Lamb by Christopher Moore
Jesus and his best friend Biff travel the ancient world trying to find the Messiah's destiny, encountering dangerous and hilarious situations along the way.
William Morrow Paperbacks
“You think you know how this story is going to end, but you don’t. Trust me, I was there. I know.”
So begins Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, and the only account of Jesus’s life to ask the all-important question, “What if Jesus had known kung fu?”
Lamb tells the story of Jesus (called Joshua in the book) through the eyes of his best friend Biff, from their childhood in Israel (including their boyhood attempt to circumcise a statue of Apollo), to their young adulthood spent searching for the three wise men in the East, to the actual years of Jesus’s ministry. It’s a fun romp across the ancient world, full of action and laughs. It’s also a touching story of friendship between two boys: one the Son of God, the other the inventor of sarcasm.
This book is genuinely funny, but it’s also a bit irreverent, and that’s going to be off-putting to many Christian readers. While the author tries to portray Joshua as sinless, his best friend is anything but. And that’s going to offend some more Christian readers. And there is some bad theology too, which is also going to—you get the idea. This is a book with the potential to offend, but it’s never mean-spirited and you don’t get the feeling that the author is trying to offend people (as you do with some comedians that take on the topic of Christianity). I would not call it a “Christian” book, even though its subject is Jesus. (Think along the lines of Jesus Christ: Superstar, though I’d argue that this comes a bit closer to the real thing.)
The story mostly aims to tell the “lost years” between Jesus’s birth and ministry, though it spends a good portion at the end describing the ministry period of Jesus’s life. Joshua knows he’s the Son of God and the chosen Messiah, but he has no idea what he’s actually supposed to do, so he and Biff travel to the East in search of the three Wise Men, who may know the answer. Along the way they encounter a demon far more powerful than Legion, a yeti, and an Indian cult of human sacrifice.
The character of Biff is the worldly foil to the innocent Joshua, and provides a great perspective on him. Their interaction throughout the book is worth the price of admission.
Here’s an example of a conversation between the Messiah and his pal:
“Joshua, you’re the Son of God. You’re the Messiah. That implies—oh, I don’t know—that you’re a Jew! You can’t eat bacon.”
“God doesn’t care if we eat bacon. I can just feel it.”
“Really. He still feel the same way about fornication?”
“Killing? Stealing? Bearing false witness? Coveting thy neighbor’s wife, et cetera? No change of heart on those?”
“Just bacon. Interesting. You would have thought that there’d be something about bacon in the prophecies of Isaiah.”
“Yeah, makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
“You’re going to need more than that to usher in the kingdom of God, Josh, no offense. We can’t go home with, ‘Hi, I’m the Messiah, God wanted you to have this bacon.’”
“I know. We have much more to learn. But breakfasts will be more interesting.”
One of the things that fascinated me about this particular portrayal of Jesus is how he’s trying to discover his destiny. Usually Jesus is shown as always having had all the answers (or at least, you know, by the time he’s twelve). It was interesting to see a depiction of Jesus where he goes off to pray about something, and his friend asks him what his Father said, and he says God was silent. (It’s not a sin to encounter silence from Heaven, and Jesus himself talked about being persistent in prayer. Could he have ever struggled to hear the voice of his Father? We often think of Jesus has having this perfect connection with God that makes his spiritual life easy, but what if he actually had to work at his prayer life?) The novel portrays the scene at Joshua’s baptism where God says audibly, “This is my beloved Son” as an exception rather than the rule. For the most part, Joshua has to deal with questions about God’s will for his life, and feel things out for himself along the way. Kind of like most of us do.
As fun as the book is, I have two major gripes with it as a Christian. First, the story depicts God the Father as being fed up with humanity. Sure he’s sent the world his Son, but now it’s Joshua alone who cares enough about humanity to sacrifice himself. Now, I could sort of understand this from an Old Testament, story of Noah kind of perspective. I mean, once upon a time God did regret making human beings and sent a flood, but he gave Jesus to us because he “so loved the world.” The kind of love that sent his Son into the world in the first place isn’t really shown explicitly here. By having Joshua encounter an Indian cult of human sacrifice, the author is kind of drawing a parallel between Kali, the Hindu god that demands sacrifice, and God, who also requires sacrifices.
But the biggest problem I have with this “gospel” is that it tries to account for Jesus’s teachings by having him study under Eastern philosophers, and the end result is less Christian than it is Eastern philosophy dressed up as Christ’s teachings. While there are certainly similarities between the moral teachings of Jesus and Buddha or Lao Tzu, Jesus didn’t really teach that people have the power inside to save themselves, which is what Joshua more or less ends up doing during his ministry in the book. What Jesus said was, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that Joshua does end up laying down his life at the end of the book, but the power of that sacrifice is not as evident in a world where people have the power to achieve salvation by themselves.
Here’s how the turn of the century missionary John G. Lake put it: “Christians ought to know what it is that makes the distinction between Christianity and philosophy, and what makes Jesus distinct from the philosophers, and why it is that Christianity has a power that philosophy has not… The philosophers wrote their tenets, left them, and came to the grave and died, and their revelation ceased… The grave ended all… Not so with the Son of God. Not so the Lord Jesus. Why, Christianity began where philosophy left off.”
The heart of the gospel in Lamb is not the Biblical gospel.
With the great exception of the message of the Atonement, the book actually does a surprisingly good job of portraying the ministry phase of Jesus’s life. In fact, you can see just how well the author studied the Bible in order to depict these scenes and the things Jesus said and did. Christopher Moore laments in his afterward that many of the people who know the Bible well enough to recognize all these moments will probably have decided not to read his book. There are several jokes in the novel that will only be caught by people that have studied the Bible. (Oh well. I thought they were funny, Mr. Moore…)
Content warning: Where to start… If the novel’s premise fails to offend you, then its content has a chance in succeeding. Apparently there are quite a lot of prostitutes between Israel and China, and protagonist Biff doesn’t miss a chance to sleep with any of them. (That’s a slight exaggeration, but there’s some sexual content and humor in the book, be warned.) There are also several scenes of violence, including a scene of gore following the escape of a trapped demon. And there is strong language throughout, some of it spoken by the Son of God himself.
Lamb is a funny book, and one I enjoyed. I actually read it at my best friend’s recommendation, and ended up enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would. It’s not without its flaws, and I wouldn’t be sewing its pages into your Bible any time soon, but for a purely fictional account of Jesus’s youth and kung fu training on the way to his destiny, it’s worth a read.
WARNING: PLOT/END SPOILERS TO FOLLOW. ONLY READ THIS IF YOU HAVE NO INTENTION OF READING THIS MASTERPIECE OF RELIGIOUS LITERATURE. Still here? Okay, the book actually has a “twist” ending that I feel like commenting on, since it matters. From the start, Biff promises the reader that they don’t know how the story is going to end. As Biff and Joshua’s adventure takes them to the East, Biff acquires a poison capable of paralyzing a person, and its antidote. As Joshua starts to minister and tells his disciples that he’s going to be killed, we see that his best friend has no intention of letting him go through with it. I thought right up until the end that Biff was going to fake Joshua’s death and we were going to be cheated out of a resurrection scene. But the author had a twist in store: Biff totally tries to drug Joshua on the cross, but Joshua rejects it, then the centurion stabs him with the spear and he dies for real. We find out that in spite of Biff’s assurance that we the audience don’t know how the story ends, he’s the one that did not stick around after Joshua’s death to witness the resurrection, but it happened. It was a clever bit of writerly slight-of-hand, and it made for a satisfying conclusion.
Great picture of Biblical society in the time of Jesus
Touching story of friendship
Questionable content (language, gore, some sexual content)
Some bad theology