This book is sure to offend. Lamb is one of the most outrageous “Jesus” books you will ever read.
It contains all manner of “adult” themes: graphic sexual passages, brutal violence, frightening political scenes, and so forth. This book is also laugh-out-loud-and-weep funny, and presents Jesus as a friend you would like to have known in his youth.
Christopher Moore’s insightful and creative look into the life of Jesus has become one of my “top ten all-time favorites” in the fiction category. Lamb is precisely that: FICTION. It is by turns historically accurate and anachronistic, biblically reliable and remarkably imaginative, and always a rollicking ride.
The premise of the book: two thousand years after Jesus’ crucifixion, his best friend from childhood, a man named Levi, called “Biff,” has been brought back to life in order to tell the story of Jesus as only his closest companion would know it. He ends up in the United States in the late twentieth century, being watched over by the angel Raziel in a hotel room. While Raziel watches daytime television with nearly unparalled obsessiveness, Biff writes his Gospel.
According to Biff, the untold years of Jesus’ boyhood and young adulthood were rich with adventures and filled with insights into the person and the character of the Messiah. Through Moore’s astonishing imagination and keen sense of Jesus (here called Joshua), the reader encounters the Messiah as a young man who is searching for his way in the world, deciphering his unusual vocation, and always bearing God’s heart of love and compassion for the world.
The book opens on the first day that Biff met Joshua. They were six years old, with Joshua (“the man who would save the world”) busy bringing a lizard back to life, again and again, after his little brother “smote it mightily” with a rock. This opening scene speaks clearly about the Jesus portrayed in this story: one whose very nature it is to bring life and healing and mercy to those around him.
In one particularly marvelous scene, for instance, Biff and Joshua find themselves in a market in Antioch. Joshua decides to practice his healing skills on the unsuspecting crowd, and ends up running haphazardly through the throng of people, healing them as he goes, and finding extraordinary joy in the experience.
“Joshua was bumping people in the crowd as he passed, seemingly on purpose, and murmuring just loud enough so I could hear him each time he hit someone with a shoulder or an elbow. ‘Healed that guy. Healed her. Stopped her suffering. Healed him. Comforted him. Ooo, that guy was just stinky. Healed her. Whoops, missed. Healed. Healed. Comforted. Calmed.'”
When Biff admonishes Joshua to stop this behavior due to the risk of his being found out, Joshua replies with a mixture of bliss and helplessness: “But I love these people,” Josh said.
And therein lies Moore’s best insight into the heart of God, embodied in the person of the Messiah. Whenever there is a moment of doubt, Joshua errs on the side of compassion and empathy; it is simply his nature to do so. This occurs again in two very troubling passages in which horrific violence leads to rampant death. In the face of the brutality of the world, Joshua heals people, saves children from the carnage of sacrificial death, and screams out, “No more!” In his love for the world, Joshua simply cannot bear to see suffering, and ultimately decides that he must take it on himself.
A large portion of the book contains stories of the adventures which Biff and Joshua have while visiting the three wise men who, according to tradition, were the first gentiles to see the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. According to Lamb, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar are all sages of their various spiritual traditions. From each of them Joshua garners skills and talents and insights which he later incorporates into his public ministry in Galilee.
The book ends with a couple of rather shocking surprises, one at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, and another two thousand years later. So as not to spoil the conclusion, allow this to suffice: Moore’s astonishing creativity applies even to areas which are difficult and distasteful, not just to the clever or off-colored.
I cannot recommend this book to my confirmation students or to members of my parish for whom some portions of the content might present a “stumbling block” for faith. For adult readers who are not afraid to re-think Jesus as a person, however, or for those whose only religious imagination has been molded by a dull piety, I recommend this book highly. Ultimately, this is a book of faith. In the scene in which Joshua and Biff are departing from Melchior’s house, for instance, the wise man makes his bold confession: “We were seekers. You are that which is sought, Joshua. You are the source. The end is divinity, in the beginning is the word. You are the word.”