2009-09-18

Book Review 46: Lamb. The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal


When I'm in charge, if someone knocks, they will be able to come in. Making someone who is seeking comfort stand out in the cold is a crock of rancid yak butter."

Page 215

But because the Divine Spark resides in all, does not mean that all will discover it. Your dharma is not to learn, Joshua, but to teach."

Page 300
"Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal" by Christopher Moore is an intelligent, funny, and engaging book. It's not as knee-slappingly funny as Moore's other novels, but that's because he takes the material more seriously. The book is an irreverent, yet respectful look at what Jesus's life may have been like growing up. Moore paints strikingly real characters. The last third of the book isn't as strong as the rest of it, and I'll address that later in this review.

The New Testament offers scant details of Jesus's early life. We see Him in the manger, we see one incident with Him in the temple as a boy, and then we see Him starting his mission at about age 30. The bulk of the Gospels focuses on the three years of Jesus's life between the time He began performing miracles and teaching, and the time He ascended into Heaven, 40 days following His resurrection.

Moore's looks at those other years. It takes place while Jesus, who goes by Joshua in Moore's book, is a little boy playing with friends and sibling, while he's a teenager, and his time as a young adult. Throughout it all, his best friend is Biff. Biff travels with Joshua, shares his experience, and tells us the story.

During the tale we learn about the Roman occupation of Judea, get a look at the local politics, learn about Jewish customs, explore other religions and mystic traditions around the world, and go over philosophical concepts.

It's helpful to know the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to get some of the concepts in the book and to understand some of the references. But if you don't know Bible stories, there's still plenty to appreciate in Lamb.

Who would have thought that Joshua would find his first apostle among the dirt and dogs of Nazareth. Bleh.

Page 41


The Angel Raziel, acting on orders from God, bring Biff back from the dead in the late 1990s to write a new Gospel of Jesus's life. The goal is to tell the untold story.

There were fifteen of us—well, fourteen after I hung Judas—so why me? Joshua always told me not to be afraid, for he would always be with me. Where are you, my friend? Why have you forsaken me? You wouldn't be afraid here. The towers and machines and the shine and stink of this world would not daunt you. Come now, I'll order a pizza from room service. You would like pizza. The servant who brings it is named Jesus. And he's not even a Jew. You always liked irony. Come, Joshua, the angel says you are yet with us, you can hold him down while I pound him, then we will rejoice in pizza.

Page 9


This of course is a recipe for controversy. This book is different from some other retellings of Jesus's life, though. The book starts with the assumption that Jesus is the Son of God. That's never questioned. Mary was visited by Gabriel, told she would be the mother of God. Joshua performs miracles as a little kid before he even realizes what he is doing. His best friend Biff readily accepts this.

It had been getting darker by the minute in the olive grove, and I could barely see the shine in Josh's eyes, but suddenly the area around us was lit up like daylight. We looked up to see the dreaded Raziel descending on us from above the treetops. Of course I didn't know he was the dreaded Raziel at the time, I was just terrified. The angel shone like a star above us, his features so perfect that even my beloved Maggie's beauty paled by comparison. Joshua hid his face and huddled against the trunk of an olive tree. I guess he was more easily surprised by the supernatural than I was. I just stood there staring with my mouth open, drooling like the village idiot.

Page 37

Raziel shows up 10 years after Joshua's birth to tell the Shepards in the field the Savior has been born. Obviously, he's late. Biff, when he's not telling the story of Joshua, reminds us that Raziel is an idiot, and he is not a Raziel fan.

(Did you know that in a hotel they bolt the bedside lamp to the table, thereby making it an ineffective instrument of persuasion when trying to bring an obdurate angel around to your way of thinking? Thought you should know that. Pity too, it's such a substantial lamp.)

Page 132


Biff grew up with the powerful Joshua. It's the only life he's known, and he is much more comfortable with the supernatural. He is more comfortable with Joshua's divine nature than Joshua is.

Biff isn't the only one who believe's in Joshua. As kids, thye meet a girl in the neighborhood, Mary of Magdala, and three form a strong friendship. As they get older, Mary falls for Joshua, but of course can't have him. Biff falls for Mary, but of course her heart is elsewhere.

"Don't worry, he'll be a mess tomorrow: 'Oh, what did I do wrong. Oh, my faith wasn't strong enough. Oh, lam not worthy of my task.' He'll impossible to be around for a week or so. We'll be lucky if he stops praying long enough to eat."

"You shouldn't make fun of him. He's trying very hard."

"Easy for you to say, you won't have to hang out with the village idiot until Josh gets over this."

"But aren't you touched by who he is? What he is?"

"What good would that do me? If I was basking in the light of his Holiness all of the time, how would I take care of him? Who would do all of his lying and cheating for him? Even Josh can't think about what he is all of the time, Maggie."

'I think about him all of the time. I pray for him all of the time."

"Really? Do you ever pray for me?"

"I mentioned you in my prayers, once."

"You did? How?"

'I asked God to help you not to be such a doofus, so you could watch over Joshua."

"You meant doofus in an attractive way, right?"

"Of course."

Page 77

Eventually, the book shifts to at buddy/roadtrip story. Biff and Josua leave home to go explore the world. Joshua wants to learn more about his divine nature and how to be the Messiah. Biff wants to protect Joshua. They head out on a quest to find the Three Magi who came to visit Joshua in the stable.

They aren't pursuing the same things in their quest. While Joshua works to understand the nature of divinity and the metaphysical realm, Biff's studies are more about the corporal realm.

"Exactly," said Joshua. "I think Lao-tzu is correct. Blindness precedes justice. As long as you seek justice by punishment you can only cause more suffering. How can that be right? This is a revelation!"

"I learned how to boil down goat urine to make explosives today," I said.

"That's good too," said Joshua.

Page 167

"The magus wasn't teaching us about action as in work, it was action as in change. That's why we learned Confucius first—everything having to do with the order of our fathers, the law, manners. Confucius is like the Torah, rules to follow. And Lao-tzu is even more conservative, saying that if you do nothing you won't break any rules. You have to let tradition fall sometime, you have to take action, you have to eat bacon. That's what Balthasar was trying to teach me."

"I've said it before. Josh—and you know how I love bacon—but I don't think bacon is enough for the Messiah to bring."

"Change," Joshua said. "A Messiah has to bring change. Change comes through action. Balthasar once said to me, 'There's no such thing as a conservative hero.' He was wise, that old man."

Page 202

"I'm using the calligraphy techniques we learned in the monastery, only using them to draw figures. Josh, are you sure it doesn't bother you? Talking about [sex] when you'll never be allowed to do it?"

"No, it's interesting. It doesn't bother you when I talk about heaven. Does it?"

"Should it?"

"Look, a seagull!"

Page 296-297


During his time with Balthasar, the first of the magi, Joshua studies Confucius, Lao-Tzu, and more. Balthasar's servants inlcude 6 Chinese women who are the one's to instruct Biff in more terrestrial concerns.

They are there for several years and to celebrate Joshua's birthday, they cook a wonderful Chinese feast, marking, as Moore points out, the "tradition" of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas.

"Oh Joshua, my poor little Messiah. I'll bet no one made you Chinese food for your birthday this year either?"

Page 305


It's also in this part of the book, that Moore establishes that this novel takes place in the same universe as his others, like Practical Demon Keeping and The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove.

Eventually, they have to leave and continue their journey of growth.

"Lao-tzu built this wall,"Joshua said.

"The old master who wrote the Tao? I don't think so."

"What does the Tao value above all else?" "Compassion? Those other two jewel things?"

"No, inaction. Contemplation. Steadiness. Conservatism. A wall is the defense of a country that values inaction. But a wall imprisons the people of a country as much as it protects them. That's why Balthasar had us go this way He wanted me to see the error in the Tao. One can't be free without action."

"So he spent all that time teaching us the Tao so we could see that it was wrong."

Page 201

Joshua and Biff study more and have more adventures. Then they return to Galilee.

Josh nodded, then climbed on his camel. "Go with God, Joy," he said. As we rode through the gates of the palace the guards shot fire arrows that trailed long tails of sparks over us until they exploded above the road ahead: Joy's last good-bye to us, a tribute to the friendship and arcane knowledge we had all shared. It scared the bejeezus out of the camels.

Page 306


As Joshua assumes the role of Messiah, things start to change. He performs miracles, though not everyone is always impressed.

Then Joshua climbed down from his camel, laid his hands upon the old men's eyes, and said, "You have faith in the Lord, and you have heard, as evidently everyone in Judea has, that I am his son with whom he is well pleased." Then he pulled his hands from their faces and the old men looked around.

"Tell me what you see," Joshua said.

The old guys sort of looked around, saying nothing.

"So, tell me what you see."

The blind men looked at each other.

"Something wrong?" Joshua asked. "You can see, can't you?"

"Well, yeah," said Abel, "but I thought there'd be more color."

"Yeah," said Crustus, "it's kind of dull."

I stepped up. "You're on the edge of the Judean desert, one of the most lifeless, desolate, hostile places on earth, what did you expect?"

"I don't know." Crustus shrugged. "More."

"Yeah, more," said Abel. "What color is that?"

Page 331

We see Joshua baptized by John, we see the Transfiguration, and we see Joshua build his flock and perform healings. But he's now longer the same Joshua. Moore stops writing him as close friend for Biff. As Joshua's prominence grows, the relationship with Biff becomes less intimate. Joshua is not the same person. He no longer belongs to the Biff/Joshua friendship, he belongs to the world. Biff (or rather Moore) writes Joshua more in the way the traditional Gospel authors do.

I'm not sure if it's intentional, of if it's just the inherent challenge of what Moore is trying to do in this book. Because now he is no longer making everything up. Now the narrative is retelling the stories Christians are already familiar with -- the loaves and fishes, the storm on the fishing boat, the Sermon on the Mount, the recruitment of the Apostles, the Wedding at Canaan, etc.

That all leads up to the Passion story and the Crucifixion.

It's still compelling story telling. Even more so now that Moore is referencing events familiar to many of us. But there's an intimacy that is lost.

That said, it's still a great book.

If you've made it this far, you are unlikely to be offended by much of what's in it (though the Hinud faith does not fair so well in it). It can be taken as just a great story, or it can be used to spur additional thought and discussion about the life of Jesus. And it's highly entertaining.

The tone is different from other books by More, but it's still clearly his writing. And he strikes a great balance.

There's one more thing I want to mention.

Here at Cromely's World, we (and by that I mean "I") love our coffee. According to Biff, so does Joshua. And we have Biff to thank for introducing the world to the Latte.

We stopped at a stand and bought a hot black drink from a wrinkled Old man wearing a tanned bird carcass as a hat. He showed us how he made the drink from the seeds of berries that were first roasted, then ground into powder, then mixed with boiling water. We got this whole story by way of pantomime, as the man spoke none of the languages we were familiar with. He mixed the drink with honey and gave it to us but when I tasted it, it still didn't seem to taste right. It seemed, I don't know, too dark. I saw a woman leading a nanny goat nearby, and I took Joshua's cup from him and ran after the woman. With the woman's permission, I squirted a bit of milk from the nanny goat's udder onto the top of each of our cups. The old man protested, making it seem as if we'd committed some sort of sacrilege, but the milk had come out warm and frothy and it | served to take away the bitterness of the black drink. Joshua downed his, then asked the old man for two more, as well as handing the woman with the goat a small brass coin for her trouble. Josh gave the second drink back to the old man to taste, and after much grimacing, he took a sip. A smile crossed his toothless mouth and before we left he seemed to be striking some sort of deal with the woman with the goat. I watched the old man grind beans in a copper cylinder while die woman milked her goat into a deep clay bowl. There 'was a spice vendor next door and I could smell the cinnamon, cloves, and allspice that lay loose in baskets on the ground.

"You know," I said to the woman in Latin, "when you two get this all figured out, try sprinkling a little ground cinnamon on it. It just might make it perfect."

Page 126-127

"Glad he caught on. Let's find the old lady."

"Yes, then let's go back and get another one of those hot drinks," Joshua said.

Page 129

Meanwhile Joshua took to his studies with characteristic zeal, fueled in no little bit by the coffee he drank every morning until he nearly vibrated through the floor with enthusiasm.

Page 167




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3 comments:

Jen said...

This is a great book and very funny. If you are a fanatic about religions it is not for you however. You must have a sense of humor to enjoy this book and most fanatics don't. Biff is a wonderful character and a great friend to Jesus. It could have happened this way...
Great review!

Kate Burton said...

I love this book and would happily attend any church that was actually based on the teachings in it. I agree with Jen though, if you are devout do not read this!

Pricilla said...

Biff?

Sounds interesting. Being a cynic it is probably right up my alley.