Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
I must say this story would never have occurred to me. I didn’t really know what to expect from Christopher Moore, given that I read Fool many years ago and wasn’t wildly impressed (too many one-liners, not enough substance), but then my mom talked me into borrowing Lamb and the rest is now history.
Lamb is an irreverent account of the first thirty years in the life of Christ (here referred to as “Joshua” in keeping with the Hebrew name Yeshua, as opposed to “Jesus,” which is the Greek translation of Yeshua). The story is narrated by a man who was named Levi at birth but is predominantly called Biff because, according to his mother, he requires a good biff on the head at least once a day. Resurrected in the year 2000 and bestowed with the gift of tongues for the purposes of recording Joshua’s lost years in a language other than Aramaic, Biff quickly finds himself locked in a hotel room with no one but a dimwitted angel named Raziel for company. Left with few options in a world he doesn’t know and rarely sees, he grudgingly sets out to tell his story while Raziel divides his time between supervising the mutinous Biff and shouting at soap operas.
In the beginning, Biff is a fairly normal Jewish boy, but his life naturally changes when he meets the Once and Future Messiah at the age of six. Growing up side by side, he and Joshua get into all kinds of faith-inspired scrapes, including but not limited to almost drowning (or baptizing, depending on how you look at it) Biff’s brother; trying to adopt a wild snake, named Sarah after Abraham’s wife; and castrating a giant statue of Apollo. (In their defense, they were only trying to circumcise him.) They both fall in love with Mary of Magdala (“Maggie”), and both are sorely grieved to leave her behind when they start on a fourteen-year journey to attain enlightenment, though one consoles himself with harlots and the other does not. Their quest takes them through China and India, where they seek wisdom from the Magi who visited Joshua in the manger, discover the joys of bacon and a few other sinful things, and learn useful skills like martial arts, meditation, yak-shaving, and sarcasm.
I loved the beginning and the end of this book, but I didn’t love the middle. While I realize this thing was written in the nineties, the Chinese section is painful. At the beginning of their journey, Joshua and Biff visit Balthasar, one of the Magi, who has made his home in China. This would’ve been fine in itself, but they shortly discover that Balthasar has eight nubile Chinese concubines, named thusly:
- Tiny Feet of the Divine Dance of Joyous Orgasm
- Beautiful Gate of Heavenly Moisture Number Six
- Temptress of the Golden Light of the Harvest Moon
- Delicate Personage of Two Fu Dogs Wrestling Under a Blanket
- Feminine Keeper of the Three Tunnels of Excessive Friendliness
- Silken Pillows of the Heavenly Softness of Clouds
- Pea Pods in Duck Sauce with Crispy Noodle
Holy stereotypes. Biff also admits that he and Joshua shortened seven of these names, because “to try to pronounce them in Chinese produced a sound akin to throwing a bag of silverware down a flight of steps (ting, tong, yang, wing, etc).” If anyone is wondering why Asian Americans still get called things like “Miss Ching-Chong,” this is it. (In total fairness, I don’t mind Sue. Sue can keep her name.) And, no, this is not the most egregious thing I’ve ever read, which really tells you something about the last two or so years, but if you think it can’t get much worse than cheerful orientalism, fetishization, and nonsensical names, then you would be me, and you would be wrong.
I could’ve moved past the names, but the Chinese segment of the adventure comes to an abrupt end when seven of the concubines are torn to literal shreds by the demon who was secretly locked up in Balthasar’s fortress. The biggest trouble is that I read Lamb after the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, and, well, I have some problems. This is absolutely not Moore’s fault because, again, the book was published in 2002, and there was no way he could’ve known that six Asian women would be massacred two decades later. All the same, it is an extraordinarily discomfiting scene, and one that would have aged poorly in any case. If there is one saving grace, it is the survival of Tiny Feet of the Divine Dance of Joyous Orgasm (“Joy”), who not only manages to escape the demon’s claws but also pees on him. Sure, it makes him mad, but he really had it coming. After Balthasar’s death, she inherits his fortune, moves into a nice palace with a bunch of young male concubines, and renames herself the Cruel and Accursed Dragon Princess, which honestly I would pick on more if it weren’t a name I’d adopt myself, and all in all she was the best thing to come out of the Chinese section.
I’m on shakier ground with the Indian section because I don’t know much about India, but there’s a whole sequence where Biff terrorizes a bunch of Untouchables and then dresses up as the goddess Kali for a rescue operation, so I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that it’s probably worse than the Chinese section. Fortunately, Joshua and Biff are called back to Israel after a few cringey years, and the story finally gets back on track by the time they’re twenty-seven, though it then takes the traditional turn for the worse. Biff fights to protect Joshua (as much from Joshua himself as from other people), but finds he is helpless when Joshua is stabbed by a soldier while hanging on the cross. Believing that Joshua is now incapable of coming back as planned, Biff executes Judas in a fit of rage before committing suicide. His death brings the story up to the present, where he has since learned that Joshua did indeed come back, and that Christianity has spread all over the world. After finishing his story, he is reunited with Maggie, who was resurrected for the same purpose, and they are set loose in the modern world to live their lives all over again.
I stand by my statement that the best parts of the book took place in Israel, both before and after Joshua’s rise as the Messiah. There was a certain point where the book, while still generally funny, became kind of a chore to read, but it really picked up at the end. The writing was perfect for the story, though there were too many places where the dialogue became confusing because it kept going back and forth between the characters with no intervening narration. It technically wasn’t hard to follow because this mostly happened between Joshua and Biff, but these rapid-fire conversations dragged on for so long that it was easy to get lost. On the other hand, the book also gave us some profoundly amazing moments, such as this one:
Matthew stood up in the back of the boat and cleared his throat. “What is one tormented man compared to the calming of a storm? Were you all in the same boat I was?”
“Onward,” Peter said, and onward we went, the big boat full of Joshua and Matthew and the eight faithless pieces of shit that were the rest of us.
It’s been almost a year and that’s still my favorite line. Then there was this:
“The coward,” Maggie spat.
“Amen,” I said. “How did you stay with a creep like that all of these years?”
“After the first year he didn’t want to be anywhere near me. Unclean, don’t you know? I told him I was bleeding.”
“For all those years?”
“Sure. Do you think he would embarrass himself among the members of the Pharisee council by asking them about their own wives?”
Joshua said, “I can heal you of that affliction, if you’ll let me, Maggie.”
For everything that the book loses with its depictions of China and India, it makes up for it with the overall plot and its handling of the characters. I love Biff and Joshua and Maggie. Their personalities are clear, distinct, and consistent. Nor does the book forget that there are other women in the world besides Maggie; as a general rule, the female characters are hilarious, strong-willed, and far more competent than Biff, who learns some of his most important lessons from them. (The most important lesson: if someone puts poison in your tea, don’t drink it. The second most important: the “H” in “Jesus H. Christ” stands for “Hallowed.” Biff was going to guess “Harvey.”)
And, though they don’t seem like they would fit in with the rest of the book, Biff’s despair at the end, his loss of faith and his suicide, were surprisingly moving. For such a goofy book, there are moments of such poignancy that I was caught completely off guard – not because they were bad or poorly executed, but because they were woven into the story so well that, even acknowledging the overall silliness, they still felt completely natural and even fitting. In retrospect, I appreciate that it wasn’t all castrated statues and shaved yaks. The serious parts were the exception rather than the rule, but they weren’t overdone, and they made the story feel more balanced and somewhat less like a frat boy’s fever dream. The book obviously was not perfect, but it was entertaining, absorbing, and occasionally thought-provoking, and, if silly Messiah origin stories are your thing, I would definitely recommend it.