Christopher Moore’s highly imaginative novel, Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” begins with a blessing:
“If you have come to these pages for laughter,
may you find it.
If you are here to be offended,
may your ire rise and your blood boil.
If you seek an adventure,
may this story sing you away to blissful escape.
If you need to test or confirm your beliefs,
may you reach comfortable conclusions.
All books reveal perfection,
by what they are or what they are not.
May you find that which you seek,
in these pages or outside them.
May you find perfection,
and know it by name.”
Such a cheeky introduction might have one wondering: Will I be offended? Will my blood boil amid blasphemous sacrilege? What kind of faith is required to withstand a little religious humor? Rather than expect hellfire and damnation, one can only forge ahead and hope to be [at least mildly] entertained. Surely God has a sense of humor.
Lamb is an unlikely (but possible?) narrative of the life of Christ (known in the book as Joshua bar Joseph) from the age of six through the Resurrection as told from the perspective of his best friend, Levi bar Alphaeus, called Biff. Although Joshua’s Mother, Mary (with whom Biff is unabashedly enamored), always knew Joshua was “special,” it is not until Biff witnesses his friend raise a woman from the dead that he believes Joshua is, in fact, the Messiah. Subsequently, at the age of ten, Biff and Joshua are visited by an angel who confirms Mary’s assertion and the rest is history – well, sort of.
Early on, Biff and Joshua both fall in love with the Magdalene, called Maggie. Yet, it is with Biff that Maggie falls in consummate love when she realizes that her first love (Joshua) happens to be the Messiah. Meanwhile, Joshua remains true to his callings of virtue and celibacy – a fait accompli which Christopher Moore uses to great comedic advantage throughout the story. When the two boys happen upon the statue of Venus, Biff elbows Joshua in the ribs.
Biff: “Graven image.”
Biff: “She’s naked.”
Joshua: “Don’t look.”
Biff: “She’s completely naked.”
Joshua: “It is forbidden. We should go away from her…”
Biff: “You [can] see her breasts.”
Joshua: “Don’t think about it.”
Biff: “How can I not think about it? I’ve never seen a breast without a baby attached to it. They’re more – more friendly in pairs like that!”
Not feeling as yet qualified to act as the Messiah, Joshua seeks out “three wise men”, Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar, and Biff is determined to accompany him.
“You [Joshua] are not going alone…you’re helpless out in the world. You only know Nazareth where people are stupid and poor…You’ll be like – uh – like a lamb among wolves…”
The boys’ travels lead them through Antioch (where they discover a delicious, dark, hot drink “mixed with date sugar and topped with foaming goat’s milk and cinnamon at Biff’s suggestion”) to Kabul. There, at the home of Balthasar and his eight concubines, Biff and Joshua study Tao and the art of Chi. Years later, they learn the teachings of the yogi and the nature of Buddhism from Gaspar where they live amongst monks. The monastery provides a safe haven, and when Biff asks Gaspar when they will have to leave, the answer is:
Gaspar: “When it is time.”
Biff: “And how will we know it is time…?”
Gaspar: “When the time for staying has come to an end.”
Biff: “And we will know this because you will finally give us a straight and concrete answer to a question instead of being obtuse and spooky?”
Gaspar: “Does the unhatched tadpole know the universe of the full-grown frog?”
Biff: “Evidently not.”
Now young men, Josh and Biff move on to find Melchior. Josh begins Hindu training in order to discover what Melchior calls the “Divine Spark” and Biff studies the Kama Sutra – backwards and forwards – with a most agreeable woman named Kashmir. Joshua and Biff eventually take the Silk Road back home to Nazareth where they encounter John the Baptist performing “drownings” and eventually pick up twelve followers. Joshua is ultimately accused of blasphemy and – well – you know the rest.
In his afterword, Christopher Moore writes:
“The book you’ve just read is a story. I made it up. It is not designed to change anyone’s beliefs or worldview, unless after reading it you’ve decided to be kinder to your fellow humans…or you decide you really would like to try to teach yoga to an elephant, in which case, please get videotape…”
Leaving the reader with the propensity to “be kinder” is the true genius of this book. Moore’s subtle suggestions abound throughout, such as: “the superior man may indeed endure want, but the inferior man, when he experiences want, will give in to unbridled excess”; “compassion, humility, and moderation…are [the] qualities of a righteous man”; “the difference between praying and meditating [is that] ]praying is talking to God; meditating is listening”; and “love is not something you think about, it is a state in which you dwell.”
Less subtle, but arguably as clever, is Moore’s sarcastic wit which can be likened to that of Tom Robbins in “Jitterbug Perfume” or “Skinny Legs and All”, or in William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride.” Not only does Moore’s “missing Gospel” fail to offend, it enlightens with humor and is brilliant fun.
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
Harper Paperback: January 2003
(Available in a faux-leather gift edition at Powells)