It's the end of the world ... or at least that's the overwhelming sentiment these days. In the wake of the Sept. 11 atrocities, the garish war thereafter and the perpetual Palestinian/Israeli conflict, those prone to religious explanations are practically running to the cross. Dan Brown is deciphering "The Da Vinci Code" to (fictitiously) reveal that Jesus' direct descendants are among us, and nighttime news magazines are playing spooky music behind him while he cloudily justifies it. His novel, meanwhile, is setting records in the bookshops.
If you believe Brown, you might as well accept that your dead cat is an angel looking over you and that Mel Gibson is Jesus. Perhaps the Second Coming isn't too far off. Maybe it's just a commercial movement of sentimental dogma, and we're already soaking in it.
Two books currently being touted in the race to Christ are Neil Elliott's "The Autobiography of Jesus Christ" and Anthony DeStefano's "A Travel Guide to Heaven," and they illustrate divergent schemes in the dumbing-down of scripture for the masses. So if you're looking for a God you can understand -- if, indeed, God is to be understood -- you might as well look here.
Elliott isn't as ridiculous as he sounds. At nearly 60, he's a curious theology enthusiast with an eye for the eccentric. And he's Jewish. The cover of his book claims it was "told to Neil Elliott," which, at first glance, is preposterous. To hear him tell it, it was just an easier avenue toward creative writing.
"It was a compulsion. I didn't think of it logically," Elliott says on the phone from Chicago. "I am not a religious person myself. Some people ask me if I was channeling Jesus or if this was divinely inspired, and I don't have any comment to make on that, really. [As a] writer, some things are easier, some things are harder. I've done a lot of writing ... and this is the easiest writing I've done all my life."
Effectively a layman's revisit to the murky red/black prophecies of the Bible, the book draws the reader into easier comprehension. New meets old in sometimes-awkward metaphor placement, but the point is made nonetheless. Elliott writes (as Jesus): "It was increasingly obvious to me that my role was not an ordinary one, even by the standards of the prophets. And yet I was hard put to codify just what was thrusting me forward at this speed, like a modern train through a tunnel."
Trains aside, Elliott's book is harmless enough, even understandable -- a little like that dog-eared junior Bible you shied away from at church camp, only with attitude.
"You know, people are seeking moral sustenance, and they're not getting it," he says. "These new books come out promising some new revelations in respect to Jesus Christ, and you come away feeling as if you haven't had a meal. They promise something new, some vague reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and you come away ... basically unfulfilled."
So how are people responding? Like converts, of course.
"It's been a surprise to me," Elliott says. "I do this show sometimes, 'Jesus Tonight!' [a one-act play which he wrote in 1999], and now I'm reading from my book [at] open-mikes around Chicago, where I'm facing very skeptical urban professionals. And I've got to tell you that the people who are mocking or skeptical at the start are the people at the end who have the most searching, spiritual questions."
In a press kit, he jokingly described Jesus' presence: "He has a lot of charisma, obviously, a wonderful melodious speaking voice -- but very masculine -- and like I say, he puts you at ease right away. It was a little like an out-of-the-body experience. And you need sunglasses for the halo."
So, he's not gay. Characteristically, Elliott was just having a little fun.
"In actual fact, I haven't actually had any conversation with Jesus," he says. "But we do know that he must have had a lot of charisma. He must have been a person that a lot of people wanted to be around."
Some embellishments were necessary just to fill in the gaps. "If I had had him for 20 years just herding sheep or chopping wood," he says, "the journals would have read: 'Today I stacked wood,' 'Today I walked to the water.'" And unlike Willem Defoe in "The Last Temptation of Christ," Elliott doesn't broach the seedy matters of smut.
"Sex? No, I don't get into that," he jokes. "This preoccupation with sex is kind of an American thing. People around the world take it a little more naturally. That's not really Jesus' story: Did he have sex or didn't he have sex? Did he crap, or drop a load in the toilet?"
Best of all, though, is the campy rendition of JC gracing the cover, a sad-looking bust with penciled-in eyebrows.
"You could almost see it as a person, if it weren't for those eyebrows," he laughs. "Put a dress on that man and you could take him anywhere!"
Even more frightening than a drag Jesus, however, is the extremely fluffy "Travel Guide to Heaven" being proffered by DeStefano. Like others, including Elliott, his aims were true.
"Like a lot of people, I've been to too many damn funerals in my life, and this particular year I went to 15 or 16 in several given months ... everybody seemed to be dying on me," he says on the phone from Long Island, accent and all. "I had the opportunity to hear a lot of preachings on the afterlife from preachers and pastors of every religious flavor, and it struck me that while what they were saying was consoling and sincere, it wasn't resonating with the mourners as much as I thought that it could have if it was presented in a different way."
When he refers to religions as flavors, he starts to sound a little less like a guru than a Long Island pizzeria philosopher -- which is appropriate, considering the toppings he offers for your heavenly enjoyment.
"Heaven is fun!" he writes at one point. "Did you ever see 'The Wizard of Oz?' Remember how Dorothy and her three friends go off in search of the things they each want most in the whole world?"
Well, that's what heaven's like. Or is it?
"Did you ever see 'Jurassic Park?' Knowing what we know about God and his love for diversity, why shouldn't it be true that at least part of heaven is going to be like that?"
Because it's a horror movie.
"The point of saying that heaven is fun is, the people who believe in heaven, there's nothing for their minds to grab on to. They've got all these cloudy images with disembodied spirits floating around, and halos and harps -- all that nonsense. How the heck is anybody gonna get enthusiastic about that? ... I wanted to write something that addressed the disconnect between the greatness of the teachings of heaven to the corresponding lack of enthusiasm," he says.
"In a post-9/11 world, it's harder for people to live in denial about the ultimate questions. If you know that there's a chance that you're gonna be blown up by some crazy terrorists, then it's hard to just go about your life, y'know, tra-la-la. Also, there's an argument that culture has become more and more secular, there is a hunger for more spiritual things. They're reaching out."
And, oh, are they. Even Regis Philbin is quoted on the book sleeve: "This will be the best trip you ever took!" Susan Lucci adds: "'A Travel Guide to Heaven' is incredibly inspirational. I've never read anything like it before in my life!"
The book, we should note, is currently the No. 1 religious book in the country, and in its fifth printing.
"If you're a dyed-in-the-wool atheist who absolutely is repulsed by anything at all spiritual, then it would be a real difficult sell, this book," he says. "But outside of those folks, I wanted to write something as inclusive as possible."
Doesn't that include oversimplification, sacrificing sacrament and blowing smoke?
"Ha, ha. On first reading, I could see where a critic of the book might say this is very light fare. This is not profoundly deep, or anything like that. What I try to do is to take theological ideas that are actually very complex and try to make them as simple as possible."
He adds, "I did footnote extensively."