This is no Sunday School story

 
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In our disenchanted century when nothing is sacred, it’s inevitable that believers and doubters of all stripes will blithely appropriate religious texts and refashion them in their own image, smearing over long-­cherished beliefs in the process, but also bringing uncomfortable possibilities to light. Christos Tsiolkas’s Damascus is one such effort.

A darling of Australia’s literati, Tsiolkas is perhaps best known for his best-selling novel, The Slap, an exploration of suburban Australia adapted into an award-winning ABC mini-series in 2011. In Damascus, he turns his attention to the life of one of Christianity’s key figures, the author of nearly a third of the New Testament, the apostle Paul.

Unexpected? Perhaps not, given Tsiolkas’ Greek Orthodox upbringing—he says in an author’s note that while he “is no longer a believer in the Christian myths . . . I am still committed to and challenged by the injunctions of [Jesus of Nazareth]”. And then there’s the fact that Paul is responsible for the clearest denounce­ments of homosexuality in the New Testament, while Tsiolkas is in a long-term same-sex relationship. It’s not entirely surprising, therefore, that Tsiolkas’s Paul is wracked with self-destructive homosexual lusts that, while quieted somewhat after his Christian conversion, continue through his lifetime.

Tsiolkas’s depiction of Paul’s pre-conversion debauchery and marginalisation does not match the apostle’s own account of his early life as “a Hebrew of the Hebrews . . . as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Philippians 3:4–6). But, unlike the other apostles, Paul was unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:8), a fact Tsiolkas exploits to the utmost—after all, the New Testament doesn’t explicitly say Paul wasn’t same-sex attracted.

Tsiolkas paints Paul as a haunted, marginalised and often solitary figure. Readers familiar with the biblical book, Acts of the Apostles, will struggle to find Paul the orator, mixing it up with the Athenian intelligentsia; Paul the shrewd operator, asserting his legal rights with Roman authorities and throwing Jewish councils into chaos with theological grenades; or Paul the missionary, travelling with his team and planting a network of new Christian congregations throughout what is now Greece and Turkey.

Damascus is populated by tortured souls—traumatised characters who lurch between despair and ecstasy and back again within the space of a paragraph, but never seem to find any serenity or stability. Some readers will find this deeply engaging, others will find it exhausting, but it seems emotional intensity is Tsiolkas’ stock in trade, if The Monthly’s Mary Ellen Jordan review of The Slap is any indication: “. . . most of the book’s main characters are carrying frustration, anger and rage to a remarkable, even exaggerated, extent . . .” The same could be said of Damascus.

Surprisingly, the apostle Peter—­a key figure in early Christian history—appears not at all. The dressing down he received from Paul, recounted in Galatians 2:11–14, is fertile ground for novelisation. Tsiolkas ignores this, instead using the apostle Thomas as a counterpoint to Paul, relying on dubious ancient manuscripts and later traditions as source material. Tsiolkas overplays his hand particularly in making Thomas Jesus’ twin—what?! There were two babies in the manger!?

I’m left with the regret of the nerdy superfan who loves a book, but is disappointed that its movie adaptation got it so wrong. And yet, Damascus’ unique slant also casts fresh light on ancient realities—in particular, the revolutionary implications of Jesus’ words that become plain in the rigidly stratified setting of the first century.

“The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16) is whispered among the believing poor as a defiant hope in a future when rich oppressors will be brought low. Those who follow the way of Christ are both slave and freeborn, male and female, Jew and Gentile (or Stranger, in Tsiolkas’ evocative language). And yet they eat together, greet one another with a kiss and address one another as brother and sister. Onlookers are shocked, disgusted—their pride and propriety insulted at this flagrant disregard of social boundaries. And, as modern readers, we recognise within this radical lifestyle the roots of Western notions of equality and human rights.

Tsiolkas poses some thorny dilemmas. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul states three times that “each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them”, explicitly mentioning slaves. But what if the newly converted slave’s duties involve, say, prostitution, work in a pagan temple or both? Should the slave, in turning away from sin, refuse to continue in their work, thus risking death? Or should they “remain in the situation they were in when God called them”? It’s not a question canvassed at the average church Bible study group. But perhaps it should be.

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The shock and shame of Roman crucifixion, softened by the distance of history and familiarity in our age, is savagely splattered over the page by Tsiolkas. Jew and Greek alike shrink back in horror at the thought of a violated and crucified Jesus being worshipped as a god. And Tsiolkas is nothing but even-handed in his unflinching depiction of Greco-Roman pagan rites. There are no garlanded maidens skipping through meadows here—instead there is blood sacrifice, temple prostitution, the ritual torture and execution of blasphemers, and fierce oaths to gods of war and fertility.

Yes, Damascus is brutal. The violence and sex are explicit. The language is filthy. Like the controversy triggered by Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, the reader may be left wondering if the whole project isn’t one giant gratuitous obscenity.

I can’t bring myself to recommend Tsiolkas’ Damascus. For those of more delicate sensibilities, or those who choose for the sake of their spiritual health to avoid darkness and debauchery in their media intake, this book is not for you. But if your reading already leans towards the gritty and gory, Damascus will savagely strip away any notions you might have had of biblical characters being pure, pious types whose stories are somehow removed from the harsh realities of history and human nature. You may even be tempted to go back to the Bible and read about the life of Paul and the early Christians for yourself. 

 

Damascus (2019), by Christos Tsiolkas, is published by Allen & Unwin.

Kent Kingston lives with his family in NSW’s Lake Macquarie region and is editor of Signs of the Times.