Christos Tsiolkas and the Christian revolution

Simon Smart on Christos Tsiolkas new novel ‘Damascus’ and its stunning portrayal of how radical the message of Jesus was in ancient world.

In lamenting what he sees as a broad cultural amnesia, theologian David Bentley Hart writes, “Over time, our capacity to forget can make everything come to seem unexceptional and predictable, even things that are actually quite remarkable and implausible.” According to Hart, the most important function of historical reflection is to “wake us from too complacent a forgetfulness and to recall us to a knowledge of things that should never be lost to memory.”

Of all the many things that will be dissected and debated in Australian author Christos Tsiolkas’s latest novel, Damascus, this act of “remembering” may well be its most significant contribution.

Tsiolkas is well-known for such provocative and disturbing stories as The Slap and Barracuda, which confronted aspects of contemporary Australian social life that usually remain concealed and unspoken. In turning his hand to historical fiction, Tsiolkas has chosen as his subject the Apostle Paul (originally Saul) and the early decades of Christianity beyond the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Paul, of course, was a prominent tormentor of the early followers of Jesus, but, according to the Acts of the Apostles and New Testament epistles, his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus saw him confronted with the resurrected Jesus, after which he became the chief missionary of the Christian gospel to the pagan world.

Tsiolkas encountered the writings of Paul in adolescence, but, as a young gay man was alienated by Paul’s objection to homosexual practice and lost his faith. In his late twenties, at a time of personal despair, Tsiolkas returned to the writings of Paul, and says he found there “solace, compassion and understanding.” He appears to have been, in a certain sense, haunted by Paul ever since. In preparing to write this monumental work, Tsiolkas immersed himself in the world of New Testament and ancient near-eastern studies, seeking to understand the culture that produced Paul and from which the early Christians emerged. The result is a stunningly imaginative vision of life in the first-century Graeco-Roman world.

Tsiolkas says that for much of his life he has been trying to wrestle with Paul and his interpretation of Jesus’s words and life — which he finds compelling and revelatory, even as a non-believer. And, like many of us, he is faced with trying to reconcile the person of Jesus with the fraught reality of Christian history.

But what we get in Damascus is a treatment of Jesus’s teaching that is raw, hard-edged and viscerally affecting. Teachings that to a cynical ear, worn down by 2,000 years of a chequered history, might sound hackneyed and tired, are rightly portrayed as seditious, revolutionary and, at the same time, astonishingly beautiful.

This book offers something substantial in understanding the foundations of Western culture.

In more than one sense then, this book could make the perfect Christmas gift. It’s not light, beachside summer reading. It’s distressing and uncomfortable. In parts, extremely so. But beyond what is an arresting and compelling narrative this book offers something substantial in understanding the foundations of Western culture and the shockwaves the tiny sect of followers of the Jewish prophet from Nazareth would set off in the Roman world.

In a style not unfamiliar in Tsiolkas’s body of work, he deftly weaves his tale from different perspectives and across different time periods: Saul at the time of his conversion; Lydia, a Greek woman who was an early convert in Acts; Paul’s gaoler in Rome at the end of his life; a slave owner; and Timothy, a close companion and amanuensis of Paul, who carries on the vision once Paul is gone.

Most conspicuous for a contemporary reader is the sheer brutality of the Roman world — equally evident in domestic settings as it is in spectacular public festivals of cruelty.

Individual lives at every level of society were subject to capricious and callous gods and forced into oppressively superstitious rituals to placate them. The Graeco-Roman conception of the world was of an endless and unchangeable cycle where familiar institutions and traditions were essentially immutable and necessary. This served only the high born and powerful (and even them not very well), while the vast majority of people were subject to fate that lacked any vision of progress or personal elevation.

The insistence of the early Christians that every human life was precious and equally valuable seems self-evident to a modern Western person. Tsiolkas’s narrative powerfully reveals how inconceivable that idea was to a first-century person who simply had no framework to challenge the profound, immovable barriers between people of different classes: people of high birth and those lower on the social scale; between slaves and freeborn; between men and women.

These distinctions were absolute, and Tsiolkas masterfully conveys the utter disbelief of those who encountered the followers of Jesus and saw the way they considered all their fellow believers as brothers and sisters, completely equal in the sight of God. These people ate together, touched each other, assumed no rights or privileges. This was previously unthinkable. The character of Able, an ex-slave, now long time Christian, explains:

“I was born a slave, brother, and I was born a stranger. There was no one who granted me any honour and so I had no honour to lose. Only one man showed me respect and charity, and that was our beloved Paul. He came into my master’s house and he spoke to me. He honoured me, because the resurrected son had entreated him to honour those who are shit like me.”

Even now, so many years later, his voice conveys the astonishment wrought by such a bizarre act of kindness.

An incident at a meeting of early Christians illustrates how bewildering such egalitarian impulses were. Heraclea, a woman of the highest caste enters the room and Lydia can’t believe what she sees. “I went to bow but Clemency stopped me. I was astonished to see the noblewoman kiss and embrace us all, even the slaves. This was a miracle, a scandal, more unthinkable and perverse than any nightmare.” When Lydia’s husband discovers what is going on at these meetings, where women and men pray together, where slaves mingle with freemen, and orphans and beggars stand side by side with merchants and traders, he can’t hide his disgust at “such shamelessness, such madness.”

Tsiolkas knows that every part of this burgeoning revolution was predicated on the belief in a crucified and resurrected saviour.

The place and treatment of women is likely one of the most memorable for those readers of Damascus less au fait with life in the ancient world. The sheer disappointment of parents when the first gasps of a baby’s breath come with the news, “It’s a girl,” is just one sign of the place of women in that society. Babies who were unwanted would be taken beyond city walls and left to the elements. This practice was relatively unremarkable at the time, and Tsiolkas is clearly moved by this phenomenon. “Our Lord considers it a great disgrace to abandon an infant. Once he has breathed life into a soul, only He has the right to reclaim that life,” says a character to Lydia, a mother who, despite all advice to the contrary, keeps her disabled infant girl.

The second-century Greek philosopher Celsus mocked Christianity as a religion of women, slaves and children, and this insult captures both the sentiment of the time and the way Christianity was about to radically alter the conception of the human person. As sociologist Rodney Stark puts it, “In some ways, it’s surprising that every woman in the Roman Empire didn’t become a Christian overnight, because the advantages were so great.” Tsiolkas understands the huge shift that came with Paul’s sojourns throughout the empire and his message that was for all people irrespective of gender or status. Lydia, on hearing Paul speak to her about the saviour, declares, “No man had ever before spoken to me so directly: not my father, my brothers or my husband. It was as if a veil separating men and women had been torn away …”

Tsiolkas knows that every part of this burgeoning revolution was predicated on the belief in a crucified and resurrected saviour; that the Damascus road experience upended not only Paul’s life, but eventually the Roman Empire itself. He also understands how ludicrous this now familiar-to-the-point-of-prosaic concept was to its first hearers. The shadow of the cross and the way it shatters the ancient world and reconfigures a sense of life and all reality is a key theme of his novel. Paul’s Roman guard, on hearing of a supposed God dying such a humiliating death, ponders what he considers an “obscenity,” a “folly,” an “outrage” and says, “it mocks life itself but it also mocks valour and honour and city and country and caste. It defies life and blood and we who are the living … there is no honour in such a death. Only suffering. Only shame.”

Tsiolkas’s Paul, reflecting on his time as a persecutor of those he now considers his closest kin, admits, “I was glad to hunt down anyone who followed him. I didn’t want a feeble saviour nailed to a cross … I detested him … I wanted a hero, I wanted a leader, I wanted a saviour who would set us free.”

But it was indeed the crucified messiah that these early followers came to believe irrevocably altered their world. This was, according to Nietzsche, “a transvaluation of all values” — a complete revision of how human beings would come to understand themselves and others and their place in the world. If God himself chooses the place of humble submission, even to the point of death, so as to serve others, this changes everything.

Tsiolkas’s gift here is to place within an imaginative and thoroughly convincing story a sense of how — straight from the teaching of Jesus — notions of compassion, mercy, humility, forgiveness and love became ideals.

His skill in transporting a twenty-first century reader to the ancient world is remarkable. His ability to communicate a sense of the complexity of belief and the humanity of his characters who struggle with temptations, fear, hesitancy and doubt, is convincing. Paul, the great teacher of the faith, here wrestles with his own failures of pride, jealousy, and rage, and this is consistent with the way the Bible presents even its heroes as flawed and deeply human.

To the theological challenges Tsiolkas will inevitably receive, one eye-rolling response might simply be to say, “It’s just a novel!” But this is a book that boldly picks up key figures and theological concepts of the world’s largest religion. He is dealing with not only engaging storylines and characters, but sacred texts. So there are important discussions to be had about how these are positioned and handled.

As historical fiction has become increasingly popular, the debate about the relationship between fiction writing and history has become more pressing, and Damascus certainly invites such enquiry. Authors such as David Malouf rightly emphasise the value of the imagination in coming to terms with, and being enriched by, the events and people of the past. Fiction can be a powerful means of achieving this. Yet, in her famous stoush with author Kate Grenville over perceived factual errors in The Secret River, the late historian and anthropologist Inga Clendinnen decried the postmodern tendency to blur the boundaries between fiction and history. She insisted that history matters and that it’s the responsibility of the writer to be as true to historical fact as they can possibly be, even as they create their imaginary worlds.

Does Damascus achieve this balance? Not everyone will think so. Paul was famously dogged by a mysterious ailment or temptation, the details of which are no doubt tantalising for a writer. In his second letter to the Corinthians he writes, “I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’.” (12:6-10) Tsiolkas’s depiction of Paul as a gay man trying to resist his sexuality reflects contemporary concerns, but is speculative. It might make sense in such a novel, but whether it works as a faithful representation of the history is another question.

A pivotal character in Damascus is Thomas, the supposed twin brother of Jesus who is undeniably a creatively interesting character and the vehicle for some important theological debate. Tsiolkas is drawing on the Thomas tradition (Gospel of ThomasActs of Thomas and The Book of Thomas the Contender), written in the century after the New Testament (and even later). There is no good historical reason to believe that Jesus had a twin and nothing in the New Testament to provide any weight to such an idea. It would be good for readers to know this.

However, the interactions between the aging Paul and the twin do reveal crucial and competing visions of who Jesus was and what his life and death meant, and still means. Much of this interplay likely reflects Tsiolkas’s own interpretation of the material. “I am no longer a believer in the Christian myths,” he says in his author’s note. He seems drawn to the world of Thomas who, in this story, says he saw Jesus dead but not resurrected. To Thomas, it doesn’t matter — what matters is the teaching of love for neighbour and the stranger and in this sense, Jesus lives on, revealing, in his suffering, a kingdom of peace and justice worth pursuing on earth.

And therein lies the eternal puzzle of the life of Jesus. Does it matter at all? Does it matter a little bit? Does it in fact change everything?

Paul, on the other hand, insists he met the risen messiah, and nothing can be the same because of Jesus’s victory over the powers of death and suffering. For Paul (and to Tsiolkas’s credit he represents this vision faithfully) the “kingdom” is both present, but not fully realised. There are great joys and wonders in this world, but it is too unjust and too painful for this to be all there is in the promises of God. “My Lord cannot be a bystander to a perverted creation,” says Paul to Thomas. “This world is not enough.”

And therein lies the eternal puzzle of the life of Jesus. Does it matter at all? Does it matter a little bit? Does it in fact change everything? Does it, as orthodox Christian teaching insists, represent a moment in history where God refuses to be a bystander to all the deprivations of human cruelty and heartbreak and loss and injustice, and where he determines to get involved in the human drama in such a tantalising and surprising manner — as a vulnerable human child, set on a mission towards a short but cosmically significant life and death.

Readers of Damascus are given the opportunity to consider the vision on which the early followers of Jesus staked their lives. And perhaps to ponder the way in which many people still locate within that story their best hope of redemptive possibilities, not only for individuals, but the whole creation that, as Paul wrote, groans in anticipation of its liberation from bondage and decay.

Simon Smart is Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and co-host of the historical documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics