The Damascus Road
By Jay Parini
It’s been very nearly 50 years since the appearance of Taylor Caldwell’s big, full-throated historical novel Great Lion of God, an exhaustive dramatization of the life of Saint Paul, the principal architect of Christianity and the mercurial star of his own fascinating letters and the Acts of the Apostles. Even in those 50 ensuing years, there’ve been many, many thousands more books of all kinds about Paul, from theological studies to travel guides to science fiction and back again to historical fiction (including The Kingdom of the Wicked, the Anthony Burgess novel that features a decidedly cranky Paul). The latest in this bombardment is Jay Parini’s new novel The Damascus Road, the title referring of course to the signature moment in the Paul story, when Saul of Tarsus, zealous persecutor of the fledgling Christian sect, is thrown from his horse by a blinding white light on the road to Damascus and emerges from the experience certain that he’d been remonstrated by none other than Jesus Christ. In that moment, Saul the zealous persecutor becomes Paul the equally-zealous preacher.
As even such a brief summary suggests, this bombardment is entirely understandable. In old newspaper lingo, Paul makes top-notch copy. His story is irresistible: a hard-charging enemy of the new Christian religion is specifically told to stop doing that by a personage of the triune God and becomes instead the foremost Christian of them all, traveling indefatigably all over the world of his day, visiting Christian communities, improvising edicts in the name of Christ, and eventually running afoul of the same Roman forces whose oppressing work he used to do. In other words, it’s not surprising that Paul has been a darling of Christian historical fiction; Christian historical fiction started with him.
The Damascus Road highlights some of the puzzles in Pauline fiction, foremost that signpost Damascus Road moment. For Parini, those revelation moments are not only real but the realest things that ever happened to Paul:
It was all uncounted time and beyond measure. It filled me though I wanted to fill myself again and without quantity. I was satisfied yet still learning, hungering. Eager yet full. I didn’t know what this meant in ordinary hours and days, where I commonly dwelled, in the usual cascade drawn into dusk, the rude passage into night. This was uncharted and unrestricted time.
“By the grace of the Lord my God dear savior, I rose and rose, and was met, and needed never again to think about life in the same way,” the account goes on. “Or fear the prospect of death.”
It’s in ways like this that Paul fiction wavers on the borderline between history and fantasy. Parini’s book is less a historical novel in which a man believes he’s had a vision and more a historically-based fantasy novel in which a man actually does have conversations with a god. The upshot is the same in either case, naturally, but the extent of piety is noteworthy in every case.
The glimmers of hard, gemlike sardonic humor that flicker through Parini’s earlier historical novels like The Last Station or The Passages of H.M. or his durably sublime Benjamin’s Crossing are not entirely absent in The Damascus Road, although this latest book is clearly afraid of this tendency. And there’s an aphoristic touch to Paul’s own characterizations of the upheaval at the center of his world, particularly when he returns home and confronts his relatives on the subject. To the skepticism of his relative Amos, he says simply, “He [that would be Jesus] invited us to give ourselves to him. We do not live in this world.” And when his brother-in-law Ezra hears this “we do not live in this world” business, he likewise tries to make things as clear as possible - and gets a wry little response from Paul:
“You must understand that we have no time for the people who follow the Nazarene. Yet another of those fools who trouble our faith. We are the people of Moses, the Jews. Never forget that.”
“And of Abraham,” Paul said. “More Abraham than Moses.”
But for the most part, The Damascus Road is a squarely straightlaced affair, a prosier elaboration of the Epistles, an Act Two of the Apostles. Parini’s atmosphere-creating talents are in full power in these pages; his Paul is wonderfully situated in the dusty streets and stuffy synagogues of the first century Roman Judea. The extent to which such verisimilitude is wobbled by the book’s main character talking to a god will be for each reader to decide, but the book surrounding that moment is as impressive as anything Parini has ever written.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Spectator, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.