Ok – we’ve established on this blog that I’m a Christian, and hopefully you can see that I’m a modern Christian, with compassion instead of fire and brimstone. Well…today is the day that we (hopefully) establish that I’m also the kind of Christian with a sense of humor about her faith. Because today I’m reviewing a book I recently finished that is nothing if not humor and faith. And spoiler alert: I really liked it. Also spoiler alert – I’m going to talk about the plot from here on out…so if you want to read the book, maybe save this post for later.
Lamb is, as it says in the title, the Gospel according to Biff (Christ’s childhood pal). So right away we are getting something that we wouldn’t necessarily have seen elsewhere, and that is an accounting of the life of Jesus as a child and young man, both of which are fairly scarce in the Bible. Biff is irreverant – a naughty child with a smart mouth, and girl crazy. We get the feeling from the beginning that Biff (also known as Levi to his parents) is going to be the one to give Jesus (called Joshua in this story) the basis for many of his lessons and teachings later on in life.
The part that I liked best about this book is that it gives an interesting possibility for where Jesus was between the ages of say, 13 and 30. Christopher Moore (the author) says he was out learning the ways of the world – and who better to learn the way to be the Messiah than from those who sought him at his birth. That’s right – Joshua and Biff seek out the three wise men from the nativity, and learn many valuable lessons.
They start with Balthazar, who lives in a large stone fortress in Afghanistan, Joshua is introduced to the idea of the three jewels of the Tao – those being compassion, moderation, and humility. Biff learns magic, alchemy, how to make explosives, and has innumerable sexual exploits with the eight Chinese concubines who live with Balthazar. Because while Joshua may have taken a vow of celibacy, Biff has not, and he takes full advantage of that. There is also a raging and destructive demon. Things end poorly, and in a quest to continue learning about what it means to be the Messiah, Joshua and Biff move on.
Their next stop is with Gaspar, who lives in a monastery high on a snowy mountain in China. Joshua learns stillness, mindfulness, compassion, and at one point ascends to another plane of existence because he is so at one with God and the universe. He also befriends a Yeti, because that’s the kind of book this is. Both young men become kung-fu masters (of course!). Biff also develops judo and complains a lot. There are no attractive young women nearby, and they are in this monastery for years – of course he complains!
After leaving the monastery, they make their way to the final wise man, Melchior, who is living as a solitary guru in India, meditating on the universe, living on nothing but the barest necessities. It is here that Joshua learns a useful trick for multiplying food, about the horrors of sacrifice for religion, and how God’s kingdom and the coming of the Messiah should be for everyone, not just the Jews. Biff uses Joshua’s skills to start a successful food trading business and uses his profits to spend time with a concubine and learn about the Kama Sutra.
What I liked about all this was that it connects these other ancient teachings, which say a similar thing to Jesus’ radical message of love, and give it a root to take hold. Perhaps Jesus did learn about these other philosophies, and incorporated their basic tenets into his own message for the world.
What I found really goofy about this story is all the convoluted ways that we discover why Jews eat Chinese food at Christmas time, why bunnies are associated with Easter, the origins of sarcasm, etc. Some of the ways that these jokes were inserted into the story felt forced, and like Moore had really stretched the plot in order to make these happen.
The last section of the book – the one that covers the Gospel-Ministry portion of Jesus’ life – is the least funny. There’s a lot that seems historically accurate, but it almost feels like Moore felt bound to combine all the stories from the different Gospels and to make them realistic. While this is appreciated, the tone is so dramatically different from the first part of the book that it is dissonant and was confusing for me – why aren’t things funny they were earlier? I suppose the answer is that when you’re basing it off of a well known story, there are fewer opportunities for flexibility and humor, but he did his best.
I was also confused by the ending. The implication is that Joshua didn’t actually die, and used the things that he’d learned in his travels in order to appear dead, but in reality to only have slowed down his breathing and heartbeat, and managed his pain from the crucifixion and piercing by the centurions. Unfortunately, we never find out if this is what happens – Biff makes a poor decision and dies less than a day after Joshua, and instead we get a rushed explanation, and a reunion at the end of the story.
Those are my complaints, but all in all, I really liked it. It showed a compassionate, fully human Jesus, and emphasized the doctrine of radical love which I try to embrace in my own life, but explained it in a way that is more appealing to skeptics and non-believers. I would highly recommend reading this book. And if you do the audio-version, I can add a bonus recommendation, as actor Fisher Stevens does a fantastic job as the narrator.
Details: “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” by Christopher Moore, published 2002 by HarperCollins.