Christ's pal Biff: laugh-track Gospel

March 03, 2002|By Gary Dorsey | By Gary Dorsey,Sun Staff

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore. William Morrow. 408 pages. $25.95.

Thirty years ago, Christopher Moore might have excited a storm of protest for writing the Book of Biff, which is what this fresh Gospel account of Jesus' missing years attempts in sometimes hilarious fashion.

Instead, one suspects this silly novel will slip past even the most conservative religious censors because Moore has such an innocently adolescent sense of humor and the once fundamentalist defenders of Christian propriety have come to understand the "unchurched" generation better than they did in the alarmist days of Holden Caulfield and The Life of Brian.

Rather than enrage Christian Armies of Decency, Biff is more likely to pass as irrelevant. Or some may see a potential upside, evangelically speaking, should it reach its market. The Gospel of Christ's Childhood Pal makes its greatest appeal to those wandering hordes who will sometimes entertain the subject of religion if it's ribald, radical, pantheistic, post-modern or hip enough to incorporate Zen, kung fu, sex and the concept of Nothingness somewhere in the introductory package.

Obviously, this is not a book for churchgoing people. But it could be fun to the great unwashed who like their beer out of a cold case, their reading light and sassy and their spiritual lives fed by Comedy Central.

So it's stupid. Vapid. Silly. Sometimes it actually scores a point for godliness, the life of Christ and the value of a religious faith. Not that the author seems to care about making points.

The novel's premise apparently derives from a John Prine song called "The Missing Years," in which the singer speculates about the lost stretch between childhood, when Jesus is learning carpentry, and his move as an adult into a short but effective ministry. In this account, God decides the four Gospels need an addition, so he sends an angel to literally dig up this character "Levi who is called Biff" and sponsor him on a mission to befriend the young Son of God and record their experiences for the fullness of time.

The two characters, joined occasionally by Mary Magdalene, really can be funny -- Biff, clownish, randy, cynical, devoted; Jesus (known as Josh), earnest, naive, capable of minor miracles but also ridiculously unable to tell if he is the true Messiah or an impostor. Typical teen-agers, perhaps.

Technically, Moore scores on the laugh meter through the first third of the book, though he can be annoying, like a stand-up comic who has never learned to pace himself. The middle years, when Biff and Josh make their Eastern trek, learn Buddhism, meet the abominable snowman and achieve enlightenment, is tedious as well as insipid. But once they find disciples, the familiar stories of Christ's ministry unfold with many ticklish twists. ("Come with me and I'll make you fishers of men." Andrew looked at his brother ... Peter shrugged and shook his head. "They don't get it," I said to Joshua.).

Although Moore makes no intellectual challenge to Flannery O'Connor and won't raise hackles with the success of Monty Python, he has written a funny book, in a slightly senseless and oddly sincere sort of way.

Gary Dorsey, a feature writer for The Sun, is author of Congregation, a nonfiction novel about the life of a New England church. It was chosen in 1995 by The Christian Century magazine as one of the 10 most notable books of the year.

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