Allen & Unwin
I don’t read to escape. I read to learn. To come to a new understanding or insight. I want to be a better person because of what I read.
That’s why, when I heard Christos Tsiolkas being interviewed on the ABC about his new novel Damascus, I knew I had to read it.
In the interview Tsiolkas talked about grappling with his sexuality in his early teens, and how St. Paul’s first letter to Corinthians regarding condemning homosexuality was the catalyst for him moving away from Christianity. But in his late 20s a personal crisis saw him in a church where he discovered St. Paul’s writing once again, but in a different light, a more compassionate one. That was the early spark that lead him to write Damascus.
Being gay myself, I have an aversion to most organised religions, so wanted to know what happened to Tsiolkas and how could he reconcile those letters to the Corinthians? Would reading Damascus give me the same inner conversion that Tsiolkas had reading St. Paul? Could I learn to accept people who didn’t accept me? Could I be a better person after reading it?
Firstly, Damascus is not for the weak of stomach. I have a high tolerance for most things, but even I had to turn away at times. This is what I loved about the book. Tsiolkas doesn’t give you today’s highly polished sanitised version of Christianity, he strips you bare, and leads you deep into the filth, muck, shit, piss and blood that lined the streets of Jerusalem and the Middle East almost 2000 years ago. And he doesn’t let up. His extensive research about what life and conditions were really like, only sharpens the contrast of today’s idea of the Christianity.
Thankfully, Damascus has given me a much deeper understanding of how radical Jesus’ message was back then. In a time of entrenched class systems, where you couldn’t move left, right up or down, where if you were born a slave you were always a slave – to say something like, ‘everyone is equal in the eyes of God’, was punishable by death. To have a group of people opening their doors, feeding and caring for you, and saying that you are loved regardless of who you are, was a radical act.
And that’s what the early followers of Yeshua (Jesus) did.
Familiar phrases that have become religious wallpaper today, like, ‘Turn the other cheek’, are given real context. Characters in Damascus breathe life into them, and show what they really mean, even if they struggle to do so themselves.
Tsiolkas gives the early Christian message critically important social and historical context and shows how real people dared to live it, all whilst grappling with their human frailties and ingrained cultural prejudices and biases.
I couldn’t help compare today’s evangelical Hillsong Church, and it’s million dollar stadium churches, with the people of 2000 years ago. The people who risked death to live the teachings of a man who said to give away everything, love your neighbour and that God loves everyone, no matter who they are.
For me, it felt like Tsiolkas was trying to strip away all the religiosity, and two millennia of multiple interpretations of Christ’s message, to find what was at the heart of it, especially what St. Paul was really trying to say.
Damascus is a big book, a brave book and it’s hard reading. I had to put it down often and will myself to get back into the headspace to keep going. But I’m glad I did.
When I write my kids books, I want children to be changed by what they read, and I know Christos Tsiolkas wanted me to be changed by what he wrote. And he has done just that.
Am I a better person for reading Damascus? I really think so.
Award winning author, illustrator and daydreamer