Monday, September 6, 2010

"Lamb" by Christopher Moore

Summary: The book's subtitle is "The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal," which is a pretty appropriate summary.  Biff, sarcastic but intensely loyal, retells the childhood, ministry, and death of his best friend, Joshua (the English translation of Jesus' Hebrew name).

Musings: Retellings of older, well-known stories are common place in modern literature, but the life and death of Jesus is one area that rarely gets expanded upon in fiction form (at least to my knowledge) for obvious reasons.  Yet clearly there's plenty of opportunity for interesting stories.  What was Jesus like with his family and friends?  How did he grapple with knowing he was the son of God?  What did he do during all those "missing" childhood/young adult years that the gospels don't speak to?  Clearly these are questions that can be addressed reverentially, but they can also be addressed in a more absurdist and even lighthearted way.  People who take their religion very seriously would undoubtedly be offended, but they'd probably never bother picking up a book like this.  So Moore begins with what I thought was a compelling conceit: tell the entire history of Jesus (Joshua) through the lens of a wise-cracking but devoted friend. 

Biff's called an asshole at the beginning of the novel, and the description is pretty apt.  Everything's a joke to him, and he has no problem lying or stealing for personal gain.  Joshua might attain enlightenment after studying at a strict monastery for years, but Biff confesses he mainly learned how to sleep with his eyes open.  But, Joshua is his best friend, and if Biff has one goal in life, it is to stand by and protect Joshua.  However, although he believes Joshua is the son of God, that doesn't necessarily translate to following all of his teachings or being especially pious.

And so it's Biff who brings spark to the story but who also keeps the novel from feeling complete from beginning to end.  The story's funny and the anachronisms are great, but, really, all the book is is the story of Jesus with some ribald color commentary.  Biff really doesn't grow or change as a person, and by the time Joshua's crucifixion occurs, I was looking for more characterization and empathy in Biff.

I did, however, enjoy learning about Joshua's growth and decision making.  Lamb addresses Joshua's difficult journey to accept his role as the son of God and the decisions he had to make along the way.  Especially fascinating was the way in which Joshua changed his stance from God's, marking the change from the Old Testament's emphasis on rules, wrath, and the divinely chosen to Joshua and the New Testament's focus on compassion, forgiveness, and salvation for all.  All sons must decide in what ways they support or challenge their fathers' views, and I enjoyed reading about Joshua's experience with that.

In the note at the end, Moore notes that the people most likely to understand the biblical references are the people least likely to read the book, but I do think some level of familiarity with Christianity is helpful.  From what I've heard, this is not Moore's best work, and the conceit stretches thin, but it was an enjoyable read.

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