22 February 2012

Book Review: "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal" by Christopher Moore

"God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh." (Voltaire)

As much as I'd love to delve into the Dostoevsky burning a hole in my to-read bookshelf, I've been extremely busy lately and the arduous task of having to actually critically think while reading is terrifying to me. I've currently got 10,000 things flying through my head at once -- dense themes and motifs simply have no room at this moment.

That's why I picked up this book. It's a fairly easy read (though at 400+ pages, certainly not a quick one) but it's also goofy, irreverent, and supremely entertaining. When yo live in D.C. everything around you seems to be in do-or-die mode. Everyone drives like they're escorting a politician. Everyone boards the subway like they're off to meet a politician. Everyone acts like a dick like... well... like they're a politician. It was nice to take a few hours out of my everyday routine to get lost in something silly and absurd, namely the zany Gospel of Levi bar Alphaeus who is called Biff.

Lamb runs on a simple premise. During the 20-30 year span of Jesus' life unaccounted for in the four biblical Gospels, he embarked on a grand journey that took him as far as the east coast of India, immersing himself in the teachings of eastern philosophy while trying to understand how to be the Messiah and deliver his people to freedom. The whole entire time, walking right next to him, was his wise-cracking best friend Biff.

Author Christopher Moore, who spent years researching first century Israel in order to accurately portray his comedy's backdrop, paints an imaginative saga filled with characters often thought of as the stuff of legends (Simon-Paul, Judas, Jesus himself - though accurately called Joshua in the book) in the most human way possible. Moore gives Jesus/Joshua something hugely lacking in any of the Gospels - a personality. He is passionate, emotional, and loving just like the Jesus of Luke, John, Mark, and Matthew, but also self-effacing, jocular, and even existentially distressed at times with the humongous weight on his shoulders.

The Jesus of the Gospels performs miracles like they were going out of style, and conducted himself in a manner that basically said, "of course I can raise the dead, I'm freaking Jesus - this shouldn't shock you." Moore's Joshua struggles with mastering his amazing abilities during his teen years, then ponders the philosophical implications that go along with being the one man on Earth who can conquer nature. He is often plagued with guilt at his inability to save people, almost like Batman reading through the newspaper in the morning and seeing reports of all the muggings he could have prevented if only he had not been handicapped by being a mortal.

Joshua, Messiah and all, is still just a man and subject to all the torments and conflicts men face in their lives. Faced with an angel's command that he must never know women, the thirteen year-old Joshua struggles with his teenage body's urge for sex. Teenage Joshua also deals with other real life problems: issues with bullies, family struggles, and social injustice, among them. And despite being the Son of Man, Joshua ends up needing his buddy Biff to help him through tough times and dire straits.

Ah, Biff. Biff is the real star of the show here. It is, after all, his Gospel and he's a vital player in all the action. His narration is filled with clever insights and wisecracks (and profanity, including from the mouth of the Messiah himself!) as well as details of his bountiful (though not necessarily respectable) romantic conquests. He is Joshua's best friend and has Christ's back throughout the tale, following him from Nazareth to Antioch to Kabul to China to Calcutta and back. Biff comes through in the clutch multiple times, his bluntness and ingenuity a perfect compliment to Joshua's whimsical naivety. Their chemistry together forms the backbone of the novel and reinforces the most enjoyable elements.

The story is quite absurd (that's the point after all), with plot points ranging from a love triangle between the two friends and Mary Magdalene (another childhood friend and not a prostitute, that's a common misconception, affectionately called Maggie) to Joshua's friendship with the last of the yetis (I couldn't make that up).

Along the way, Joshua and Biff learn from the mythical three magi about the Buddha, the Divine Spark (which later becomes the Holy Ghost per a recommendation from John the Baptist), and kung fu, of all things.

The novel falters in places. You can tell that Moore was more keen on writing some parts than others as detail wanes in certain sections of the book (most notably in India). The entire ending of the book is kind of a train wreck, as if perhaps the author ran out of time on a deadline or hit his page quota too soon or quite simply didn't know a better way to end the damn thing (though I could probably offer ten-thousand better suggestions). Lamb could certainly have been better edited and the text put through an additional rewrite to reconstruct portions of the book that become stale. This is my biggest gripe with the novel; there's an imbalance between vision (phenomenal idea) and execution (lackluster delivery at times).

Aside from those qualms, I still really enjoyed Lamb and feel it more than served its purpose as a fun, entertaining diversion to counter the rigorous academic stuff grad school shoves down my throat. I'd definitely recommend it if you like off-beat comic writing, the works of Vonnegut or Douglas Adams, or the portions of The Master & Margarita involving Yeshua Ha-Nozri and Pontius Pilate.

One last point that should be covered: Moore had every opportunity here to bash Christianity and Judaism or blasphemously make a mockery of the Jesus story. He masterfully avoided that route and wrote Lamb as a light absurdist satire that is actually pro-religion in more ways than it is anti-religion. The tone is good-natured and Jesus/Joshua is portrayed positively. I think this is a phenomenally fascinating read for those who appreciate religious mythology but don't necessarily buy into all the caveats of organized faith. I can't get behind a god that for some odd reason hates gay people, but I most certainly can get behind a Christ who knows kung fu. -RM-

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