Sunday, January 22, 2012

"You are a scrawny brown guy!" "No, you are a scrawny brown guy!": Lamb and the Jesus of History

Christopher Moore. Official website. Image found here.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal.

This is the first Christopher Moore novel I've read. It comes recommended to me by two people: the Mrs., who is a long-time fan; and my pastor. Talking with them both about both Joseph's absence from the Gospels after the scene with the boy Jesus in the Temple and about the Infancy Gospel of Thomas led both of them to recommend Lamb--the Mrs. because Moore's book covers that territory and because she thinks Moore is funny; my pastor because "it contains some serious Christology." And because he thinks it's funny. Indeed, he told me that if it weren't for the book's profanity, he'd not hesitate to use it as a teaching resource. More on that idea in a minute. As to its artistic merits, I'll just say here, Art this ain't. But it did make me think, which is why I'm posting on it.

As you may have divined from the full title of Moore's book, Lamb is comedic in nature. But the writer has also done his homework so that, in his Afterword, he can tell us what parts are more or less historically/culturally accurate and what parts are more like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Thus, the plot--Biff tells about growing up with Jesus (here, named Joshua or Josh), who is aware that he's the Messiah but has only the vaguest understanding of what that entails (God remains silent on this matter), and so embarks on a journey to India and China to find and obtain some enlightenment from the Wise Men who visited him--is filled with some decent silliness. Examples: While in China, Biff and Josh invent a kind of unarmed self-defense that comes to be called "Jew-do;" also while in China, the boys celebrate Josh's birthday by eating Chinese food, thus establishing another old tradition, this one for Jews if not for Christians.

However, as I read it I was reminded of something one of my college English teachers was fond of saying: "Comedy is deadly serious." And indeed, as I told my pastor, what kept me reading was the fact that Moore explores a question that gets acknowledged doctrinally via the Creeds but is at best glossed over if not simply ignored in the Church: We understand as Christians that Jesus is God's only begotten son, but what are the implications of Jesus' humanity for us in this world? Just how slippery is the slope when we think, for example, Well, Jesus was fully human, so that means he could be tempted to sin--that, for example, he was a man and so, we can assume, felt the desire for physical intimacy with women; or that, when a child he had not only those powers we assume God to have but also a child's tendency toward rash, impulsive behavior when angry. (Regarding this latter, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas assumes those tendencies as givens in the boy Jesus, and one doesn't have to read for very long before one sees why it's not in the canon.) These questions make many of us uneasy: we don't want Jesus to have had a sordid inner life like the one we all have. We say, doctrinally, that he was fully human, but I daresay we don't really believe that (or don't want to believe it, perhaps) because to do so would call into question, even to the point of cancelling out, his divinity. The same is true of the world into which he was born and in which he lived. We tend not to dwell at Christmas time on the fact that, never mind what the Gospels say, Mary's pregnancy had to have been a scandal. It clearly was for Joseph, at least initially; and in the sermon on Mary's visit to Elizabeth and the Magnificat that I heard on the Sunday before Christmas, the pastor said in passing, "And we understand the reason for that visit--the unwed pregnant girl being sent into the country to live with relatives," to which one can only say, Yes: that had to have been the case.

Sometimes it can seem as though we're more comfortable with the fact that Jesus died than that he lived.

Lamb is, it seems, very comfortable with the fact and implications of Jesus' having been a flesh-and-blood human being. It presents the reader with a "Josh" and a world that don't pretend to absolutely rigorous historical fidelity to what we know of the place and time of Jesus' life, but it is not at all shy about dramatizing the general messiness of human life as experienced by all mortals--yes, even the fully-human Son of God, too. Indeed, his life, as imagined by Moore, seems much messier than ours. Moore has Josh remain celibate throughout his life, but he imagines, quite reasonably, that Josh struggles to resist the temptations of various women--in particular, his childhood/adolescent friend Maggie (better known as Mary Magdalene). Moore also has Josh say to Biff that he (Josh) feels he need to know something about sin, the better to preach against it. Josh's solution: to have Biff narrate some of his sexual encounters with women. (Biff, you will not be shocked to learn, is only too willing to oblige.)

Lamb, in other words, is filled with scrawny brown guys (and girls), just as the world of the Jesus of history was. One character, who is blond, is referred to as a "freak" by some of the other characters. Josh's early childhood isn't a beautifully-painted creche. Sure, there's some bawdiness in this novel, but there are also lepers and dogs and dust and Roman soldiers and Pharisees who must be avoided or appeased . . . and a little boy who senses that he is God's son and not Joseph's and therefore has been set apart but has only the vaguest notion of what that means for his life. Joseph knows this, but there's only so much he can do for this boy whom he loves but who exasperates him so much: "You go with Joshua," Joseph tells Biff. "He needs a friend to teach him how to be human. Then I can teach him how to be a man" (17).

I should make clear that Lamb makes no doctrinal claims--that is, the Christ of faith is not its subject. Some events are indeed miracles, in that they aren't explained away, and some are given explanations . . . of a sort. Here, for example, is the walking-on-water scene:

"Master, you're walking on the water," said Peter.

"I just ate," Joshua said. You can't go in the water for an hour after you eat. You could get a cramp. What, none of you guys had mothers?"

"It's a miracle," shouted Peter.

"It's no big deal," Joshua said, dismissing the miracle with the wave of a hand. "It's easy. Really, Peter, you should try it."


Then Peter stepped with both feet onto the surface of the water, and for a split second he stood there. And we were all amazed. "Hey, I'm--" Then he sank like a stone. He came up sputtering. We were all doubled over giggling, and even Joshua had sunk up to his ankles, he was laughing so hard.

"I can't believe you fell for that," said Joshua. He ran across the water and helped us pull Peter into the boat. "Peter, you're as dumb as a box of rocks. But what amazing faith you have. I'm going to build my church on this box of rocks."

"You would have Peter build your church?" asked Philip. "Because he tried to walk on the water."

"Would you have tried it?" asked Joshua.

"Of course not," said Philip. "I can't swim."

"Then who has the greater faith?" (390-391)

One could quibble with some of the particulars here, but I'd argue that an attentive reading of the story as told in Matthew reveals no harm done to its essence as a story not of a miracle, but of faith.

In his Epilogue, Moore says something curious in the midst of a paragraph in which he discusses his book's mixture of real and invented scriptural passages and whether or not he should have distinguished them from each other in some way: "The problem arises, however, that if the reader knows the Bible well enough to recognize the real references, there's a good chance that he or she has decided not to read this book" (442). I suppose that that is a fair characterization of some Bible-readers, but I'd hope that it doesn't describe all of them. And in any event, I'd hope that of all the books toward which one might become complacent, the Bible would/should be waaay down toward the bottom of that list. A book like Lamb, though no one will mistake it as a work of serious historical or theological scholarship, nevertheless takes seriously the idea that Jesus really lived and was a human being, and that he lived in a three-dimensional world, an exceedingly complicated one whose complexity the canonical gospels don't always reveal. Reading it, and works like it, makes me less complacent about the Bible and make Jesus feel, well, human even as he wrestles with the burden of knowing that he is also divine. And, for me at least, thinking more about Jesus' humanity makes me feel his divinity all the more powerfully.


R. Sherman said...

Given that you dove in and weren't struck by lightening, I feel it's safe to check this one out.

Thanks for the review.


Nick said...

All of Moore's fiction is touched with comedic madness - great stuff.

Thanks for your thoughts here; you're the first person of faith I "know" who has read Lamb. However, and correct me if I'm amiss, you never got around to telling us whether you enjoyed the book…

John B. said...

Randall and Nick,

Thanks for the kind words. Randall, if you think about it, there's pretty scandalous stuff in the Good Book itself. Lamb is pretty tame by comparison; besides, as Moore himself says in his epilogue (and I'm paraphrasing here), if something like his book is going to shake your faith, the problem is not with his book. Kierkegaard is far more disturbing on that score.

Nick, you're right: I forgot the thumbs-up/down assessment. I'll have to say that for me personally, it didn't have the kind of oomph that it I imagine it would have for someone not used to considering the human Jesus--which, as I implied in my post, doesn't even get talked about much in your typical Sunday sermon (though Bible studies, if they're good, will at least talk about the historical realities of the world Jesus lived in). That's not Moore's fault, of course. But for someone new to thinking about such things, whether or not s/he is a believer, Moore would give him/her much to think about, and I mean that in a positive way. I did like it, and I laughed in most of the right places, I think. The walking-on-water scene is quite sly, I think; and Moore, I have to say, has read the gospel of Mark very closely--it's hard not to note Jesus' rather frequent exasperation in that gospel with what he himself characterizes as his disciples' dimwittedness, and that's something Moore exploits to humorous effect. So, yeah: It didn't change my life, but I'm glad I read it, and I'd certainly not discourage anyone from reading it.

You may be pleased to know that I just started reading Fool a couple of nights ago. It's early yet for me to have an opinion. He has a new novel coming out this spring that I'm interested in knowing more about, Sacre Bleu, which is about artists and Art (he's posted the first two chapters on his website; they're about Van Gogh and the painting he made on the day he killed himself).

Noble Rot said...

Thanks for the recommendation! I just bought it from your link (don't know if you get any vig from that, but...)

Anyway, it's now in the queue on my Kindle. I'll read it as soon as I finish The Hunger Games.

Nick said...


I thought you might like it; I'll be interested in your take on whatever more Moore you read. I'm fond of reading something like Whitehead's Zone One and counterpointing it with Moore's A Dirty Job, say...

And, yes, Sacre Bleu is in my library queue; ordered but obvs not in stock yet...

John B. said...

Mr. Rot,
Thanks for thanking me. I think I'll see some (eventual) remuneration from Amazon once enough people do the same. And as it happens, Hunger Games is up next for me, after Fool.

And Nick, I'll let you know what I think about Fool. A couple of weeks back, I read a little of Zone One while at Barnes & Noble--enough to see that Whitehead is really, really good with setting a scene. Yet another to add to the wait-for-it-in-paperback pile.

Noble Rot said...

Um, I was kind of joking about that Hunger Games thing. But if you say it's worth reading, I'll give it a read.

Finished Lamb, BTW. I really liked it. Best book I've read all year.