Yeesh! I don't have any excuse for why Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal took me longer to read than Ulysses, The Baroque Cycle, 2666, or any of the other massive tomes I've read throughout the years. It's a bit on the long side, but like most of Chris Moore's work, it's an easy and generally fun read. I think I've just been getting too distracted by video games and television shows and browsing the Internet to actually sit down and finish the thing.
It's a good, fun book. I didn't love it as much as I'd hoped, but that might be because of my choppy reading habits. On an intellectual level, I appreciated what it was doing; however, it ended up being a bit like Fluke in that many specific elements of the story ended up annoying me.
As you might expect from the title, this work occupies territory similar to that of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, or, more applicably, Monty Python's The Life of Brian. It's well-researched, drawing on both the biblical and independent historical records, but is primarily a work of entertainment, telling its own story that's inspired by but not limited to the Gospels. In Moore's case, he was mostly curious about one question: what happened during the eighteen years between Jesus's childhood and the start of his ministry at the age of 30?
The shortest and best answer that Moore gives is that Christ learned kung-fu. Joshua (the name always used in the book) and the narrator Biff (a terrifically-written asshole) spend the bulk of the book on a pilgrimage visiting each of the three wise men who attended Joshua's birth. Each is an expert in a separate Eastern spiritual tradition, and each spends several years training the pair (but mainly Joshua) in the philosophy and practice of their specialty. In each case, Joshua ends up surpassing the master, but realizing that he still does not have the answer, and moving on. The phrase "divine spark" is frequently invoked to establish the bridge between Eastern and Western thought.
This is a fairly common gloss given to Christ-centric Christianity: that it's essentially a variation on the same core truths revealed in Eastern mysticism, re-interpreted in the West. Key principals such as the Golden Rule, the eternal spirit, equality of humans, the emptiness of human possessions, etc., appear across a range of different religions.
One of the things I liked best about this book, and that kind of surprised me, is that Moore doesn't completely make this argument. His Joshua isn't a good man with good teachings. He really is the Son of God, really does perform miracles, and offers the sole path to salvation. He gives the Sermon on the Mount, and also declares that no one may come to the Father except through him. There are different aspects of the Bible that liberals and conservatives like to focus on, and I appreciated that Moore doesn't just present one side, but the full range of his teachings.
So, wherefore Asia? Good question! Honestly, this was the part of the book that dragged on the most for me. This seems to be where Moore indulges the most in some of the more questionable stuff in the book. Biff is obsessed with sex, which is funny and relatable in Galilee; but it turns into a weird sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy in the middle section, with long passages recounting all of the different kinds of sex Biff has with many exotic women. This is tangentially related to the plot, specifically Joshua's necessary virginity, and is one of the best ways to reinforce the "Biff is an asshole" storyline, but it gets old pretty fast.
For the most part, Moore avoids cliched orientalism; but when it does crop up, it's very distracting. The section that struck me most was a long scene about the Cult of Kali, where barbaric Hindus kidnap and slaughter children while copulating to honor their goddess. In the text, this provides Joshua with the motivation to take direct action, and reinforces his idea that all lives have equal value. That said, it felt really gratuitous, and muddled the message a bit... it's hard to convey that all humans are equal when you have a huge anonymous population of absolute villains. (Moore does specifically address this scene in his afterward, noting that all of the details were drawn from historical sources and not exaggerated for the book. It's arguably justified, but felt like yet another side-story that padded out the middle section for little benefit.)
Oh, and the puns! So many puns. Moore is right up there with Pratchett in his mastery of them, making me giggle with rage. The most egregious is probably when the two are learning martial arts at a mountain monastery. Biff is a quick student of the brisk, fast-paced fighting style; but Joshua is reluctant to cause harm to his opponents. Instead, he develops his own style, using his opponents' strengths against them while avoiding harm himself. The impressed monks name this new technique jew-do in honor of Joshua's heritage. I nearly set the book on fire with my impressed glare.
Apart from the Eastern section, though, I really enjoyed the story. The framing device for the story is set in the present day: Raziel (the stupidest angel, who appears in several other Moore books) resurrects Biff, then takes him to a hotel room where they watch daytime soap operas while Biff writes his own account of the Gospels. Those were some of my favorite parts of the book. There's a bit of the expected fish-out-of-water experience as Biff comes to terms with the 2000 years of progress between his time and ours; the joke, though, is that Biff quickly figures out how the new world works, while Raziel is as dumb as ever.
The bigger issue is the difference between the canonical Gospels and Biff's own. This, too, is interesting: Biff's criticism isn't that the gospels get stuff wrong or invent things, but that they omit from the story. He's a little shaken by this, but mostly upset, and the narration is always fun to read. Unfortunately, the present-day stuff disappears around the time we need it most, only returning at the end.
Overall, the book is extremely well-researched. Many events from the gospels appear here, including famous scenes like turning water into wine and raising Lazarus. However, they often have interesting twists that add another angle to these familiar stories. For example, when Joshua is baptized by his cousin John, he's underwater when God speaks and says "This is my son," so he doesn't actually hear it even though everyone else does. Stuff like that provides good fodder for comedy, and also makes Joshua human and interesting. He knows what he has to do, but is sometimes frustrated at the task ahead of him and the intermittent support of his father.
And also the stupidity of his followers! While a lot of this book is sacrilegious or worse, there is more than sufficient evidence for Joshua being annoyed at how thick-headed his disciples were. We see him trying, over and over, to come up with different parables in the hope that one of them will finally sink in to them. As usual, Biff is the ice-breaker here, basically saying, "Hey, if people still don't get it, then maybe these analogies aren't very good."
Biff is a terrific foil for Joshua, both narratively and as a collaborator. He'll sometimes prod Joshua into action, or present him with a problem to solve. They have very different temperaments, and while Joshua is clearly the superior of the two, Biff does contribute to Joshua's effectiveness. There's a great scene where they are writing the outline for the Sermon on the Mount, running through all of the Beatitudes, trying to figure out who gets what. Some of their ideas, uh, don't make the final cut. It's really fun to see them struggle to build something together, with us knowing the final outcome but seeing all of the effort it takes to get there.
The rest of the cast is much more sketchily drawn. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joshua get a lot of development, but we mostly see them through the lens of Biff's carnal desires. The nature of the story makes it difficult to do much more: when you're introducing twelve disciples, you can't spend all that much time establishing unique personalities for each of them, so each person gets one thing that defines them and is referenced whenever they show up. This typically isn't what you would expect! You would think, for example, that Thomas would be the skeptic of the group; instead, his whole deal is that he has an imaginary twin brother, Thomas Two, who only he can see. Peter is a bit more traditional of a portrayal - he's unimaginative but loyal. The disciple John is gay; I actually kind of like this idea, but unfortunately it's just done to line up a gay-panic joke. Judas gets a fairly accurate portrayal that's also more or less in line with his most common contemporary interpretation in works like Jesus Christ Superstar: he is a Zealot, most committed out of all of the disciples to the idea of a Messiah and salvation from the Romans, who is horrified as Joshua's waste of money and seeming neglect of his people and the necessary instrument of God's ultimate plan.
MEGA SPOILERS, I GUESS??
The book ends on a very abrupt note, with an out-of-nowhere chase scene as Biff pursues Judas after the crucifixion, then both dying. It's odd in a couple of ways. Unlike much of the rest of the book, it directly contradicts the New Testament; then again, the scriptures are a little unclear themselves. (One account has Judas paying back the silver and hanging himself, the other has him buying a field and disemboweling himself). This may be a subtle and implicit reference to a long-running idea in this novel, that the other disciples were jealous of how close Biff was to Joshua, and were upset that he left them by committing suicide in his grief, and so systematically erased him from their stories. If they couldn't say what really happened to Judas without invoking Biff, they may have created new stories instead.
We get a nice little coda after that, finally back in the modern timeline and with Biff reunited at last with his longstanding love Maggie. Which I honestly wasn't expecting - an earlier scene in which Biff eavesdrops on Raziel had me think that the angel was planning on killing Biff after his task was done. In retrospect, Raziel might have just been taking the long view - from the perspective of an immortal angel, dying after forty years would still seem like a death sentence. Especially to an angel as unpunctual and easily distracted as Raziel.
It's been way too long since the last Moore book I read, and hopefully I won't need to wait as long to read my next one. He may end up becoming my replacement Pratchett, releasing a great new book every year or two, plus a backlog that I haven't yet exhausted. I doubt that there will be too many other books like Lamb in his oeuvre - most secular creators get a maximum of one shot at a twist on the Bible - but it's an impressive accomplishment alongside his more purely lighthearted fare.