiah. In the evening I was asked to do a reading, which I assumed would be in a bookstore. When I got picked up by my escort, he said, “Well today’s reading is going to be in a Baptist church.” And I went, Oh my God, do you know what is in my book about Baptists? He didn’t enlarge on this, he was a man of few words. And he drove me to this very nice plain white church and led me trembling inside to the plain white welcome area, and I assumed some plain white, fire-breathing Leviticus quoting preacher man would come through the door. And what actually came through the door was a silver-haired, pleasant woman. She was the pastor. It was an American Baptist Church not Southern Baptist. It was actually a great reading. The real point of the story was that after the reading she said, “I read your book long before you came here, and I’ve actually preached a sermon on it.” Which I took as an enormous compliment. But it seems to me that the point is that the assumption that we on the left make is that Christians, especially Protestant denominations, are sort of uniformly right-winged. And often forget that there’s this enormous body of moderate denominations who are equally as appalled at the excesses of the Christian right as we are. And these are the people that you want to reach out to, and make the Democratic party or whatever will replace it, more welcoming for more people like that wonderful pastor.
BH: Since the 2004 election I think there’s been an overwhelming sense of how disconnected a lot of Americans feel from one another. Where do we find common ground?
TH: A very good friend of mine, Michael Tomasky, who runs a very influential journal in D.C. called American Prospect recently wrote a very interesting, very traditionally democratic–in the very best sense of that term–piece about how we need a new idea of the common good. The thing that united people in 19th century agricultural America and united people in the Depression and in the struggle for civil rights, the sense that there is something bigger and more important than us as individuals. There seems to be a need to get an idea of the America we want back. We can say as often as we want, “we want America back,” but unless we know what that America is, it’s not going to happen. A lot of the problem, I think, has been caused by the left and identity politics and insisting on rights. But I don’t see [the right candidate out there]. Unfortunately that’s the way that politics works is the person or group of people who represent that.
BH: And yet, I can’t remember a time when a comedy news show like Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” or Steven Colbert’s show had such impact culturally. I’ve heard that some studies have shown that a lot of people between the ages of 18 and 34 use this as one of their main news sources. Can you talk a little bit about how humor has a leavening influence or at least a balancing influence.
TH: Well, I think it has. And I think it’s certainly true that for a variety of reasons as I just said it is the fault of the liberal left as much as the right. Dissent has been very much disapproved of. Dissent of any kind for half a generation, if not more. And I think that fundamentally is what is interesting about the way Stewart talks. He is a dissenter and a very amusing one too. But he’s saying, basically, “Here’s what they’re saying and well, I don’t agree.” And that I think is tremendously healthy. Bertrand Russell said, “Dissent is life, conformity is death.” And he’s right. He was right. Of course he’s dead now.
TH: (laughter) I think that’s one part of it. But the other part is that–as always with shows or radio shows or theatrical shows or films that have this strong influence–they unite people. And I think what you said earlier about us being disjointed and disconnected is true. I think people are enormously frustrated. They don’t know where their friends are culturally or socially. They may know who their friends are who they drink beer with, but they don’t have a sense of their group. And that helps enormously at the center.
BH: Your old friend George Carlin blurbed the book and we hoped to get him on here to speak with you but he is clearly otherwise disposed. He was also raised Catholic but is now witheringly critical of institutional religion. Can you talk about your friendship?
TH: Well, George and I have known each other on and off for 40 years. We were both comedians. Both made our sort of TV debut on the old Merv Griffin Show. And I worked with George for some time in the early to mid-nineties on his autobiography. It wasn’t an autobiography because I was writing it, but we could never decide if it was an autobiography or a biography. So we called it a sort-of-biography. And I got to know George pretty well. He wasn’t one of those kids who, and I hope he’s not listening to this, get him before the sermon and you have forever kind of Catholics. It didn’t seem to take to well with George, but his break out album was Class Clown and a great deal of that was about the Catholic Church.
BH: He loved your book though.
TH: Well, I don’t know George doesn’t have anything good to say, even about me. You cannot believe the kind of e-mails we exchange. If anyone overheard them we would probably both be busted for something. But, we’re very good friends. And I don’t think he’s ever blurbed a book. So, I asked him to read the book, not really expecting any sort of response. And he wrote this extraordinary blurb basically saying, ‘I expected this to be a Tony Hendra satire and what I didn’t expect it to be this exposition of the true teachings of Jesus Christ.’ Like George Carlin actually has deep down there a real understanding of what that means. And he said, “I love this book.” And, that I think is one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.
BH: You mentioned earlier that you are working on a novel. Is it related to Messiah?
TH: Yes, it is. I think that all three of these books are related. A very glib way of putting it is that if The Messiah of Morris Avenue is a sequel to Father Joe, this is a prequel. Without giving too much of it away, one of the things that Joe told me more than once that I came to remember and think about a lot in writing Father Joe was that [he] was not the only Fr. Joe that ever existed. One of Joe’s great strengths was that he was just a Benedictine as he often stated. And that he embodied the very best of Benedictine wisdom and lifestyle. One of the interesting things about touring is that it is actually a journey because you are dealing with how others react to your book. And I found myself quite frequently talking about the Benedictine tradition and the fact that there had been other Fr. Joes throughout history. I think I even mentioned it in the book. But it seemed a very rich thing to me. When I was at Cambridge I took medieval history and I’ve sort of always been a medievalist. And I’ve always been very interested in the history of Cluny, which was this extraordinary complex monastery that basically gave birth to Europe. So my idea is that I want to put a boy called Joseph in the novitiate in Cluny at the end of the 11th century just before the Crusades begin, which is one of the most dramatic and dynamic times in church history and watch him grow up and become Father Joe. He also has a very good friend who joins the novitiate at the same time but eventually leaves and goes wandering throughout Islam in order to become a great scholar, which is what you had to do in those days. You had to go to Baghdad. Eventually he ends up back at the monastery with a rather tragic ending.
BH: It sounds like a lot of research.
TH: Yeah, but it’s a very human story and as I say, it’s a kind of tribute to Joe. I think one of the things I hope people understand more is where he comes from and how precious that should be to us.
BH: Sounds like Fr. Joe is still reverberating in your personal life, in your own spiritual life. Is that fair to say?
TH: Oh, very much so. I have said frequently that if there were three or four books that could be written about Joe, I would be more than happy to do so. But, alas, I couldn’t top the first one.