Christopher Moore,
Lamb: The Gospel
According to Biff,
Christ's Childhood Pal

(HarperCollins, 2002)

This book is certainly not for everyone.

Anyone who found Monty Python's classic film The Life of Brian offensive should probably stay far away from Christopher Moore's Lamb. The novel's subtitle, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, should explain why.

Let's be clear from the start. Lamb is not written as a serious history of Christ's life, nor is Moore seeking to mock anyone's favorite religion. Rather, he's writing from the assumption that Jesus (or Joshua, which is a closer approximation of the original Hebrew name) enjoyed a good laugh now and again. As Moore writes in his end notes, "the world of the first-century Jew under the rule of the Romans would not have been one that easily inspired mirth. It's more than a small anachronism that I portray Joshua having and making fun, yet somehow, I like to think that while he carried out his sacred mission, Jesus of Nazareth might have enjoyed a sense of irony and the company of a wisecracking buddy."

The buddy is Levi who is called Biff, who first met the future savior at age 6 when Joshua was resurrecting smooshed lizards for fun. Thus begins a hilarious, epic tale that seeks to fill in the gaps in Joshua's life -- after all, the Gospels skip most of the events between Christ's birth and the years immediately preceding the crucifixion. But Biff, who didn't make it into the Gospels, was there, and it's time to share it with the world.

Sure, it's irreverent. Some will no doubt call it foul, blasphemous and sacrilegious. Those people need to learn to appreciate a good joke.

Moore's version of Joshua's childhood is wonderfully funny. He's not writing about the Son of God here; he's writing about a small boy who's coping to the best of his young abilities with the knowledge of his divine origin and inevitable fate. Joshua is always pious, kind, earnest and good-hearted in the tale; Biff is the one person, his closest companion, with whom he can freely relax and shed those burdens for a time. They share dreams and cravings, they argue over who gets to play Moses in their games, they enjoy the occasional mischief and, yes, they sometimes act like typical boys.

As Joshua enters his early teens, he decides to seek answers outside of Nazareth. His quest with Biff to find and learn from the three wise men who heralded his birth makes up the central portion of the novel. At times the story becomes a bit too action-packed, as the two young men contend with demons, bandits, cultists and the Kama Sutra along the way, but the lessons at the core, as Joshua is exposed to faiths outside his native Judaism, are often deeply spiritual.

Then, after many years, Joshua returns home, Biff as always in tow. Events as the story concludes follow roughly the events detailed in the Gospels; Joshua gathers his disciples, works miracles and otherwise causes big headaches for the priestly class. The story ends pretty much as you'd assume, but the details along the way aren't always what you'd expect.

Likewise, some of the other key characters vary somewhat from the traditional perceptions. I'd rather not spoil any surprises here, so I'll let the curious among you meet Mary and Joseph, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist and all the Apostles without additional clues.

If you pick up a copy of Lamb looking to be offended, chances are you will be. If your only intention is to cast the book onto a righteous pyre, at least be sure to pay for it first. But if you can approach religious matters with a wink and a grin, if you can believe that a good-humored approach to faith isn't sinful or wicked, and if you can believe that Jesus of Nazareth not only had followers, but friends, then you owe it to yourself to enjoy this book. You'll often find yourself laughing out loud and, if you're not careful, pondering matters of religion and philosophy as you hurriedly turn the pages to see what happens next. Lamb is a refreshingly bold, insightfully clever and joyously funny book that you'll want to share with everyone you know. Just don't lend your copy to anyone prone to building bonfires.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 2 February 2002

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