December 2019 – January 2020

Arts & Letters

Damascene subversion: Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘Damascus’

By James Boyce

Conversion on the way to Damascus by Caravaggio, 1601 [detail].

The literary storyteller’s latest novel wrestles with the mythology of Christianity’s founder, Paul the Apostle

There is no more significant figure in the history of the Christian Church than the 1st-century Jewish teacher and tentmaker, Saul of Tarsus (commonly known by his Latin name of Paul). Despite not personally knowing the Galilean crucified as a political prisoner on a Roman cross nearly 2000 years ago, St Paul is considered an apostle of Jesus Christ, equal in status to the original 12 and arguably above even Peter, James and John in his influence on the early religious movement that would become Christianity.

Paul the Apostle was famously converted from a career of zealous persecution of Jewish followers of Jesus while on the road to Damascus. Out of a blinding encounter with a man put to death a few years before came the novel conviction that the resurrected Christ was the saviour not just of Jews but of everyone. The transformative impact of this revelation was such that it sustained extraordinary missionary journeys (the subject of about half of the New Testament’s “Acts” of the Apostles) in which Paul told the story of a messiah whose death was central to the meaning of his life. What “the world” saw as humiliation and defeat became glorious victory in a revisionist history of revolutionary importance. The apostle’s influence was compounded by his skills as a writer – although not all the 14 New Testament texts attributed to Paul came from his pen, the epistles he sent to the scattered fellowships he founded remain the most read letters in history.

In powerful and sometimes poetic prose, Paul sets out his conviction that with faith in the resurrection came freedom from Jewish law, divine punishment and death. The rules and distinctions that underpinned religion and culture were superseded by a new identity centred on the risen Lord, with converts taught that they were now “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Paul depicted Jesus as a second Adam whose death had liberated human beings from all that had bound them since the infamous sin of the first. Because Paul began the long process of constructing a cosmic “Christ” (from “christos” in Greek, meaning “anointed one”) out of the human Jesus, he played a key role in turning a small sect of Judaism into a universal religion.

It is thus not surprising that Paul is often blamed for what went wrong. In what can seem like a caricature of “good cop/bad cop”, people across the belief spectrum unite in defending the goodness of Jesus while criticising his apostle. They see the problem with Christianity as not being the ethical teachings of its founder but their corruption into religious dogma by Paul and his increasingly oppressive successors.

The unfashionable counterargument is that any belief system needs some degree of agreement about what is believed before it can be propagated and sustained. Because Jesus never thought of himself as founding a religion or even a new Jewish sect, it took more than 300 years to work through a broadly agreed meaning about his life and death from the scant detail set out in the Gospels. Nevertheless, Paul’s dogmatic assertions (“reject this”, “believe that”, “ignore the dangerous views of so and so”) clearly irked many believers at the time (including the apostolic leaders of the original church in Jerusalem), and have been fraught texts for some Christians ever since. While Paul’s stunning portrayal of the freedom and equality proffered through Christ’s resurrection ensured the extraordinary liberating force of nascent Christianity, the apostle’s injunctions can seem distant from the unadulterated teachings of the wandering Nazarene. Paul’s letters to the scattered faith communities promote servility to the state and include strictures directed at homosexuals, women and slaves that now sit uncomfortably with the gloriously liberating paragraphs that accompany them. (Perhaps the main occasion when Australians still hear Paul quoted is at weddings, where reciting his sentiment on the nature and primacy of love, written to the fellowship at Corinth nearly 2000 years ago, is more popular than ever.)

One of the millions of young people turned off Christianity by exposure to the ethics of St Paul was Christos Tsiolkas. It is surely an evangelical mistake to recommend that adolescents interested in learning more about faith start by reading the Bible. If they make it through the violence and vengeance infused in the Old Testament, what sensitive young mind would not share the response of Tsiolkas on reaching parts of the New? It is hardly surprising that, as he explains in an author note to his new novel Damascus (Allen & Unwin), Tsiolkas was “unable to go past the famous strictures against homosexuality in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians”.

It is a modern and silly idea that a letter written in the 1st-century Roman Empire can be read as if it were written by God and addressed to a contemporary Australian. With age and experience, many people see this truth and return to Biblical texts and scholarship with a more open mind to try and understand what shaped our culture, our ancestors and ourselves. Like middle-aged children re-examining their families of origin, some folk find their Biblical tyrants shrink to being fellow human beings, as heroic, frail and fallen as any other friend or foe.

This was the experience of Tsiolkas. Despite his new book’s bizarre disclaimer that “any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental” (are his publishers so scared of the living power of St Paul they fear being sued from heaven?), in his note to readers Tsiolkas is explicit that it was his return to wrestling with the teachings of Paul in his late twenties that began his road to Damascus. The outcome of the journey is a brave novel focused around the missionary work of Paul and select contemporaries between 35 and 87 AD – the period when nascent fellowships were gradually forming into what in the next couple of centuries would become the institutional Church.

I call it a “brave” work because thanks to the award-winning, bestselling and popularly dramatised novels, The Slap and Barracuda (which followed three other acclaimed but lesser known books as well as many short stories, scripts and articles), Tsiolkas is so respected and widely read that the path was wide open for him to gradually mellow into what Australians strangely call a “living treasure” or “national icon”. While all of Tsiolkas’s tomes deal with difficult subjects in confronting ways, they have proved excellent conversation starters – literary fiction that provides an opportunity to discuss the complexity and contradictions of individual, family and community life in a multicultural context – and given our ethically impoverished polity, most of us have been rightly grateful for the gift of a serious chat. It is likely that Damascus will provoke a less unified response because people will unavoidably read the book in unpredictable ways. No one can come unencumbered to Damascus, because the burden of history – the liberating and oppressive legacy of the epistles and the weight the Church has required ordinary people to carry across generations – has impacted on us all.

In part, the extra complexity is just a product of Damascus being a work of historical fiction. In Australia, the most significant public debate around this genre in recent decades was associated with Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. No less a person than the prime minister has declared that his recognition of the importance of reconciliation with Aboriginal people came after reading it. I would not be an honourable practitioner of my craft if I didn’t confess that Scott Morrison’s admission that it was a novel that opened his eyes – rather than decades of scholarship or detailed testimony of Aboriginal people (not least the anguished stories of the Stolen Generations) – makes me cringe. Nevertheless, all credit to Grenville for reaching a man whose interest in our nation’s history does not seem to have otherwise extended beyond James Cook and the sacred trenches. How did she do it? Without downplaying the literary achievement, I suspect it is because people generally listen to fiction writers with more open minds. Morrison and his ilk are unlikely to engage with history or genuinely listen to personal stories of pain because their guard is constantly up, always ready to block out evidence that unsettles the truths on which their identity relies. Facts can be hard to live with.

The paradox of historical fiction is that people engage with it both because it is a made-up world and because “names, characters, places and incidents” are not only “products of the author’s imagination”. When Peter Carey was challenged about the factual accuracy of sections of True History of the Kelly Gang, his response was that it was only a novel – he made it up. I doubt Tsiolkas will do the same when questioned on Damascus. He has said that he spent a year reading history, theology and philosophy before he wrote a word, and the research reveals itself in overt and subtle ways. I was surprised how often a small detail (that the first gentile convert to Christianity was a woman; that St Paul had a nephew who saved his skin) could be sourced back to somewhere. Nevertheless, the complexities associated with constructing real historical characters out of scattered documentary fragments remains.

In her oft-cited Quarterly Essay, The History Question, Inga Clendinnen was rightly critical of empathy as a path to historical understanding. To understand even those closest to us (or for that matter ourselves) is a difficult and limited undertaking, but to comprehend the lives of those who are long dead is in truth a preposterous one. Empathy ultimately doesn’t help in this arduous project because it can lead us to miss the magnitude of difference that confronts us. It is an alluring falsehood to pretend that there is a path to understanding through assuming we can know what people think and feel by imagining them as being people like us – even if attired in what Clendinnen referred to as “fancy dress”.

But would we even care what our ancestors were like if we hadn’t first come to the simple but too easily forgotten realisation that the dead were living human beings who also loved, suffered, dreamed, went hungry and cold, sought meaning, made art, had children, played, danced, sung, laughed and cried? Some sense of compassionate solidarity seems necessary to begin the hard work of understanding people vastly different from ourselves.

In Damascus, Paul and select contemporaries are freed from being mythological giants so they can become fellow human beings inhabiting a memorably re-created Roman world, replete with violence, ritual and grunge. However, before entering Damascus, it’s helpful to remember that it is not only a gay son of Greek migrants – or folk whose church is central to their cultural identity – who brings baggage on the journey. Every reader carries a suitcase of conscious and unconscious heritage concerning Christianity – all Australians, including Indigenous people and immigrants from Asian and African nations, have been profoundly influenced by this imperial religion. Paul’s ideas were vitally important to Augustine and other Church fathers, and even more central to Martin Luther, who centred the Reformation on the Pauline injunction that faith in the resurrected Christ is the only means to salvation – searing this into the European soul just as the West was dispatching its religion to the world. How can this multilayered past not impact on our encounter with Damascus?

It is unlikely to be a coincidence, for example, that my favourite character in the novel is almost pure fiction. While Damascus is divided into seven sections centred on a select group of men and women, and moves back and forth in time (to undermine conventional readings of “progress”?), weaving through them is the disruptive and increasingly ostracised twin brother of Jesus. The character is an amalgam of the apostle who is remembered in the Gospels for doubting the resurrection, in Church history as the author of the best-known Gospel to be rejected in the chosen canon (a complete copy of which was rediscovered in 1945 by a group of seven Bedouin field hands led by a Mohammed Ali), and in apocryphal tradition as the twin of Jesus who conducted a mission to India. But we know almost nothing about the historical Thomas. Tsiolkas thus writes on a slate on which the historians can have next to nothing to say. But knowledge of “doubting” Thomas, the rejected gospel and the so-called Acts of Thomas (another early text that didn’t make the late-4th-century cut), as well as St Paul’s condemnation of teachers who rejected bodily resurrection and Christ’s imminent return, means he is able to create a believable and fascinating character who held fast to what he heard directly from his brother: the Kingdom has already come, it is of this world. For me, Tsiolkas’s life of Thomas is historical fiction at its unencumbered and well-informed best.

Timothy is another character to remember. Paul’s mission partner (and the depth of celibate but bodily love between the two glimpsed in the epistles is given full reign here) is the son of a Greek father and a Jewish mother, and in his love for both Paul and Thomas, as well as his later leadership of the fellowship at Ephesus, Timothy embodies the cross-cultural and interfaith fusion that is forging a new religion. Tsiolkas, the experienced explorer of the pain, possibilities and ambiguity of multicultural encounter, is on solid ground here. The thoughts and actions of the young and the old Timothy provide compelling reading, but again our sparse knowledge of the historical figure probably helps the literary success.

And then there is Lydia (described in the Acts of the Apostles as a “dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira”) – the first documented convert to Christianity in Europe, who is particularly venerated by the Orthodox Church. Lydia is the lead character in a lengthy early section of Damascus. The radical transformation in the life of this young married woman after she became Paul’s first “stranger” convert is brilliantly conveyed. But except for a brief visit by Paul and Timothy to the site of her tomb, Lydia is not mentioned again. The apostle’s other female friends and colleagues are also left out. What are we to make of this abandonment? Is this reflective of what is to come for women in the Church? Despite the much-cited misogyny that can be found in the epistles, the Pauline churches were revolutionary in the respect and status they granted women by the standards not just of the culture of the time but also of the Church for the next 1500 years. Despite, or because of, the radical potential of the teaching that everyone was equal in Christ, Paul (or those who later inserted the strictures into the original texts) believed it was important to the integration and order of the Church that women cover their hair, obey their husbands, and shut up during worship. Lydia’s exile from both her community and the narrative is uncomfortable reading but perhaps all the more powerful because of this.

In contrast, the novel has a former slave turned church leader who is there both at the beginning and the end. Tsiolkas surely can’t exaggerate the revolutionary reordering of the relationship between slaves and masters when they became spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ (even if the full implications of this took 1800 years to realise). After his first appearance as a runaway seeking refuge with the man who converted him, Abel vanishes from the narrative until returning in the final section as a church leader.

What of Paul, the central character in the book? I confess that I didn’t find him easy to be with. A grating gravitas seemed to sneak into the language and thoughts of the lead man of Damascus – even his tortured earthiness appeared more a response to the legend to come than reflective of 1st-century life. Could a desire for empathy have muddled history and literature, bringing the venerated apostle too close for truth or comfort? Or was the difficulty of disentangling from the presence of the saint more mine than the author’s? Like Tsiolkas, I have struggled with the legacy of Paul – rejecting his brand of religion because of its shaming rules and judgements, only to come to acknowledge the wonder of his message concerning forgiveness and grace. When I talked back to the seemingly larger than life Saul of Damascus, who was I talking to – the character, the writer, the Church or my confused “inner Paul”? I was more comfortable with the more fictional characters, but Tsiolkas’s chief creation has enriched my Pauline cacophony.

What Damascus reveals best is not historical personalities but the transformative power of a revolutionary idea. The early Christian fellowships were radical communities that undermined not just common norms but also common sense. Historians struggle in this space – because we generally seek to impose some order on complex human actions, the largely indecipherable sources of meaning that motivate people to act in unpredictable and self-sacrificing ways are often insufficiently explored. It’s no surprise that Tsiolkas, the master storyteller of the drives that create human lives and relationships, transcends this constraint. In the patriarchal, honour-based, slave-owning, tradition-bound Jewish, Greek and Roman culture, in the name of love for a resurrected crucified criminal, men and women responded to the call, Tsiolkas writes, “to be reborn as a stranger to the womb that carried you, the seed that formed you, the family that raised you and the kingdom that claimed you”. Two millennia of institutionalisation and enculturation has so tamed the story that even Christians are now liable to doze off when the scriptures are read, and it needed someone with Tsiolkas’s skill to bring their vitality back to life.

It is because of the subversive countercultural character of the early Church conveyed in Damascus, that I hope that if the prime minister reads another historical fiction book, it is this one. Damascus will reveal to him that if his Pentecostal fellowship really does look back (as it claims to do) to the early Church for its model of the spirit-filled Christian life, it should not be so affirming of the prejudices, aspirations, comfort and complacency of “quiet Australians”. As Tsiolkas makes clear, at the very heart of early Christianity’s message was the welcome afforded to “the stranger”. Belonging was no longer to be based on family, religion, class, citizenship or tribe but grounded in hospitality, service and fellowship with “the other”. The Pauline Church was not a church of the Shire.

It is a paradox of the postmodern age that the Western world is, in a religious sense, closer to that of the first three centuries of the Christian era than it has been at any time since the conversion of the emperor Constantine. The remarkable and unprecedented collapse in formal belief and worship in just 50 years in most developed nations means that there is once again no primary belief system to refer to, or consensus concerning, the path to salvation. Perhaps this is why Tsiolkas puts the sustaining conviction of Paul and the early Church – that Jesus would soon return – at the centre of his narrative, leaving the ageing Timothy to face the truth that the hope that had always sustained him was not going to happen any time soon. What had given meaning to extraordinary sacrifice, and underpinned adventure, hardships and love on the road, had been proved wrong. In this vacuum, a new basis for belief had to be forged.

There are never easy answers to losing old sources of meaning – Christ still hasn’t returned – but there is solace and hope in reimagining the faith, sufferings, dreams and disappointments of those who did so much to shape our world. When approaching the end of writing Damascus, Tsiolkas reflected that “for a long time I felt I was wrestling with Paul, but the last six months I feel like I am walking in step with him”. Many of his readers will prefer to keep a greater distance from the apostle, but in providing an eloquent entrance into a vanquished culture usually populated more by myth than men, Tsiolkas has helped us build solidarity with misunderstood ancestors and befriend hidden parts of ourselves.

James Boyce

James Boyce is a Hobart-based writer and historian. His latest book is Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens.

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