It took reading Damascus by Christos Tsoilkas to remind me yet again that my perception of the lives of biblical characters has been shaped more by the flannelgraph than any other media.
Yeah – even at 55 I still mentally envisage Jesus as he looked in the kids’ stories, David as a sweet young lad, Goliath as a terminator type figure and Samson as a brute.
The above flannelgraph of image is of Paul and Silas in one of the most spotlessly clean Roman prisons – a far cry from what was likely reality.
If you like your flannelgraph faith and don’t want it disturbed then best you stay away from this novel, because it shatters any shiny images of Paul and Silas singing happily in jail and replaces them with images of filth and brutality.
I discovered Damascus after listening to Tsoilkas on an ABC podcast, where he described his faith journey from Greek Orthodox to evangelical to atheist and self imposed exile because of his homosexuality. The Paul character he creates is one who struggles with his own sexuality and his worthiness before God – a firey and yet tortured believer who genuinely seeks God, but is also conscious of his own brokenness. You can draw your own conclusions as to whether his interpretation of Paul has any merit.
The story shifts time frames with every chapter, and gets narrated by numerous different people so you have to stay on your toes to follow what is happening. It hangs loosely around the biblical story, but also draws from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, with Thomas cast as Jesus’ unbelieving twin brother.
Where Tsoilkas excels is in his graphic descriptions of the first century world. No other author has taken me there like he has. Even reading scripture itself has often felt one dimensional, but Tsoilkas captured the sheer depravity of the Roman world and placed it alongside the beautiful counter-cultural living of the church and their ever present anticipation that ‘he will come soon’.
Without giving it away (although the story ought not be a surprise) Tsoilkas leads us into the Roman world by introducing to various characters, both real and imaged.
He writes of Lydia and shows us her (imagined) conversion and the radical, underground expression of church she is welcomed into where there are no ‘slave or free, Jew or Greek’. She is astonished at this new community that has been created and she quickly becomes a devoted member. Her future in this new kingdom lies in rescuing the female babies being offered to Demeter and living in a cave on a hillside while she is taunted as a witch by those who come near her.
Another section is told from the perspective of Paul’s jailer and opens with a visceral description of a wild pagan ceremony where animals are killed and their blood is drunk in hope that the actions will reward Vrasas (the jailer) with the birth of a son rather than a daughter. The chapter goes on to show Vrasas’ puzzled relationship with Paul and we hear his internal monologue as he observes the way the Christians love one another.
I loved this book and found myself not wanting it to end. Tsoilkas said that he spent an entire year researching the first century world before he even put pen to paper and the result is spectacular. I hope I haven’t oversold it, but to me it was one of the richest and most engaging novels I have read in a long time. And to those who are likely to dismiss it as an abomination etc etc – just read it as a NOVEL – not as another paraphrase of scripture. Enjoy what you can and dismiss what bothers you.