Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Dog in Sheep's Clothing

Some say that anger is the root of comedy. Underneath the greatest comic novels — like Huckleberry Finn, Bleak House, and Pride and Prejudice — lies a solid foundation of wrath.

So a writer who makes it his business to poke fun at Christianity needs to be careful. He should take great pains not to sound as if he’s being bitchy about a deity in whom he still, secretly, believes.

“Bitchy” is the operative word here. You’ve read those atheist bloggers who blaspheme incessantly because they’re pissed off at their god for not existing. Their ranting and raving about Jesus is not convincing, nor is it funny. It’s pathetic.

Which brings me to Christopher Moore’s Lamb. I suspect that I’m about to become mighty unpopular with some of the other members of the Nonbelieving Literati, because I found Lamb almost impossible to stomach. It’s allegedly a humorous novel, but I didn’t laugh once. It was kinda like the book equivalent of a Three Stooges short, complete with all the subsurface cruelty, except that there were only two stooges instead of three. Jesus was Moe, and Biff, the narrator, was Larry and Curly. There was a ton of verbal eye-poking.

In Lamb, Christopher Moore fills in the “lost” thirty years of Jesus’s life. The Christ’s constant companion on his search for “truth” is his childhood pal, the aforementioned Biff. I suppose the inappropriate name is supposed to elicit giggles, but I just found it — not unlike the rest of the book — unbearably stupid. And sad.

Biff is sarcastic enough (he claims to have invented sarcasm), but he’s never, ever witty. The “jokes” that Moore puts into his mouth are all on the level of high-school locker-room exchanges. They involve inane observations about sex, food, work, and life, as well as pointlessly sacrilegious critiques of his friend. Now, I’m a big fan of sacrilege when it’s clever. But as I said, this was Three Stooges stuff. I felt like I was reading a troubled teenage boy’s blog.

Moore tries to appeal to bible-literate readers. Throughout the novel, he sprinkles references to minor passages in the gospels, passages with which the average reader might not be familiar. Now, truth be told, I’ve read those silly things, all four of them plus a few apocryphal ones, at least half a dozen times. They contain far more belly laughs than Lamb.

According to Moore’s tale, Jesus spent most of his young adulthood searching for truth via various versions of Eastern mysticism. Through Biff, the author tries to sound condescending about this spiritual quest, but you can tell, underneath the cynicism: Moore really digs that claptrap. His Jesus becomes an orientalized holy man. At that point, for me, the book turned into one huge gag, not in the comedic sense, but in the esophageal one. Lamb, which had never been particularly appetizing, became absolutely nauseating.

When I arrived at the unhappy happy ending, I was angry at Moore for turning into a serious, albeit unorthodox, Christian. Later, I felt sorry for him. To have that much antagonism and contempt for a god in whom you actually believe must be emotionally wrenching. That was Biff’s problem throughout the book; that was Moore’s problem when he wrote it; and, for all I know, that’s the problem shared by many readers who are tickled by this third-rate literary slapstick sketch.

But it’s not my problem. Never having believed in the biblical Jesus, I have no reason to feel any animosity toward him. He’s a cartoon character, like Bugs and Daffy. (Duck season. No, rabbit season. No, son-of-god season.) As drawn by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, he entertains me, and sometimes makes me laugh. Lamb did neither.


PhillyChief said...

Well thanks for that. The Lamb originally didn't look appealing to me, and I'm glad I didn't succumb to what all you cool kids were doing and order it. Sorry it disagreed with you, but I'm selfishly happy my decision was a good one.

So what's next on the menu?

Unknown said...

I've posted my essay here with the next selection for our group.

John Evo said...

Exterminator said: "Which brings me to Christopher Moore’s Lamb. I suspect that I’m about to become mighty unpopular with some of the other members of the Nonbelieving Literati, because I found Lamb almost impossible to stomach."

You have to be kidding? Are you for real? Can you just give it a SMALL thought?

A little disagreement over taste in books is never going to make your unpopular with your free-thinking friends.

The Exterminator said...

You said, You have to be kidding? Are you for real? The answers to your questions are: "You're right" and "no."

I can't imagine that we'd lose respect for one another just because we disagreed over some stupid book. (Now, if we disagreed over a smart book, that might be a different story.)

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Ex already knows how I feel about this, but I'll comment anyway, for everyone else. I even mentioned it elsewhere. This was not my favorite Moore book, but I still enjoyed it, for the reasons in my post.

If you read any more Moore (alas, no books about Moors) you'll find that he seems to go all lunatic in his books, with nutty characterizers, and crazy characters. He tends to lean towards supernatural entities, like shamans, angels and zombies. My feeling is when he's let loose with his imagination, he can be as goofy as he wants. In Lamb, he was constricted by already existing characters and a somewhat inescapable plot line, so he had to write to stay within those confines.

Don't give up on him because of Lamb.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Now, is 4 essays all we get this time? Or are there more trickling in?

John Evo said...

OK then. Now we can get down to brass tacks. (whatever the hell THAT means! What is the etiology of "getting down to brass tacks"?)

I like the 3 Stooges! I like stupid humor. It's not necessarily my favorite, but I like it. Slapstick has its place. I guess I'm not too smart for it. That said, despite the silly-humor aspects of Lamb, I think it was, at least, smart slapstick.

Beyond that, and to your more important criticisms, I don't mind that Chris Moore is some kind of a believer (apparently). He is still making fun of the absolutist view of the Christian god and the sacred nature of the text. I will guarantee you this - if you have 100 fundamentalist Christians read this book (most of them will never be able to complete the task - and not for the reasons that you found it unstomachable), they will be near unanimity that Moore is a heretic and headed straight to hell.

So, knowing that the vast majority of our society are supernaturalists, the fact that some of them can have fun with it and poke fun at themselves is at least somewhat heartening to me and I can go along with the gag.

John Evo said...

SI said: "He tends to lean towards supernatural entities, like shamans, angels and zombies."

Thank you, you reminded me of another point I want to make. I like stories about the supernatural. I don't BELIEVE in it, and I don't particularly care if the person/people presenting the story believes it.

Zombies, vampires, ghosts - great stuff. A lot of fun. I know I walk a narrow line, because by supporting this kind of entertainment I am feeding into those who watch it for a different reason than I do. But I have always been good a suspending disbelief for a couple of hours and having a great time with a great story.

That said, there is nothing WORSE than a movie or book about the supernatural if it is NOT a great story. And maybe that's the feeling that Exterminator was having - though I'm not trying to speak for him. For all I know he HATES stories about the supernatural, and I can understand that if he does.

The Exterminator said...

Well, this comment I'm writing really should have been a longer, more thoughtful, "official" post, but I'll try to be brief here. (Translation: The following comment is pretentious and long.)

I think a believer who pokes fun at his religion and still subscribes to it is far more irritating than a believer who takes religion seriously. My attitude is not unlike the one expressed by Dawkins in his essay "You Can't Have It Both Ways: Irreconcilable Differences?"

Dawkins pointed out that the Catholic Church accepts evolution but still insists that religion lies outside (and, by implication, above) the realm of science. Dawkins says: ... given a choice between honest-to-goodness fundamentalism on the one hand, and the obscurantist, disingenuous doublethink of the Roman Catholic Church on the other, I know which I prefer.

I suppose my attitude is the literary equivalent of Dawkins's. There are no "overlapping magisteria." Either you think that the gospel stories are nonsense, and you laugh at them as such, or you don't. You can't pick and choose by personal fiat a verse here, a phrase there. Unlike scientific theories, which evolve as more and more information becomes available, the bible is locked into its present form. I don't see how an honest person can make fun of it and believe it at the same time.

Perhaps that's why Lamb was not funny to me. A string of insincere jokes written by someone struggling to get empty-headed laughs doesn't impress me as comedic art. Humor needs an underpinning of truth.

Unknown said...

"Dawkins says: ... given a choice between honest-to-goodness fundamentalism on the one hand, and the obscurantist, disingenuous doublethink of the Roman Catholic Church on the other, I know which I prefer."

I see the point, but it depends on the fundamentalism. While I might have more respect for a person that sticks to absolute convictions, it can also be a very dangerous position. Just look at our President.

The Exterminator said...

You're so right. I don't think, however, that Dawkins was referring to fundies who force their beliefs into the public agenda.

SI (and everyone else:
You wondered if the collection of four essays we have so far was going to be the entire response. Who knows? The same bloggers were among the earliest posters on the previous book, so other essays could trickle in. I'll keep checking the members' list to see whether anything else turns up. If any of you happen to see a post on Lamb, or have written one yourself, please do leave a comment letting me know.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

I think a believer who pokes fun at his religion and still subscribes to it is far more irritating than a believer who takes religion seriously.

I take this to mean that you feel that Moore is still a believer. Somehow, my sense when I read it was that he was not. Perhaps I'm simply projecting my own lack of belief onto an author I like, but it seems to me that the irreverence of the book implied a lack of belief. I really think that by writing about the "missing years" he's saying to his readers, "Look, if they couldn't tell us about his formative years, what makes you think the last three actually happened?" At best, if he still believes, it's not in the story of the Gospels. Maybe he's a deist?

EnoNomi said...

I think I'll have to rename myself The Procrastinator... I've not finished Lamb yet, though I have enjoyed the humour in it so far. I'll either get to it this weekend, or skip it and go for the next one.

I, too, am a big fan of the supernatural creatures - especially the zombie genre.

The Exterminator said...

I think you need to go back and reread the ending. Moore's bodhisattva Jesus may not be drawn in the traditional, literalist rendering, but he fits well into the transcendental spiritualist mold of, say, the one-world hippie godling depicted in Jesus Christ, Superstar.

I would guess that Moore's beliefs are somewhat in line with that. He may seem irreverent, but actually, he's quite reverent. Ask yourself: out of the infinite number of possible endings available (and I can think of five or six real doozies), why did he pick the one in the book?

John Evo said...

Leave it to the Exterminator to create the post that would generate the most interesting discussion of the book.

I think, based on where we are at in this discussion, that it's probably important to KNOW where Moore's head is at. So I found an interview that gives you some insights into him.

I can't say that this is 100% a confirmation of where I think he was coming from in writing Lamb, but it certainly is unsurprising. Here's a couple of quotes:

"Moore: I didn't want to make it an attack book. I wanted to tell the story, make it funny and entertaining, but I didn't want to change anybody's mind or attack their faith.

"I made the assumption that the Four Gospels are true. Jesus is who the Four Gospels say he is. It doesn't matter whether I believe that; that's how I defined the character. But a whole bunch of stuff is not explained or doesn't make any sense, so I thought, I'll make sense of that.

"Even trying to make sense of those things is funny sometimes. Water into wine? Well, he's hammered. That's why you make a beer run, right? You ran out. You've been drinking.

"I didn't have an evangelical agenda. I just wanted to bring out the humanity of the story."


"I wasn't versed in the Bible more than most people. First Church of NFL was what I was brought up in but when it was pointed out that nearly thirty years of Christ's life hadn't been written, I thought, Well, I don't know anything about history or religion. I should write that.

"Sometimes you've got to throw the gauntlet down and say, Can I pull this off? I thought, How audacious would it be to not only write the missing years but make it funny and credible? It was a big challenge, the hardest thing I've ever tried to do."

You can read the whole interview if interested.

Anyway, I guess my point is that he doesn't SEEM to be the "believer who pokes fun at his religion" Exterminator imagined him to be.

How was THAT for "pretentious and long"? Sorry for being a blog-hog!

The Exterminator said...

I'm not convinced the interview tells us where Moore's head is. It tells us where he wants his readers to think his head is. They're not necessarily the same thing.

Be that as it may, I don't think his comments contradict anything I've surmised about him.

But, actually, even if it turned out that Moore was an atheist so blatant that he makes you and me look like fence-straddling agnostics by comparison, I still think the book should have been called Lame. It wasn't funny, which pretty much makes it a failure as a comic novel.

Babs Gladhand said...

Well, I guess that's one book I won't be buying.

See how much I trust your judgement? Scary, huh?

John Evo said...

" I still think the book should have been called Lame."


And props on the title of this post. Too funny!

@ Babs... you can't trust this guy. He was recently released from a mental institution where he spent the last 23 years for butchering a family and eating their hearts. Then again, what else would you expect from an atheist?

Spanish Inquisitor said...

You got the facts wrong, John.

It wasn't their hearts he ate, it was their livers. With fava beans and a nice chianti.

Babs Gladhand said...

@ John and SI - Actually it was the brains, livers and their pinky toes. Who do you think cooked them for him? In fact, if you'd tried the pinky toes wrapped in puff pastry, you'd swear you were eating pigs in a blanket. Well, except for the toenail part.

Okay, now I've grossed myself out.

The Exterminator said...

John-Evo, SI, and Babs:
OK, I see I'm going to have to settle this cannibalism thing once and for all.

I follow the precepts set forth by Jonathan Swift in "A Modest Proposal."

A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

I hope that clears things up.