After many weeks of reading books by esteemed authors, many long dead, about subjects as diverse and often dismal (but beautifully written) as the collapse of families and marriages, Norweigan ladies who like to play with guns, and swamp-bound, incestuous Colombians, I needed to read something fun. Something light. And most importantly, something written during my lifetime. So I went into the room that contains my many piles of books, and I stared. And when I got to the shelf with the M’s, I said to myself, “Eureka! Christopher Moore! That’s the ticket!” But I had to choose a book with some historical merit; it couldn’t just be any old Christopher Moore book. So in honor of Lent, I picked Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.
The premise of this book is that Biff, whose real name is Levi bar Alphaeus, was Jesus’ best friend and constant companion during the period of Jesus’ life that doesn’t get a lot of page space in the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And for one reason or another “The Son” decided that it was time for Biff to tell his story. So Biff is raised from the dead and gets deposited in a hotel room with the Angel Raziel to write down the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as he remembers it. Also, here Jesus is called Joshua or Josh, because according to Biff “Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua, which is Joshua. Christ is not a last name. It’s the Greek for messiah, a Hebrew word meaning anointed. I have no idea what the ‘H’ in Jesus H. Christ stood for. It’s one of the things I should have asked him (8).” And in typical Christopher Moore fashion, things are a bit more irreverent and a bit less holy than one would expect, though I expect that’s obvious from the first quote I put in.
The action starts in Nazareth when Biff and Joshua are about six years old. Biff first meets Josh when he witnesses him raising a lizard from the dead by putting it in his mouth then allowing his younger brother to kill it by beating it over the head with a rock. Shortly thereafter they meet Mary Magdalene, or Maggie, as she is called here. There’s a good-natured love triangle here: Maggie loves Josh, and Biff loves Maggie, and Josh has sworn to be celibate (something about never knowing a woman that his Father makes him agree to). When the boys are thirteen, they head off on a long journey to find the Three Wise Men of legend to see what they can teach Joshua about being the Messiah. The first is Balthasar, who lives in a hidden fortress in the desert outside Kabul with eight Chinese concubines (hey, it’s a Christopher Moore book—Messiah or no, there’s gotta be some sex in it). While Joshua learns the mysteries of Chinese philosophy and mysticism, Biff learns about sex with the concubines and making explosives. They stay there for six years, and are quite happy. At the end of their stay with Balthasar, Biff accidentally releases a demon named Catch from its prison in the fortress. Turns out Balthasar is over two-hundred years old and owes that to Catch (who is the demon in another of Moore’s books, Practical Demonkeeping) but once the bond between them is broken when Josh kills Catch, Balthasar ages rapidly, then dies. At that point they head off to the next Wise Man, Gaspar, who is living in a monastery in China. They stay here for several years. Then they go to India to spend time with the third wise man, Melchior, who lives in a cave on a cliff overlooking the ocean with a bunch of other monks. Here Joshua learns yoga and at one point manages to put himself into a wine bottle. I don’t really believe that would happen, but then lots of unbelievable things happen, not the least of which is that whole lizard coming back to life in the Messiah’s mouth thing. After a brief stay of two years at the beach, they head home to Nazareth and that’s when the stuff everyone knows about starts.
The story also contains snippets from Biff’s sojourn in the St. Louis Hyatt Regency with Raziel, while he writes his gospel. Raziel is not a particularly intelligent Angel (in fact, Moore also wrote another book about Raziel called The Stupidest Angel), and spends a lot of time watching soap operas, not understanding they aren’t real and wondering where Spider Man lives. Biff finds the Bible in his hotel room and hides it in the bathroom so he can read it while Raziel is watching TV (there was a moratorium placed on Biff finding out too much about present day and what became of Joshua so it didn’t influence his story). He is, of course, shocked about everything that got left out of the New Testament, like the thirty years that his gospel is about.
This book is hardly literary fiction; but that’s not the point when one picks up a Christopher Moore book. It gave me what I sorely needed after 2013 has spent the past six weeks beating me about the head, neck, and shoulders: a good laugh at words put together in a humorous fashion. Christopher Moore’s books have a fair amount of potty humor, and there is a scene describing a ritual of human sacrifice in the India section that’s pretty graphic and disturbing (reminiscent of that part of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where people get their hearts ripped out). I felt that the religious humor is irreverent without being disrespectful; I’m sure some people would be offended, but some people are offended by all kinds of things that I find amusing. But come on, it doesn’t get much better than this: “Before we knew it a year had passed, then two more, and we were celebrating the passage of Joshua’s seventeenth birthday in the fortress. Balthasar had the girls prepare a feast of Chinese delicacies and we drank wine late into the night. (And long after that, and even when we had returned to Israel, we always ate Chinese food on Joshua’s birthday. I’m told it became a tradition not only with those of us who knew Joshua, but with Jews everywhere) (168).” See? Hilarious.
The crucifixion scene was interesting to me because of Biff’s plan: he obtained poison when they lived with Balthasar to make a person seem dead, and he planned to give it to Joshua and fake his death and resurrection, since Josh obviously wanted to sacrifice himself. Things don’t work out quite as he planned; Biff manages to get Joshua to take the poison via a soaked rag that one of the female disciples offers him, but it doesn’t drop him the way it has others in the past. The reason for this is never explained; I assume it’s because he’s the Messiah and poison doesn’t work on him. The Roman soldiers get tired of Josh languishing on the cross and stab him in the heart and he dies. Biff does not take this well: “I could feel a chill running over me as the wind came up and the sky started to darken under a sudden storm. There was still screaming, going on and on, and when Johanna clamped her hand over my mouth I realized it was me who had been screaming. I blinked tears out of my eyes, again and again, trying to at least see where they were leading me, but as soon as my sight would clear another sob would rock my body and the water would rise again (433).” He ends up killing Judas for betraying Joshua (he hangs him from a tree) and then flinging himself off a cliff because life without his best friend would not be worth living. Kind of a cop-out, I think, but Moore had to kill him off somehow, I suppose. Biff’s pain was definitely real: “The anger ran out of me then, leaving me feeling as if my very bones were losing their structure. I looked forward, straight over the Ben Hinnon valley, into a sheet of lightning-bleached rain. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, and I stepped off the cliff. I felt a bolt of pain, and then nothing (435).” I felt Biff’s love for Joshua, even amidst all of his ridiculous antics. I hope Jesus actually had a friend like Biff to distract him from the day-to-day struggles of being the Messiah (or a prophet, or whatever/whoever he was). There are all kinds of versions of the secret life of Jesus Christ, from The DaVinci Code to Dogma. Lamb is my favorite. Don’t tell the Pope.
Growing up Catholic, even in twelve years of Catholic school and twelve years of religious studies classes, we were never given an opportunity to even hypothesize about what went on in the years between the first Christmas and Jesus beginning his ministry, at least not that I remember. And I never really thought much about it. But if Jesus lived as a man in the world, which was allegedly the whole point of him being on Earth with us, he must have had friends and family and, well, a life. He didn’t go from a newborn to a grown adult overnight, right? Wouldn’t it help us to relate to him better if we were able to see him more as a person and less as a symbol?
I thought it was great that Moore had Joshua be a student of Chinese mysticism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. I loved that he touched the Untouchables in India and ate pork and drank wine made all the ancient religions part of his belief system. It really helps portray Christianity as a well-rounded religion. And it also helps remind us all that the first Christians stole all their holy days from other groups. Sorry, sorry. I know why they did it: people love a holiday, especially when they happen at the same time every year (yes, this means you, Easter).