Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus, Allen & Unwin 2019, ISBN 9780760875091, 423 pages.
From $AUD19 online, Kindle edition $AUD 16
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Christos Tsiolkas tells the story of Saint Paul in such a
gritty fashion that I nearly gave up on the novel several times. It is not for
the faint-hearted. Greek-Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas is known for his
hard-hitting and relentlessly honest writing. The Slap, a suburban novel
exploring whether adults other than parents can administer corporal punishment,
Tsiolkas’ previous novels, including Barracuda and The Slap, have been turned into movies. I wonder whether anyone will dare to make Damascus – The Movie. The novel skates on blasphemy – not a new charge against Tsiolkas – and its depiction of the brutality of the pagan empire surrounding and threatening the early Christians is sickening. The love between Paul and Timothy, and between Timothy and Thomas, is at the least obsessive, if not outright sexual. This factor alone will make it difficult for many Christians to accept the novel.
Three axes explore the different directions in which the
early church was developing: Paul and Timothy represent the more orthodox view,
that Jesus is the Saviour, that he has appeared after the resurrection, and
that he will return soon and take into the resurrected life all the baptised.
Paul and Able (as Tsiolkas names the ex-slave Onesimus)
represent the dilemma faced by the early church when Jesus does not return. Able
believes that the Christians should ditch this teaching, and also baptise infants.
The third axis is Timothy and Thomas. This represents the view
of some early Christians that Jesus was a great teacher and prophet who died –
end of story. (Tsiolkas confesses in the afterword that this is closest to his
The conflicts between these emerging theologies drive the
There are underlying themes that are common to Tsiolkas’ other work. The intense relationships between the men in the story reflect Tsiolkas’ own struggles with sexuality. The severity of a faith which requires its apostles to forsake family is portrayed fiercely. The treatment of the refugees who pour out of Judea after the destruction of the temple resonates with today.
I would not recommend this novel to fellow-Christians unless
you really want to be challenged. It may be the book for a friend who is amoral
and extremely secular, a lover of the violence in the Vikings series or Game
of Thrones. Damascus has a depth and a challenge to believe that is absent
Whoever reads Damascus will be moved and outraged. It
will divide readers. Any novelist that can achieve those outcomes so forcefully
is to be respected!
Shaped 2011: A (Abilities)
Exodus 35:30 – 36:3
I Corinthians 3:5-15
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St Matthew, the eleventh chapter, beginning at verse 28:
Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
28 Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
For the Gospel of the Lord:
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
At different times in the history of God’s people, there has been a task. For the people of Israel settling in the city of Jerusalem, the task was to build a temple. Before that, in the civil war that tore Israel apart for many years, the task was for David to survive and to defeat Saul. In the years after the death and resurrection of Jesus the task for God’s people was to spread the Good News that Jesus rising from the dead had made a difference.
Each of the tasks required God’s people to get on board, to offer themselves for the task, to work to implement God’s will. God invites us to share in the work that God is doing. Many of the tasks set for God’s people, perhaps most of the tasks, are beyond the capacity of human beings. But the story of God’s people shows us again and again that God equips God’s people to carry out these tasks.
Expert jewellers and fine craftsman were required to finish off the Temple. They were called, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and commissioned for the task. The final product – the first Temple of Solomon – was extraordinary. Bishop Gregory of Tours listed it as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Bezalel and Oholiab and the other craftsmen evidently did their job well!
Before there could be a capital city for David, there had to be a peace settlement. David rebelled against King Saul, and spent twenty years waging guerrilla war against Saul. I find East Timor an intriguing parallel, because José Ramos Horta and Xanana Gusmao, who both started out as theological students, compared their guerrilla war with that of David against Saul. Gusmao modelled himself directly on David, describing himself as a poet-warrior like his hero.
For guerrilla war, you need warriors, and not just any warriors but warriors equipped for a dirty war in the harsh terrain of Palestine: warriors with the agility of mountain goats and deer; warriors trained to wait on a higher rock and pounce from above on their enemy; warriors who could handle the crossbow, the most high-tech weapon of the time; warriors who could outrun their enemies with sure footing on slippery, winding paths.
I’m not sorry that God’s people don’t need warriors now. The idea is repugnant to our era. But they needed them then, and God, through David, called them, equipped them and used them.
Paul knew that God’s message of risen love needed messengers to tell it, and we can pick this attitude out from the messy controversy that Apollos seems to have caused. You don’t need to take sides: I’m with Paul; I’m with Apollos. What you do need are more messengers. And although we now don’t know the whole context, Paul is calling for specialisation. If he has built the foundation, they now needed some messengers to consolidate those foundations, others to build on them, others to take them further afield.
These are just some of the Biblical accounts of how God’s people challenged with a task found that God raised up and equipped people with the right abilities.
You know that I am a fan of St Francis of Assisi. St Francis was born into a Europe that was changing. Trade was bringing into existence the first Eurozone. As a boy, Francis travelled with his father on trips from Assisi in central Italy across the Alps into France to buy cloth. In Francis’ time, cash money – coins – was just becoming the currency of choice. St Francis noted, for example, that the wealthy held onto the first-rate coins and the poor tended to have the poorly minted coins which lost their value. The rich could become richer, and the poor even more destitute.
The task for God’s people was to challenge this greed, and St Francis, with his radical message of voluntary poverty had the particular abilities needed for this task. I think if St Francis were alive today he would have been occupying Wall Street. He would have understood how greed distorted the money system and unjust men could rip off others. But notice a crucial difference: the means by which the bankers have been ripping off the poor in America is by sub-prime lending. St Francis would probably not be the man to confront today’s task of calling out greed; someone else whose abilities are related to today’s injustices is being called and equipped and commissioned for the task of God’s people. No doubt St Francis would be a great inspiration for that person.
During World War II, God’s people were called on to resist Nazism. This task split the Lutheran church and caused great tensions in the Roman Catholic Church, which are still there today. Was Pope Pius XII hero or collaborator?
The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself with the abilities needed to resist Hitler. He first challenged the myth of the superior Aryan by nurturing a non-violent community in his underground theological seminary at Finkenwalde. He was involved in two plots to kill Hitler, and we might debate whether he was morally right to go down this path. He was imprisoned and hanged a month before the capitulation of the Nazis.
What can’t be debated is the mix of skills and background that Bonhoeffer brought to the task. He was a fine theologian; his family were the cream of Berlin society with all the connections that implied; he was articulate in person and in writing and a man of courage.
In the series of SHAPED 2011, we are today at the letter ‘A’ for ‘Abilities’. You remember that we started two weeks ago with ‘S’ for ‘Spiritual Gifts’. The foundational fact is that we are loved by God. This is the most basic spiritual gift. Being loved means we know that we are worthwhile, that God can use us to work with him. Being loved enlarges our capacity in turn to love others. We are given a heart for God’s work. Last week’s word was ‘H’ for ‘Heart’ or ‘Passion’.
David, St Paul, St Francis of Assisi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are all mighty examples of people who knew how deeply God loved them, and who responded with heart and passion to that love. We will see next week under the letter ‘P’ for ‘Personality’ that God used people’s unique personality to set about his plans. Each of us has a unique combination of talents and potentials. No one is like you, and it is precisely your uniqueness that God uses.
For this week, however, our focus on ‘A’ for ‘Abilities’ is an encouragement that God provides the abilities needed for the tasks of God’s people. All the talent this congregation needs to perform the tasks God asks of us is here.
Some questions for you to ruminate on then: what are the tasks of mission God is calling St Mary’s Busselton to? What talents, skills, platform – abilities – are needed to carry out these tasks? Do some of these abilities seem too hard for the people God has on hand? And what are the talents you bring? What are the abilities God will find in you to foster and encourage and use for God’s glory?
Let us pray: Loving God, you give to those ask the ability to carry out the tasks that you have set your people: Give us insight, we pray, to know what mission you are calling this parish to.
Show us the abilities needed to fulfil this mission.
Stir our hearts to ask you for the abilities we need,
and give us the courage and confidence to use those abilities in your service,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.