As Biff notes at the beginning of Christopher Moore’s comic 2002 novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, his friend’s name was Joshua.
Jesus, he explains, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew name Yeshua. Also, Christ isn’t his last name. It’s Greek for the Hebrew word messiah, meaning anointed. Biff goes on:
I have no idea what the “H” in Jesus H. Christ stood for. It’s one of the things I should have asked him.
That gives you an idea of the general tone of Lamb and of Levi who is called Biff, one in a long line of Christopher Moore characters who are ribald, raunchy, cheeky, confused, intrepid, vibrant and — did I mention? — randy smart alecks with a heart of gold.
Here, for instance, is how Biff summarizes the gist of virtually every sermon he ever heard Joshua give:
“You should be nice to people, even creeps.”
Generations of Christian theologians would probably nit-pick that teaching to death, and, yet, really, isn’t that the heart of Christianity?
It’s very funny and outrageous and in the worst possible taste, as in this scene:
The new guy…noticed some flowers growing where Joshua had just relieved himself. Lush blossoms of a half dozen vibrant colors stood surrounded by the deadest landscape on the planet. “Hey, were those there yesterday?”
“That always happens,” I said. “We don’t talk about it.”
At the same time, though, in its own weird and wacky way, Lamb is a reverent attempt to tell and understand the story of Jesus.
In some of his novels, Moore approaches his task with the sole aim of having zany fun. In others, though, there’s an added layer of real-life angst that he appears to be dealing with.
For instance, his 2006 book A Dirty Job is about death. It’s hilarious, but it grapples in a real way with the fact and mystery that humans live their lives, knowing they will die. And then they die.
In his 2009 novel Fool, Moore tackles a related subject, the pain and terror of growing old. It’s a re-telling — a randy and raucous re-telling — of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and, like Lear, Moore rages at the deterioration that comes with age and the death that follows.
Something similar is going on in Lamb. The bulk of this book deals with the 30 years that Joshua lived before starting his public ministry, years about which very little is known.
Moore uses the few pieces of information from the Gospels and other non-Biblical Christian accounts as a thin framework on which to describe Joshua and Biff as children, their friendship with Mary Magdalene (called Maggie) and their nearly two decades of wandering in the East where, under the tutelage of the three Wise Men, they study Buddhism and other spiritual traditions.
Swarming with frogs?
Biff is the sort of best friend of a goody-two-shoes guy who gets into trouble so the goody-two-shoes guy doesn’t have to. For instance, Joshua remains celibate throughout their journeyings. Biff, not. (What a surprise!)
Joshua can be witty now and again, but Biff takes those bon mots as invasions of his personal territory because, if nothing else, Levi who is known as Biff is always ready with a wisecrack.
Often, when he says something truly off the wall and Joshua looks at him with a raised eyebrow, Biff will cite chapter and verse from the Bible — although it’s a Bible no one else has read:
(One does wonder what a biblical book of Amphibians might feature — a land swarming with frogs? a prophet inside a whale? a lying serpent? Oh, wait,….)
(One does not really want to consider the subject matter of the book of Excretions.)
Of course, Biff’s Creator — no, not Joshua’s Dad; I mean Christopher Moore — engages in his own sorts of silliness, such as his need, every once in a while, to let loose a big fat pun:
Quipping to a Roman soldier, Biff says, “Semper fido.”
Later, in a similar situation, to indicate his own lack of threat to the soldier, Biff says, “Whimper fidelis.”
With the Buddhist monks, Biff is taught a special martial art created just for him, called “Jew-do, meaning the way of the Jew.”
One chapter opens with an epigraph: “Torah! Torah! Torah!” — war cry of the kamikaze rabbis.
“A crock of rancid yak butter”
Less silly, but also funny, are moments seeded into the story in which Joshua hears or experiences something that, the reader knows, will later pop up in the Gospels, such as:
Hearing Biff’s construction foreman father talk about the stupidity of one of his clients in building on sand, Joshua says, “I’ll have to remember that.”
After knocking at the door of a Buddhist monastery and being forced to wait three days in the cold, Joshua decides, “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.” To which, Biff adds, “Amen.”
A yeti is so happy to have Joshua as a friend that he licks Joshua’s cheek again and again. Biff says, “I guess that the creature must have a tongue as rough as a cat’s as Joshua’s cheek was going pink with abrasion. ‘Turn the other cheek, Josh,’ I said.”
When Biff is going to masquerade as an Indian goddess to save a bunch of children, Joshua says, “They’re not going to buy that a burr-headed Jewish kid is their goddess of destruction.” To which, Biff responds, “O ye of little faith.”
Another scene will sound familiar to those familiar with the Gospels, but not exactly as you may remember it.
Joshua is talking with a prostitute and tells her, “Go, and sin no more.”
“Right,” she says, and what do I do for a living then, shovel shit?”
“I should have known right then”
Amid and within the humor in Lamb is a kind of aching for Joshua, a recognition by Biff (and Moore) that life as the messiah couldn’t have been all that easy.
At one point, Biff admonishes Maggie, “You shouldn’t make fun of him. He’s trying very hard.”
At another, Joshua says somewhat plaintively to Biff, “I think I understand hope. I’m just not sure that I am allowed to have any.”
When the two boys are at the Temple with their families to sacrifice a lamb, Biff has a panic attack thinking of the innocent creature going to the slaughter.
Joshua grabs him and says, “It’s God’s will.” Then he lays his hands on Biff’s head, and his friend calms down and is able to breathe again. “It’s all right, Biff. God’s will,” Joshua says and smiles. Biff goes on:
Joshua had put the lamb he’d been carrying on the ground, but it didn’t run away. I suppose I should have known right then.
You can read Lamb for Christopher Moore’s wit and wackiness.
You can read it for how he goes right to the edge of propriety — and then jumps over the line with both feet.
You can read it as a clever way of bringing a modern sensibility to a story told over and over again for thousands of years.
But you won’t come away from Lamb without feeling sad.
Biff loves Joshua and is grief-stricken at what happens to his gentle, funny, smart and loving friend.
All the wit in the world wouldn’t erase that, and I don’t think Biff (or Moore) would want it to.
The story of Jesus is a sad story, even if you factor the resurrection into the narrative. Either way, an innocent lamb is led to the slaughter.
As Joshua is fond of saying, “It’s God’s will.”
Oh, one final thing: It’s Hallowed. Joshua’s middle name. Biff finds out on the last page of the novel. And says:
“Damn, I would have guessed Harvey.”
Patrick T. Reardon