Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"Lamb" is a wicked retelling of the life of Josh the Nazarene through the perspective of Levi bar Alphaeus who is also called Biff, who has been friends with Josh since they were boys. Read "wicked" as you wish.

Author, Christopher Moore, takes the opportunity to fill in the gaps left behind in the Gospels regarding Josh's growing up period to the beginning of his ministry, then follows Josh behind the scenes to his eventual betrayal and execution on the cross. Biff's version of the Gospel story is, however, a very down-to-earth one focusing on Josh's humanity though not denying his divinity. In fact, the juxtaposition of human divinity is where the fun begins.

Biff is Josh's perfect human foil. Biff is foul-mouthed, violent, carnal, but also imaginative and a great improviser in times of trouble. Hence, he tells his version of the Gospel in like manner. His language we may describe as vernacular vulgaris in its crudest form, because 1) that's how Biff is, and 2) his newly presented "gift of tongues" gives him the ability to speak like a common profanity-spewing New Yorker, all the better to communicate with us in the modern world 2000 years after his death.

About the transitional years from boy to man that's missing from the Gospels, Biff picks up the story and relates their quest to find the wise men who visited Josh in the stable where he was born. From each wise man they study philosophy and discipline themselves in the skills they need for Josh's later ministry. To divine his Father's will, Josh focuses on developing his spirituality, while Biff studies poisons, explosives, the tantric arts and kung fu.

It's wonderful how Moore's imagination weaves together Josh and Biff's experiences on their travels to bring Josh to his particular insight into the nature of God, and the point of his ministry. Part of it is through coincidences in the texts of other holy scriptures, part is through life experiences Josh later recalls in his parables, and part is by making horrible puns. For example, because Josh absolutely refuses to hurt anyone, Gaspar's Himalayan monks have to develop a whole new martial arts style for him to practice. It's a style that uses the energy of an attack against itself. They call it, "Ju-do", meaning, "The way of the Jew". Arrrrggghhh! But when Josh is eventually tested and questioned by the Pharisees later in his life, the way he replies to them is a form of intellectual, rhetorical judo, isn't it so?

While all this mental juggling might sound pretty dry, Lamb is hilariously funny. Moore takes liberties with scriptural references, taking them out of context and using them in highly unlikely situations. He fleshes out the Apostles by assigning them each a fatal human flaw which they often tease each other about, and portrays them as extremely dense in the way that they don't get Josh's parables, and in their hopeless attempt to rescue Josh from his impending execution.

Despite all the profanity flung liberally around the pages, it's used as linguistic humour with no intention to insult the faith. Josh may be portrayed as quite human, but his character is respected. Biff himself, is almost always the butt of the jokes, and since he's never mentioned in any of the Gospels, Biff's the perfect straw-man to build the humour around.

Lamb is not going to be well-accepted by everybody, unfortunately. Because it plays on the sensitive issue of religious faith, it will highly offend those who feel that to take such liberties with sacred texts is sacrilegious. But those of us who can stomach it, Lamb's a terrific read.

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