Reaching the Heights: the Trail Above by Tony Woods

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

First off, I want to stress that I believe in everyone’s freedom of religious expression. I have no intention of belittling or disrespecting anyone’s beliefs. But hear me out: is Christianity an MLM? Tony Woods seems to think so. Reaching the Heights: the Trail Above is a getting-unsolicited-messages-from-the-girl-you-went-to-high-school-with-who-never-left-her-hometown simulator about an old man on walkabout.

The plot of Reaching the Heights is an allegorical tale of a pilgrim known only as Friend, but whom we’ll call Blony Bloods. In a move that causes fear and confusion to his long suffering wife Wife, he obeys without question God’s command that he go on a spiritual journey, combining the plucky resourcefulness of Pizza Rat with the smug dogamtism of a CrossFit trainer. Some guy named Charlie takes Blony to a spontaneous get together that sounds kind of like that apocalypse deli on the Appalachian Trail. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. Blony is joined by his son, whom he is promptly instructed to sacrifice. Then we get a long list of agents of Satan who try to tempt Blony off his path. They start with what I would call reasonable talking points like “Woah, crazy about your kid, right?” and move on to fiendish enticements like “But no, seriously, you should probably get a second opinion about all this.” There’s an archangel named Jake, and a literal scapegoat, who apparently works for the devil… I’m no religious scholar (case in point: are communion wafers still vegan if you believe in them? I have no idea), but I don’t think that’s what scapegoats do in Hebrew scripture.

Much like Star Wars, the story here is really just a scaffold to hang fun set pieces that turn out to be thick with religious symbolism. All the classics are here. You’ve got God working in mysterious ways whenever something bad happens, which undermines Satan’s whole thing of “No, seriously, that’s pretty fucked up, Bro.” I guess the “God is always right because he is right” angle is to be expected. Again, I’m not here to badmouth anyone for having faith in an idea. I do, however, take issue with the discussion questions. Oh, did I not mention this book comes with its own homework? The discussion questions at the end of each chapter peel away the paper thin veneer of allegory and lay the theology bare. The idea of a dedicated pilgrim on a vaguely defined trip to the heavenly kingdom is replaced by claims that the whole world is scarred by sin, and everyone has to pick a master whether they like it or not. Maybe I listen to too many pod- OK, not maybe. I do listen to too many podcasts, but this all feels like all the stuff they talk about in the first episode of a six-part series called “storming the armed yoga compound” or something. Be vigilant, pilgrim! The world is full of enemies, chief among which is the notion that maybe you’re not currently on the right path in your life. Jettison anyone who sows doubt in your mind, and always remember that God could beat up a cowboy if he wanted to.

Like I said, I don’t take any joy in denigrating anyone’s religious beliefs. And I understand that this is a tender subject since the book is semi-autobiographical. But that’s just the point. The author is a missionary. Nobody’s out here getting close to God as a missionary on their own. It’s all about the size of your downline. I know this, because the moment someone finds Jesus they turn to me, the most debauched, hopeless, cheerfully ruined person they know, and tell me about all the exciting opportunities that await me in the next life. New converts look at me the way a guy who just bought a Japanese sword looks at a watermelon on a stick. This is when I think these belief system become a problem: when they are less about what you believe and more about what everyone else believes.

Do I recommend Reaching the Heights? Probably. I almost always advise people to pick up whatever I review, because it’s usually entertaining horse malarkey. This one almost reads like a Chick Tract, or a pamphlet you didn’t ask to find under your windshield wiper when you come out of the Save-U-Right. But I think I can still recommend it as an object of curiosity for anyone who finds contemporary religious writing interesting. It’s four dollars on Kindle. Let’s reflect on what we learned. Since I am a merciful demon, I will not subject you to discussion questions. Instead, here are some religious jokes I made up or improved upon:

How do you stop a Baptist from drinking all your beer when they come over for dinner? Invite two Baptists. How do you stop two Baptists from fucking when you invite them over for dinner? Invite three Baptists. How do you stop three Baptists from kicking you out of your own dining room and turning it into a church with a shared mission and doctrine? Invite four Baptists. How do you stop four Baptists from singing barbershop at you? Invite five Baptists. How do you stop five Baptists from drinking all your beer when they come over for dinner? Tell them you’re a Methodist.

A respected imam called a global conference to reform Islam, and decide which bits they should keep or change. The Kazakhs asked to scrap the prohibition against alcohol. The Saudis asked to stop giving to the poor. The Turks insisted it was too hard to fast when your food is so delicious, and the Indonesians grumbled that Mecca was too far away for a pilgrimage. The only thing that everyone could agree on was that their favorite thing in the world was complaining about Jews. The imam furrowed his brow and asked if this was really what everyone wanted. “Fine, then. It’s decided,” he said. “We’ll all convert to Judaism.”

Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Life is suffering.

Timmy’s mother asked a priest to talk to her son about the indiscretions he got up to in his bedroom at night. Father O’Malley took him aside after Mass and told him that anytime he touched himself, all his dead relatives were watching. Little Timmy thought about this for a moment, then asked “Is that why you always tie me up first?”

I always start Confession with a table of contents.

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