I do not generally give bad reviews about books. The worst I’ve ever written or said about a piece of literature can be summed up in that infuriatingly smug syllable “meh.” Wasn’t good enough to stick in my mind, don’t you know. Wasn’t good enough to keep its feet amongst the gods of English literature. Meh.
I’m changing that now. I’m about to give a bad review.
It became clear to me from the first few pages of My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith by Benyamin Cohen that this was going to be a chore. It wasn’t necessarily the subject matter. I’m a Jew and I like Jews. Check. I get a look into the world of megachurches and revival tents. Check. Enlightenment by the last page. Check. These are great things for a book to take my mind off of other pressing matters, right? Well, as any museum-goer will know, the artifacts can be gorgeous and heart-stirring, but they completely lose their charm when they’re displayed on top of an over-turned cardboard box and lit by a homeless man holding a flashlight.
What I’m trying to say is that Cohen’s writing style and personality made me want to wring his neck. Where there should be humor, there are nudge-nudge-wink-wink pop culture references. Where there should be actual insight into his spiritual journey, there is whining. And, oh G-d, the whining.
Mr. Cohen, listen, that skinny asthmatic Jew thing is all played out. It died once Israel got an army, Lenny Krayzelburg won gold, and the Hebrew Hammer kicked some ass. You’re not Woody Allen—you’re barely a Woody Allen wannabe. Sure, you didn’t choose to become an Orthodox Jew, but last time I checked, none of us had a sign up sheet in the womb. I’m sorry that your mother died when you were young, but you should be thanking your lucky stars that you had a family that loved you, clothed you, and fed you. You know how many people have less than that?
What kills me here is that I agree with many of his assessments of his time in the Christian world. Of course it’s disturbing as all hell when you find Christians wearing the Star of David. Yes, a Sunday mass can be an incredibly uplifting experience. And, absolutely, gospel can elevate a service in any religion. There is so much to be gathered from gentiles, so much to learn that can give us a perspective on our own faith. However, calling someone the Michael Jordon of faith or constantly harping on your own spindly little body is tiresome.
People, if you want to read a humorous book about religion, read A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (why are these titles always so long?). If you want a fish out of water book, pick up Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson. The Jesus Year, as much as I wanted to like it, is a sad waste of cellulose.