Book Review: Damascus

Reviewed by Rodney Eivers, Chairperson – UCFORUM

Note: As with most of my “book reviews” this is not an attempt to give the potential readers a good summary of what they might expect from cover to cover of the book. It is a few of my impressions which may or may not lead others to read what this author has to say.

Some impressions by Rodney Eivers, 7th May 2020

          I really wanted to enjoy this book.

          Following the author’s renown with previous titles, leading to television series, Barracuda and The Slap, neither of which I had actually viewed, I looked to sharing in the laudatory attention given to the writing of Christos Tsiolkas. I had no reason to think that Damascus was other than “inspirational”. I had read reviews of the book from such disparate sources as the ABC Ethics and Religion Report and Eternity magazine.

          So confident was I of its being a good read that my wife had bought a copy of the book to give to my 17-year-old grandson. Among other things, he had done some religious studies at his high school.  He had just graduated last year. Furthermore, it seemed to me that it might be just the sort of book (giving a bit of flesh and blood atmosphere to the early Jesus movement) that would be an entertaining supplement to the more academic titles which I give each month to a theological college. For this purpose, I rushed out in the final days of the Christmas shopping rush to bag the last three copies of Damascus available at my local Kmart.

          This was to be the first book of fiction I had read for about two years (for the previous light reading I had been revisiting a number of the writings of Charles Dickens).

          By sheer coincidence when I mentioned this to a good friend and colleague of mine, he said that he had started reading Damascus and recommended that I continue to look at it myself. When I mentioned, however, that we were planning to give the book to our 17-year-old he cautioned.

“Perhaps you should read the first few chapters yourself first.  It may take a rather special teenager to be mature enough to cope with this text.”

          Now that I have read Damascus from cover to cover, I think he may have been right. Remember, I was anticipating something inspirational. It seems to me that positive inspiration is something our world needs whether we are 17 or 70.

          So, what do we find with Damascus?  Christos Tsiolkas seem to have sought to set the impact of biblical Paul realistically into the setting of society as envisaged in the Mediterranean region governed and influenced by the Roman imperialism. Perhaps reasonably accurately he paints a picture of anger and violence being the norm for just about everybody.

          Was life in that era always like that?  I notice on the back blurb to the book someone notes there are “sudden jags of tenderness”.  That would be right. There is not much tenderness displayed by anybody.

          Roman rule lasted for more than 400 to 500 years so it must have had something going for it. There must have been people reasonably happy with it as long as you stuck to the rules. I am reminded of the situation in China today, where despite the protests of the people of Hong Kong, mainland Chinese seem happy to accept their lot with a very autocratic regime grateful for the stability it provides. I suppose you could argue that because they did not stick to the rules, Paul and his lot including the whole Jewish nation got into trouble with the Romans.

          There was certainly violence in Roman times. Nevertheless, one thing that I have long puzzled over in relation to the Roman justice system, was that a fair-minded legal system existed at all. It seems remarkable to me that someone presumably as insignificant as Paul in relation to whole wide Roman empire, could go before Governor Felix in Cyprus  and be packed off to Rome, with expensive guards and travel expenses to face further court hearings at the far side of the empire.  To claim that this is because he was a Roman citizen does not sound very convincing to me. Why not impale him, crucify him or feed him to the lions on the spot when defying such a powerful entity? Would the Saudis, the Russians or the Chinese provide such latitude for their citizens today?

          Anyway, back to the violence. In this story, sexual intimacy, whether homosexual or heterosexual does not get much tenderness either. Nothing comparable to the joyous sensuality of the Song of Solomon from an earlier ancient period. Homosexuality is treated as something of shame or disgust (I am bit surprised by this as the author is openly gay). Heterosexual relationships even within marriage are characterised by rape. An ideal marital relationship is painted as no sexual relations at all. We are told of men sleeping in each other’s arms, but it is not clear whether this an emotional closeness or is a further euphemism for what in the Old Testament is described as “knowing” one’s bed companion.

          I found the crudity of the language, grating. Nowadays this sort of interchange is called “coarse” language.  This together with the angry tone may well be the popular style of writing today. I came across this when reviewing some essays composed in a writing course at Griffith University- so much anger!

          Was “fucking” (or its Greek or Syrian counterpart) the general adjective of emphasis with people at that time? Or is that an extension of a 21st century norm when other general adjectives of emphasis in literary and film media have gone by the board.  What happened to “damn!”  and “bloody” of earlier centuries? While writing these notes I read a review of another book about Roman times. This claimed that insults were part of everyday life in ancient Rome so perhaps Tsiolkas has got it right!

          A major theme of Damascus is the author’s design to set up a tension between the people at that time who came to be called Christians regarding the nature of Jesus. In order to do this, he introduces apostle Thomas as a twin of Jesus. Thomas is made to represent those who saw Jesus as simply a charismatic human being who brought a basically non-supernatural message of how to nurture a better secular world here and now – The Kingdom of God. At least in the early years under the sponsorship of Jesus’s brother James, this approach was directed at the people of Israel and sought to retain Jewish culture including notably such practices as male circumcision.

          Paul, however, is the one who took the message far beyond Galilee and Jerusalem along the Mediterranean coast and sought to make it universal. His message, though, was heavily into the supernatural especially in the expectation that Jesus was returning to earth someday soon. This aspect gets hammered quite a bit by Tsiolkas. It is interesting of course – Tsiolkas acknowledges this although not very clearly to my mind – that although Paul insists that he has “seen” the resurrected Jesus, his own writings make it clear that it was not a face to face encounter in the flesh but rather something of an intense vision.

          My own theological position is, of course, closer to that of Thomas (except for the link to Hebrew culture) than of Paul. Tsiolkas has consulted a number of what I regard as reputable literary sources, including, I was glad to see, the gospel of Thomas. He has what I see as a curious, and to me somewhat regrettable attitude to institutional Christianity. He acknowledges the powerful cause for good which arose from Paul’s efforts but is not prepared to call himself Christian because he does not “believe” in the resurrection. Is “belief” in the physical resurrection a vital part of Christianity? If one sees merit in the ethos of the pre-Easter Jesus rather than the post-Easter Jesus which Paul promoted and proclaimed there may still be room to make the following of the Jesus Way a worthy calling.

          If Christos Tsiolkas is trying to show there was merit in what eventuated from the persuasiveness of Paul, the book fails to be convincing for me because of his depiction of the personal characteristics of the main protagonists. None of them even our hero, Paul, come across as lovely people. They are temperamental, speak harshly, and are sometimes violent. In other words, somewhat hypocritical.

          So, can I share this book with my teenager and trust that he will be inspired by it?  Or provide it to theological students as they engage in their studies to make the world a better place?  I don’t know. Maybe you, my readers, will have some view on this.

          Perhaps what Christos Tsiolkas seeks to remind us is of the ultimate outcome.  Through the persistence, and demonstration of love by relatively weak and flawed personalities such as Paul, Thomas, Lydia, Timothy and others, the message survived and thrived. The Jesus presence with its  ethic of the equal worthiness of all human beings,  of loving one’s  enemies,  of stewardship rather than ownership of one’s assets, and of turning the other cheek (this gets a fair bit of mention in the book) in due course overcame the controlling influence of the Roman empire and left a legacy which remains with us to this day. That, indeed, is remarkable.

oOo                                            

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