Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore I'm not sure how it happens, but several times in recent years I've found myself experiencing a fictionalized account of Jesus' life during late winter and/or the season of Lent. One year our church youth group presented "Godspell" and I spent several weeks listening to the soundtrack nonstop whenever I was in the car. Another year Robert had a conference in Snowbird, Utah and I tagged along with The Last Temptation of Christ tucked into my suitcase. I remember reading it in the lobby of our hotel, next to a plate-glass window with several feet of snow piled against it. By the way, The Last Temptation of Christ is an incredible book that had a profound impact on my faith, and deepened my love for Jesus. (There, I said it.)
This year it's Lamb, a book that's almost 10 years old but I'm just now getting to. I actually recommended this book before even reading it myself; a friend was looking for novelized accounts of Jesus for a Sunday School class he was teaching. OK, this book would SO not fit the bill for that audience---way too ribald for that---but (and?) I enjoyed it immensely. It is completely irreverent, yet done with such gentleness and even reverence. And irreverent reverence is one of my favorite things.
In Moore's book, Biff is reanimated in the present day by a ditzy angel named Raziel, who commands Biff to write his own gospel account of the life of Jesus (called Joshua in this book). Since Biff's the Messiah's best friend from childhood, he's able to fill in the story from birth to age thirty-ish, when Joshua begins his public ministry.
This story is ludicrously implausible, but then, the source material isn't exactly pedestrian, eh? Jesus spends his adolescence and young adulthood tracking down the three magi who visited him at his birth. He finds them living in Kabul, China and India, where they mentor him in everything from kung fu to Confucianism, Buddhism to the Bhagavad Gita. I was reminded of the old Ray Wylie Hubbard lyric, "Buddha wasn't a Christian but Jesus would've made a good Buddhist."
Through it all, Biff remains by Joshua's side, and I found myself hoping that Jesus really had such a steadfast and loyal friend, someone who wouldn't let him get a swelled head, someone with whom he could laugh and express his doubts and fears.
The book is frequently profound. One musing on prayer by Biff:
Before you think I was a little rough on God, there's another thing you need to know about my people. Our relationship with God was different from other people and their Gods. Sure, there was fear and sacrifice and all, but essentially, we didn't go to him, he came to us. He told us we were the chosen, he told us he would help us to multiply to the ends of the earth, he told us he would give us a land of milk and honey... Since he came to us, we figure we can hold him responsible for what he does and what happens to us... We have that kind of relationship with God. We're family.
Anyone who's read the Psalms knows that Biff is right on. And the end of the book is quite touching.
The book is also laugh-out-loud hilarious, especially near the end, when the events of the book mirror those of the gospels, but with The Funny added. (Actually the gospels have a lot of humor too.) It's painful not to quote liberally from the book, but I will refrain. One favorite bit is when Joshua heals two blind men, who are thoroughly underwhelmed at the desert landscape.
"What's that color called?"
"And that one?"
"You're sure it's not taupe?"
Later they argue over the pallor of the resuscitated Lazarus. "See? Olive! I told you he wasn't chartreuse!"
Frederich Buechner once wrote that the disciples were forever missing the point, jockeying for position---they're kind of a sad bunch of bumblers. Moore nails this in his characterization, but what they lack in intelligence they more than make up for in loyalty and pluck.
It's no exaggeration to say that this book was painstakingly (I'd even say lovingly) researched. Don't count on it to provide completely accurate historical background; the anachronisms are numerous. But after reading this book, I might finally be able to keep the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes straight, something I have not been able to do with three years of seminary and a few decades of reading the Bible under my belt.
And the image of Jesus teaching a little girl to give the Pharisees the finger using the withered hand he just healed is one I won't soon forget.