In the afterword to Lamb and in an email leading up to this interview, you stressed that you don’t want this book to be perceived as an attack on anybody’s faith. Why the concern?
Because I think faith is an important and sacred thing, and although I have no problem with the idea that the book may make people think, it was important that I not make judgments about people’s faith.
What is your religious background?
I was baptized Methodist, but I was mainly raised First Church of NFL, which is to say that my family, especially my father, was much more concerned with watching football on Sundays than attending services.
What was it that made you want to do a novel about the life of Christ?
For years I’ve been fascinated with the role of a messiah in relation to those who believe in him, and I’ve explored that theme in some of my other books. With this book, I was focusing on the difficulty for the human part of Joshua (Jesus) — that’s what intrigued me. Also, I saw this as a great opportunity to tell a story about friendship and loyalty.
You often live for at least a short time in the places you’re writing about. Was there any traveling involved in the writing of Lamb?
I did go to Israel for a couple of weeks on a guided tour of historically significant places. At first I was doubtful that it would help, but in the end, I think it helped to inform the life of the characters. If I hadn’t gone to Israel, I don’t think I would have gotten the harshness of life in the Holy Land in the first century. It’s very rugged country — much more so than I had imagined.
In comparison to the Jesus Seminar, you hew pretty close to the four gospels, with smatterings of the Gospel of Thomas thrown in. What I wanted to do was show the “behind the scenes” aspect of the gospels, without boring people with a lengthy retelling of a story they already knew. So, where in the gospels there’s one line about how Jesus cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene, in Lamb you see that happen. I wanted the effect to be additive, hopefully enriching the experience of the story with humor, while giving those familiar with the gospels a sense of discovery: “Oh, that’s the way it might have happened.”
Have you run into any protest — organized or otherwise?
Nope. None at all. I’m not sure anyone has even heard of the book.
What kind of reading did you do for the research?
I read perhaps a dozen books on the historical Jesus, a couple of books on the practice of Judaism in the first century, the Gnostic gospels, the Apocrypha, a number of books on society in the Holy Land, Roman history of the time, a whole series of books that I bought in Israel, written by a Franciscan monk and archaeologist who has lived and worked there for 30 years (I’m sorry I don’t remember the specific titles and authors, and I’m answering these questions on the road, away from my library). Many books on religious practice in Asia — Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism — as well as the “major” Hindu holy books. Finally, I must have read the gospels 50 times, in part to put together a credible chronology that included events from all of the books. I also read the King James Bible cover to cover, as well as a couple of books that explained the Bible. I didn’t put much focus, however, on the New Testament after the Gospels.
Is Biff a proxy for you?
No, not at all. Biff is the quintessential smartass, and he’s much simpler than I am. He’s also braver, stronger, more dedicated, and more depraved. Biff is an extraordinary character (and wouldn’t you have to be, to be the best friend of the Son of God?). I, on the other hand, am just an American guy who writes funny books.
Faith might be sacred to you, but Lamb seems to view some kinds of faith as better or truer than others. Your portrait of Hinduism, for instance, goes beyond unflattering.
What one might interpret as unflattering about Hinduism is the portrayal of the feast of Kali, the goddess of destruction, which I didn’t really interpret at all. That’s the way it happened. It was a barbaric religious rite, as was the sacrifice of Lambs in the Temple in Jerusalem, as was the stoning of adulteresses and those who used the name of Jehovah.
The portrayal of the “faith” of Hinduism is the description of the Divine Spark, which is the god that is in us all — what I believe to be another way of saying the Holy Ghost. When Joshua and Biff witness the bloody sacrifices to Kali, Joshua sees yet another thing that must change about the way people worship. He comes away from that experience saying, “No more sacrifices, no more blood.” He’s not just talking about Hinduism, he’s talking about Judaism as well. He’s talking about his Father. He’s talking about becoming the Lamb of God — the last sacrifice — to show that this should not be done anymore. So yes, I believe faith to be a sacred thing, but I don’t believe all “practices” of faith to be sacrosanct. Faith and religion are different things.
At the book signing I attended, something you said offended an old man sitting next to me so much that he clumsily climbed over his chair, nearly falling, and left in a huff. I thought it was a good joke and that Lamb was a good book but was his reaction legitimate? By making the life of Jesus and the Apostles funny, do you thereby trivialize it?
That’s not my intention, but I certainly understand if people don’t want to listen to my jokes or read the book.
Where did you get the name Biff?
The first Jewish kid I ever met in grammar school was named Biff, so when I envisioned a little Jewish kid, Biff came to mind.
You were recently “orphaned,” as you put it on your website. What would your parents have thought of Lamb?
My father was a cop, so he necessarily developed a sense of macabre humor and irony to deal with the human carnage of his job. He died 20 years ago, before I was writing professionally, but I’m sure he would have loved Lamb.
My mother, on the other hand, Southern Belle that she was, would probably have been torn between pride and mortification. I was working on Lamb while she was dying (I had gone to Ohio to be her primary caregiver for her last five months), so we had talked about it. I assured her that I wasn’t writing an attack book and she seemed to relax — but that might have been the morphine too.
At the end of the book, when you are talking in your own voice, you call Jesus “the most influential human being ever to walk the face of the earth.” Two final questions. Explain what you mean by that, and how did researching and writing Lamb affect your view of Jesus of Nazareth?
I think that the teachings of Jesus have fundamentally changed the worldview of more people than anyone else’s teachings have. It’s that simple. His influence on Western culture is ubiquitous. What I gained in researching the life and times of Jesus was an increased respect for his courage as well as his compassion. When you learn about the world of first-century Israel, the acts of Jesus and the things he said are, within his own time, incredibly radical, revolutionary, and dangerous.
I may have had an inkling before of the love and wisdom of Jesus, but his courage came out when I learned about his world. Also, I was inspired by reading about his denouncing of hypocrites and the pious again and again. I came away from my studies with a higher level of distaste for those who co-opt religion in the pursuit of a political agenda. Ah, then there’s the forgiveness. Good thing to know, eh?
Jeremy Lott is a student at both Trinity Western University and Redeemer Pacific College in Langley, British Columbia and a contributing editor to Books and Culture.
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