by Christopher Moore
506 pp, Orbit (2002)
Review by Bill Kirton
After reading a skit I’d written, a friend recommended this book. I can now see why but the comparison is flattering. When I started reading it, I was immediately grabbed by the ease of the narrative and its relaxed, inviting tone. But I did wonder whether it would turn out to be a book which churned out variations of a single central gag for 500+ pages. Well, it did – except that there wasn’t just one central gag, but many, and beyond that, it opened some gentle but telling insights into spiritual searches, faith and the relationships between gods, organised religions and – the most important element of all – people.
The easiest way for me to get some laughs here would be to quote examples from the text; it’s consistently entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny. But taking the many one-liners out of context, while it wouldn’t diminish their impact, would do Moore a disservice, because they’re integral to the narrative and funnier in situ. I do, though, need to tell you that, throughout the book, Christ is called Joshua. Why? Well, Moore tells us at the start: ‘By the way, his name was Joshua. Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua, which is Joshua. Christ is not a last name. It’s the Greek for messiah, a Hebrew word meaning anointed. I have no idea what the ‘H’ in Jesus H. Christ stood for.’ (Although even that secret is eventually revealed.)
As the sub-title tells us, Biff is Christ’s childhood pal and, with the 2000th anniversary of His birth coming up, it’s decided that the four gospels don’t tell the full story so Biff is resurrected to fill in the gaps, especially the first thirty years Matthew and the others seem to have left out. He spends his time in a hotel room with Raziel, the angel charged with resurrecting and looking after him. They both have the gift of tongues so the narratives and their dialogue are in colloquial modern American English. The main narrative is the gospel itself as Biff recalls his travels and experiences with the young Joshua, but it’s counterpointed with the story of the tensions between Biff and the angel Raziel, whose passion for TV soaps and wrestling colours his perceptions of modern life.
There are hilarious takes on obvious targets – The Sermon on the Mount, the various miracles, the impenetrable nature of parables, Christ’s celibacy (which is more than compensated for by Biff’s promiscuity), and the fact that bacon is delicious – but it’s humour that derives from the characters themselves, not from some clever 21st century pastiche of familiar anecdotes. Biff even invents sarcasm, although he seems to accept that irony had already been around for a while.
Joshua decides he needs to find out exactly what being the Messiah entails so, with Biff in tow, he sets out to find the three magi who visited the manger in Bethlehem. The journey takes them over great chunks of Asia but, more importantly, reveals the teachings of other prophets and faiths to them (or, rather, to Joshua, since Biff has a much more practical approach to life and the pleasures on offer).
Subtly, and in the same easy tone, Moore suggests how Christ’s message is informed by the teachings of Confucius (‘little more than an extensive system of etiquette’), Taoism, Buddhism, the Indian caste systems, and other religious ceremonies and observances. It’s a persuasive, sympathetic vision of the underlying values and lessons of faith itself. There are no doubt people who would be deeply offended by this seemingly trivial treatment of Christianity but their offence would reveal the flaws in their own version of faith rather than in this compassionate view of how people interact with one another and channel their dreams into positive, life-enhancing ways of being. I’m a non-believer and yet this journey through some of the major religions in the company of two people who share a genuine, warm and enduring friendship felt like an affirmation of powers outside ourselves.
Despite the inevitability of the outcome, the final pages leading to the crucifixion, are surprisingly tense and suspenseful and confirm how expertly Moore has constructed and written the novel. His research is impeccable, his characterisation superb and the range of his humour a constant delight. I bought Lamb expecting to get a few laughs. I got that and lots more.