Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Book Report!

Have you all ever heard of Arius? Probably not- he was an Egyptian priest in the early Church who got in trouble because he said Christ and God were of separate “substances.” Indeed, he argued that since Jesus was the “begotten” Son of God (Jn 3:16- as any football fan can tell you) there must have been a time before He was begotten, making God unbegotten, and therefor separate substance; Christ was created of the Creator, not the Creator Himself.

This isn't Church doctrine today because a guy named Athanasius (whom you've probably not heard of either) beat him in a series of debates in Nicea (a place you've likely never heard of) sponsored by Constantine (no, not Keanu from the movie) in 325 AD. This is what it sounds like when you have a degree in religion.

However, getting to the point, the winning doctrine was God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were “Una substancia, tres persona;” one substance, three faces. Further, in defiance of all the laws of math, Jesus was 100% human and 100% God. To my mind, though one of the faithful (if not one of the religious, and there's a difference), the Church in its various incarnations has never done a good job demonstrating it. The Gospels portray Jesus almost exclusively as supernatural; the only hints at His humanity being in the accusations of his detractors (he is a drunk and glutton! Mt 11:19), or possibly the exclamations of complete exasperation at the thick-headedness of the Apostles. Many other authors have tried through the centuries- Schweitzer with his historical analysis; Kazantzakis wrote “Last Temptation” and does OK, but leaves poor Jesus kind of a muddle mess all through it. I say to thee Lord: Can no one demonstrate the nature of your Son?

And then the Lord sent Christopher Moore.

This whole tirade is so I can give you perspective on what has snuck under our collective noses as the premier work in Christian literature of the 21st Century, and most people were too busy picketing Harry Potter or wondering if the Da Vinci Code was real. In Christopher Moore's Lamb we get the tale of the Christ Child, the missing 18 years, and the desperation of the Apostles to understand what this skinny Jewish guy is really trying to say all from the perspective of Jesus' lifelong friend Levi, known to those around him as Biff (a nickname from when his father would smack him upside the head as a child). The book would seem on its surface to present a bit of mockery, but you will find if you read it a delightfully reverent book regarding the Christ character. He is obviously special, He thinks he is the Messiah, but He is not so sure that just means taking up a sword and kicking out Romans. Biff meanwhile sees Jesus (referred to as “Joshua” throughout the book- or “Josh”) as a truly good man, likely the Son of God, and yet na├»ve in the ways of the world. Someone is going to have to take care of Him. When they go on their great journey, Biff asks, “if someone asks you how much money you have what do you say?” “I would tell them.” “And that's why I am going with you.”

The book claims to be nothing more than a work of fiction, and as such can make some suppositions, and has a little fun with some ideas. Some of these suppositions are so simple yet profound; how does a six year old with the prescience of God act? Joseph tells young Biff and Josh he plans to be around for a while. Young Josh replies “Don't be so sure, Abba.” The shaken Joseph tells the boys to play, and Josh wanders off oblivious to the meaning of what He has said. Biff offers to help Joseph who tells him, “You go with Joshua. He needs a friend to teach him to be human.” It is obviously not Josh's intention to be cruel, but when you are 100% God, and 100% six year old, these things happen.

Where does Jesus go from age 12 (which as stated here is an adult in that culture) to age 30? To find the only people who have shown any acknowledgement of His nature- the Three Wise Men. Josh and Biff spend time in various Eastern locales, learning from those philosophers (well, Josh does- Biff mostly is in it to keep Josh safe, and find opportunities to have all the sex his friend can't), and explaining the similarities between Joshua's expansion of the Torah and the Tao or Zen. Josh sees first hand the abattoir which passed for worship of Kali in India. He tells God, “no more sacrifices.” This mantra becomes what will drive Him to the cross- a final sacrifice to stop the flow of blood.

Yes the book is funny, and pokes some fun at the world in which Josh and Biff live. When the two ten year olds decide to take Biff's father's stonecutting tools and circumcise a statue in a Greek gymnasium in Sepporis, you will laugh your ass off. When Josh takes great ironic pleasure in India at poking the arms of the members of the “untouchable” caste, you see a Christ who is part of the world around him, while not succumbing to it. The way the young Josh learns to heal things will crack you up (it involves lizards and sticking them in your mouth). When John the Baptist baptizes Josh, indeed the sky rolls back and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove appears while the voice of God says of course “this is my beloved Son with whom I am very pleased.” As the multitude gape at the fading vision and voice, Josh comes out of the water and looks around. “What?” he asks, having missed the whole thing.

The book is poignant. Mary of Magdala (little Maggie) loves Josh, but will never be able to be with him. Biff loves Maggie, but can't compete with his best friend when said friend is the Messiah. Josh drops some Kazantzakis style frustration when well into His ministry, one of the apostles asks how, when the Kingdom of Heaven is established, they will kick the Romans out of it. After dropping about 30 allegories and three hours trying to explain the Kingdom is for EVERYONE, He can only tell Biff, “Those are the dumbest sons of bitches on Earth.” When you see the frantic attempts by Biff to thwart the crucifixion, and his anguish when he cannot; you may well shed a tear.

Lamb will on its surface turn off those who don't want to dig any deeper than “the Bible says...” without actually looking into what the Bible means. I would advise you to dig more deeply, and see a Jesus who is not the venerated ascetic moving stoically through the Gospels from sermon to sermon to Golgotha (wait until you read the draft version of the beatitudes). Instead there's a Jesus who struggles with whether or not he is the Messiah the way we struggle with whether or not there's a God. A Jesus with a sense of humor and justice like a man would have, while delivering it like God.

A presentation of a Christ 100% human and 100% God. Finally. If Athanasius had lent this book to Arius, the Council of Nicea would have had a lot more fun and a lot less banishment.

By the way, here's the British edition's cover. I like it better.

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