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Damascus author talks St Paul with theologians

Historical fiction novel on St Paul discussed in Ridley panel event

By Chris Shearer

March 2 2020 

Watch the video of the panel here

Christos Tsiolkas was 13 when he first really encountered St Paul, the protagonist of his novel Damascus. New at a school in Blackburn, he’d joined a bible study group and for the first time began thinking about faith and the man who was such a prominent icon in the Orthodox faith he’d been raised in.

But Christos couldn’t reconcile the growing understanding of his own sexuality and St Paul’s views on homosexuality, and by 15 he’d given up on God. It wasn’t until his late twenties, in a moment of despair, that he found himself reading and “hearing” Paul for the first time. Paul’s words, he said, gave him peace.

“The germ of Damascus came from that experience of trying to reconcile those two versions of Paul,” he told the audience at a panel discussion on the book at Ridley College on 12 February, moderated by Bishop Paul Barker and featuring Ridley Principal the Revd Dr Brian Rosner and lecturer at Trinity College the Revd Dr Fergus King.

“I know that Paul is seen in some ways in quite negative ways: as the instigator of, as pivotal to, the misogyny in the Church, for the experience I had as a homosexual in faith, even anti-Semitism.

“In writing Damascus, in thinking about him as a man, not a saint, not the very stern icon in the Orthodox Church, I feel very defensive of him now. That’s not to say I’m not still in argument with him, but … I think you can argue without wrestling. I think you can argue and be in step with someone. That’s how I feel about Paul,” he said.

“What do I know of Paul? What I really know of Paul is the letters we have. And that is confusing. I will end my time still trying to work out what is in those letters. But I don’t see him as this kind of horrible, hateful man that he’s sometimes portrayed as in contemporary thought.”

Dr King said he was delighted to hear Mr Tsiolkas wanted to rehabilitate Paul with Damascus, because “he’s been so badly let down by his interpreters”.

“I got the impression, and I think you validated my reading, that you see that Judeo-Christianity, Paul’s legacy, has actually been an incredible force for transformation and change in society.”

Dr Rosner offered praise in a similar line.

“The great achievement of the book is to remind us how incredible the Christian revolution was, because it’s a very positive portrayal, in some ways, of justice and mercy, which is true of the early Christian movement compared to the brutality and evil … of the ancient world.”

Each of the three theologians raised points of contention with the novel, variously questioning Mr Tsiolkas on his use of poetic licence, apocryphal texts and graphic violence, although all appreciated his honesty and passion for the subject.

“I knew that this book was, if you like, heretical,” he said, “but I was actually clear in my mind that I didn’t want it to be blasphemous. I wanted to tell the story in good faith. I didn’t want it to be some kind of merciless or ugly attack on Paul and those early Christians.”