Monday, January 16, 2017

Good News about the Gospel of Biff:
Lamb by Christopher Moore

Here's the pitch: "The Gospel according to Biff, Christ's childhood pal."  We instantly can see the whole thing, and we can also think: Life of Brian - been there, done that. Besides, everyone already knows the ending.

That's the risk Christopher Moore takes when he makes that pitch the subtitle of his 2002 novel Lamb. The good news is that Moore has spun a comic adventure better than what we imagine.

Because the Gospels skip from the manger to the wedding at Cana, there's a thirty-year gap in Jesus's life story to fill with boyhood pranks, teenage adventures, and gags regarding angels and miracles.  So teenage Levi known as "Biff" and Jesus called "Joshua," the more Jewish version of his name, go out one night with stone cutter's tools to circumcise a tremendous statue of Apollo.  Later, Biff does some serious research into "knowing a woman" giving a play-by-play report to his celibate buddy in the next room.  Some bad puns have page-long set ups, like the Hindu joke ("holy cow") and the one about a non-violent form of martial arts developed by Joshua (Jew-do).  Reading a list of descriptive names for six delectable concubines, you may overlook the one that comes from a Chinese take-out menu.  My favorite scene depicts teenage Joshua in a crowded bazaar, jostling everyone he meets, leaving in his wake people cured of cancer, mental illness, and stinky feet.

The set up for the whole novel is a gag, when a hunky dumb-blond angel resurrects Biff to write this new gospel.  They hole up in a Manhattan hotel.  Biff tries to escape while the angel gets hooked on pizza and pro wrestling.

But in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, Moore sends his youthful adventurers to some dark places.  Moore imagines hitherto unimaginable poverty and describes violence with such blood-smeared and bone-crunching detail that the comedy comes to an end, at least for awhile.  Worst is the massacre inflicted by fanatical devotees of Kali on families so far down in India's social structure that they accept the sacrifice of their children as their due.

The tone can shift, but the bond of love between the narrator, Joshua, and their girl Maggie (a.k.a. Mary Magdalene) never wavers.  She is a memorable character, way more mature at twelve than either of the guys, believable and vital whether the story bends towards comedy or tragedy.

Moore doesn't sidestep the serious question that Biff poses to his pal the Messiah: "How can you drive out the Romans without killing?"  Seeking answers from the three Wise Men of the East, Joshua picks up his answer a bit at a time.  Violence in self-defense causes Joshua to scream "Stop this!" (139).  Joshua earns the insight that freedom isn't something bestowed; it's internal (228).  (I recognize an insight developed by Martin Luther King's mentor Howard Thurman, described in my blogpost Jesus and the Disinherited).  Joshua learns from a Buddhist priest, but learns more from his encounter with the Yeti, who "loved constantly, instantly, spontaneously, without thought or words ....Love is not something you think about" (253).  Joshua takes back to Israel a message of the Holy Spirit in all of us, and the religious authorities are threatened.  Biff observes, "These legalists had worked hard to find their place in power; they weren't interested in change" (355).

Since I read Lamb last week, I have to admit that Moore's images and tone come to mind during my daily readings of Scripture.  I now appreciate the social subtext of doctrinal differences between the working-class Pharisees and Sadducees born to their exalted priesthood.  Moore's imagining of an ancient city brings Jesus's world to life better than any movie has done.

After a rollicking adventure along the Silk Road, Moore has to bring us to Holy Week.  Moore tries to keep the story fresh, and he throws in some more jokes.  But there's not much he can do, as each chapter is a day closer to a painful ending.

What about the Resurrection, you ask?  Frederick Buechner once called the Gospel a "comedy" because of its unlikely, joyous conclusion.  Moore follows a different logic to an ending that satisfies.

Page references from the Harper Perennial reissue, 2004.

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