Christos Tsiolkas has never been one for fire and brimstone.
If we had that power — to rend asunder a people, their possessions or the very land itself — it would require a degree of certainty, the better to protect the innocent against our wrath; the better to protect our own conscience should we have been wrong in the wielding.
“I used to really be suspicious of doubting myself, and I know that doubt can also be lacerating, that sometimes political activism requires a certainty – but if I’ve learned anything in my life it is that doubt is really important,” he tells Guardian Australia.
“Doubt is also that thing that stops you being a monster, condemning swathes of people to misery.”
And it is this crisis of faith that has brought him here, aged 54, to a park in Surry Hills with his tin of cigarettes to discuss his latest epic Damascus: a Fictionalised Account of the Spread of Christianity after the Crucifixion of Jesus.
It’s no small matter.
The novel, which brings us into the world of Saul of Tarsus in the Roman Empire just 35 years after Christ’s death, is itself an act of faith. Ambitious, even for the acclaimed author of The Slap, it spans decades and forces us to confront the horrors of the world in which this fledgling, weird religious sect took root.
It is a world ripe for Tsiolkas, who is something of a bat in the world of Australian literature. Who else is better equipped to navigate the darkness? This is a man whose works deal equally with race, class and violence as they do with shit, piss and semen.
It was wanking, actually, that created this book all those decades ago; that first time Tsiolkas, who is gay, left God.
“I left God when I was 15 because I couldn’t reconcile sexuality and Christian ethics,” he says.
“It was tough and it was an agony. I was pleading with God nightly and then just trying not to wank because if I wanked I was giving myself over to the devil. And of course, I wanked.”
The void left by one deity was filled with leftwing politics: “Communism, socialism – that blurred line,” as he describes it.
He remembers the day, aged 10, his parents downed tools in a nearby factory and took him out of school to mourn the dismissal of Gough Whitlam.
“It was like the world had ended,” he says.
But in the early 1990s, when Tsiolkas travelled to Eastern Europe – Prague – after the Velvet Revolution, he was forced to confront another set of inconvenient truths about his new belief system: the blights of communism in practice. His 2005 book Dead Europe was his way of reckoning with that.
“Slowly … it just made me think: ‘well, does that mean I drop all of my leftwing ideals because the institutions have failed?’ And I came to an understanding, ‘no’ – but that made me go, ‘what about Christianity?’”
That’s how we have Damascus, a novel that opens with the stoning of a young girl hunted and brought to her death by Saul, also known as Paul, for the crime of believing in Jesus as the saviour.
This is a part of Christianity that never left Tsiolkas, even when its God did. The core of a religion before it was corrupted by institutions and ordinary men who sought its high office for themselves.
“The book has gone through so many drafts but that [opening] has never changed,” he says. “It’s an act of violence that you want to reverberate throughout the novel but it’s also an homage to that principle [of throwing the first stone] that I’ve never turned from, even though it’s been difficult – I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I’ve tried.
It was a teacher in primary school that first told him the story of the stoning. “She made us feel what it was like to be this woman terrified of dying,” he says. “And the reason why it has stuck with me all these decades is I had some intuition that I could be the person in the centre of that circle.”
It is also this story that has Tsiolkas fretting about modern politics, and what he calls the “new left”.
“The notion is we are progressing, right? And then the 20th century happens and you have the death camps and you have the Gulag,” he says.
“I get really cautious and anxious when I hear some of the new left. It’s like they have no understanding of the history of what has happened under the name of justice, under the name of equality. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in justice, that I don’t believe in equality. But it is zealotry.”
Certainty can be ruinous.
Christos Tsiolkas was scorned by Paul once, early in his life, when he first read his epistles. In common translations, Paul denounces men who sleep with men and denies them God’s Kingdom. In his late 20s, however, in another moment of personal crisis — he and partner Wayne had broken up — Christos ran into a church and fell to his knees praying and sobbing before reading Paul again.
“For the first time I could actually listen to Paul and I just heard a voice that wasn’t telling me that I was evil, I heard a voice telling me that life is a struggle, belief is a struggle and there is solace to be found,” he recalls.
“That passage had built a wall between him and me before, but then I just wondered what his sexuality was. I wasn’t scared of him any more.”
He is concerned with our own desires, still: our desires to be told what we want to hear, not what is difficult to hear.
“Sometimes I worry that we want the world when we read now, and this is the danger of identity politics: we want it to reflect what we are, what we want and what we think, what we believe is true,” he says.
“Which is to damn the whole of literature and philosophy and history. And where we are, as writers of fiction, is that doubt and questioning is really important.”
You can see the threads of Tsiolkas’ frayed belief all through Damascus. There is a character dedicated to Christos, to all of us. Timothy, student of Paul and Thomas (who plays the role of the Thomas we know from the Bible — doubting — and also the apocryphal role of Jesus’s twin), is us precisely because he loves and adores both.
“Both of them are unreliable narrators,” Tsiolkas says of Thomas and Paul, who spend the novel with duelling views of Jesus.
“It took me a long time to find my way into Damascus because initially I was writing it as if the supernatural was real, basically: Paul sees the resurrected Jesus. It was just flat on the page because I couldn’t make that work, because I couldn’t make that work for me.”
Here, Tsiolkas turned to the Gospel of Thomas. “It is basically sayings of Jesus but there is no resurrection. It’s enormous, right? That’s the revelation. So I thought, what if there was a version of Christianity that had no resurrection?” he says.
“In the Gospel of John there is the story of doubting Thomas, he puts the finger into the nail holes, he just can’t believe that Jesus has been resurrected. I think the writers of that Gospel are telling us something – that this isn’t a literal story, there is this other sect within this new fellowship that don’t believe Jesus has been resurrected. That’s how I see it, and I get shivers when I think about it.”
This is the beating heart of Damascus, a novel which asks us to consider where God dwells if not in the heavens. “You’re not going to find Him in the noble emperor, which is what the Romans thought — Julius Caesar becomes a God, Augustus becomes a God. Where you are going to find God is the person on the crucifix, the most ignoble and most wretched of tortures,” he says. “God is in the raped child. If you can’t see that then you don’t understand the faith.”
What does this mean for modern politics, I ask, with the apparent derogation of these principles by powerful men with claims to Christianity?
“I am hoping anyone who picks up Damascus will understand that I am being sincere in what I am doing and it’s not me putting the boot into Christianity,” he says. “But I don’t know, if you really engage with the Gospels, how can you not be made ill by Manus Island, how can you not be made ill by homelessness; isn’t that a perversion, in the literal sense of the word, a perversion of Jesus’ words?”
It should come as no spoiler that, by the end of the novel, Jesus still has not returned.
We return to the land of doubt with its fertile soil.
• Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas is out now through Allen & Unwin
• Rick Morton is the senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, and author of One Hundred Years of Dirt