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Damascus: review

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 14 February 2020

During his recuperation, Paul finds that he has sat eating with gentiles, prostitutes and slaves and is enraged and leaves the house. But he returns, and his breakthrough comes when he sits with Ananias, and they share their brokenness, they confess their sins to each other. A veil falls from Paul's eyes and he sees that intimate relationships may be achieved with those whom Israel abhorred as sources of uncleanliness and that despite his sins he is accepted. This is what "love" means in the New Testament. The barriers erected by Judaism and ancient Rome are abolished, and we see others as we see ourselves. Surely this is the death of the ancient world and the birth of a new humanism.

The earliest followers were persecuted for being irreligious, for insulting the gods. Tsiolkas highlights the scandal of early Christian belief that all of the gods of Rome in all their glory are to be replaced by a criminal who died on a cross. This was unthinkable for the ancient mind. The followers of Jesus were called "death worshippers". The Jews were scandalised:


They'd laughed at his story of a crucified Saviour. They'd howled in derision and cursed in fury: 'We want a new David, a hero who will slay Rome. We don't want a virgin boy nailed to a fucking cross.' (p242)

This was the milieu in which Paul worked, from which he had to break. His struggle was not a matter of simply changing religions, as we might do today, but of a wrenching of blood and flesh symbolised by the refusal of circumcision and of "being of Israel". By abandoning Judaism he set himself outside of the people of God as one accursed. He counted all as loss. But he used his loss in order to go to the gentiles:

He knew the commandments and the words of the prophets were inscribed across his heart. At first reluctantly, and then with gathering awe, he realised that this would be his gift to the coming kingdom. He knew Israel. He was schooled and trained in Israel, he was of Israel. The coming of the crucified Saviour was not an aberration. His suffering and death and arising, and the redemption to follow, had been willed at the dawn of Creation. The Saviour had been nailed to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and thus had the circle been completed. (p241)

The church of our day has been on the back foot since at least the sixties with falling status and failing congregations. Its response has been to think of itself as a missionary church, to hold events for youth, to indulge in the fabrication of mission statements and strategic plans. None of this has halted the decline of the church for obvious reasons; these actions are generated out of fear and the desire for control; neither are gospel imperatives. Rarely has the modern church understood art as its main device for explaining itself to the world. Damascus is a work of art that expresses the core of the gospel. It is easy to see from the novel that the Church's acceptance of those who find themselves same-sex attracted is not simply the liberals courting favour with the modern world but is central to the gospel. The acceptance of gays may be the last barrier to be broken down.

Damascusis an important book because it traces the origins of our humanism. It is common in our time to attribute this origin to the Enlightenment and the discovery of reason. Not so. Tsiolkas leads us back to its true origin: Jesus and Paul.

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This is a review of Demascus Christos Tsoliakis (Allan and Unwin, )

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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