f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: History, Biblical Exegesis, Eastern Philosophy, and Dumb Jokes

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, March 18, 2004

History, Biblical Exegesis, Eastern Philosophy, and Dumb Jokes

I’ve talked about why Lamb is a funny book. I’ve talked about it’s handling of Jesus and how it hews pretty close to a sacred interpretation. What I haven’t mentioned is that the book works pretty well as a historical novel too.

When you talk historical fiction you immediately talk about research. I read an interview with Christopher Moore and while the guy is a bit of a goof-ball, you can never accuse him of slacking off on the work. The lives of Josh and Biff are set fully in 1st-century, Roman-occupied Judea. The culture comes out in all the small details. There aren’t long blocks of “history.” Instead, it’s developed as a setting that I found impressive. If you’re interested in writing historical fiction this is a very effective and very different example that may shake up your feelings for the genre a little.

At the same time, Moore in his presentation of “Biff’s” version of the gospel offers what amounts to an exegesis of the gospels as presented by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Stories aren’t wholly changed, but examined from a new perspective. Sometimes this is just for the sake of the plot, but there are a few moments that offer some real power through their re-invigoration of the Scripture.

One of these is the scene of Jesus stopping the stoning of the adulteress woman. In the Bible it mentions that Jesus knelt and started drawing in the dirt, but doesn’t go any further to explain why this is important. In Lamb, we find Joshua writing the names of the woman’s accusers and short lists of their worst sins. I don’t know that this happened, but it’s as fine an explanation as any for why the men flee so quickly and why Jesus’ admonition that only the one without sin can throw the first stone.

Another example is Mary Magdelene’s (called “Maggie” in the book) anointing of Jesus’ feet. Maggie is a strong and vibrant character and her love for Joshua is deep and moving. Her action, coming under the shadow of his approaching death, just shines with poignancy.

Christopher Moore is not a Bible scholar, nor does he call himself a Christian. (He actually calls himself—or did—a “Buddhist with Christian tendencies.”) I’m not suggesting that these interpretations should be considered gospel truth. But they can add to your understanding of the Bible in a unique way without contradicting history or the passages themselves.

The last major aspect of Lamb and the one that is more likely to annoy Christians (even more than the swearing and sex) is the weaving Moore does between Christian tenants with the philosophies of the Tao, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Josh, it turns out, while sure of his unique divinity, is not quite so sure what it means to be the Messiah. To find out, he heads East to track down the three Maji who first sought him. After all, if they traveled so far, they must have had some reason. In meeting and studying with these men, Josh takes individual pieces of their teachings to form the core teachings he’ll bring as the Messiah.

Any discussion of this begins worrying Christians. The narrow path, they say. One God; one path to God. I’m not arguing that. But it needs to be pointed out that Christopher Moore isn’t a believer and isn’t compelled to hold to such standards. At the same time, it’s imperative for Christians to understand the underlying principles of these ancient religions. Truth is truth, no matter who speaks it. A Taoist who says, “Treat your neighbor as you’d treat yourself” speaks the truth even if the underlying reason isn’t there.

In today’s postmodern world, Christians need to be aware even more fully of these connections. You all need to decide for yourself the line that stands between watering down the gospel and being inclusive, but the days of “Jesus only, no discussion” are over.

And finally, a few more thoughts on humor.

I’ve known many different kinds of Christians. I tend to get frustrated by the broad and sweeping generalizations that are made about Christians, particularly those branded “born-again” or “Jesus freaks” or “Bible thumpers” because all those terms reveal an inherent ignorance about the demographic they’re supposed to be commenting on. That said, I’ll make my own sweeping generalization right now.

I think satire is often missed by Christians with a more Fundamentalist/literalist bent to their faith. Satire is often rooted in irony and subtlety. It is, in essence, a lie or an exaggeration for effect. Because, however, literalists tend to be very straight-forward in their beliefs and actions and decisions, the necessary untwisting of satire needed to find the humor and meaning tends to be missed. This isn’t limited to Christians either. There are just personality types that don’t deal well with satire. I just tend to find a larger concentration of that personality type in the church than anywhere else I’ve gone. (But I could be wrong in a big flaming way.)

So that’s it for today. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about the future of humor in the Christian publishing world including some avenues I’m interested in seeing some manuscripts on.