The Page To Damascus


In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was printed. In 1836 a provincial man of 21 years of age named Hong Huoxio came across some poorly translated Chinese-language pamphlets and Bibles left by visiting American Methodist missionaries. Ultimately, his reading of this material convinced Hong that he was the heavenly half-brother of Jesus Christ, and that it was his sacred duty to liberate his Hakka people from imperial oppression, and to purge China of the “demon worship” that he associated with Confucianism and Buddhism. Starting in 1850, and going on for fourteen more years, Hong (who had now taken the new name Xiuquan) fought what was called the Taiping Rebellion against the Qing dynasty. In that decade and a half of fighting, as many as thirty million people lost their lives, making it thirty times bloodier than that other civil war being fought at the same time in the United States. There were many causes for the Taiping Rebellion of course, but it arguably began with a conversion of sorts. And that conversion began with an act of reading. Popular culture often dramatizes conversion as always being a Road to Damascus moment, but Hong’s conversion, and then all the drama which resulted from it, was enabled not by a shining light but by a smudgy pamphlet.

Before he read them, Hong had heard the gospels, as preached by the Connecticut-born missionary Edwin Stevens. But it was only upon seeing with his eyes the print of hanzi logograms that there began a turning of his soul, this embrace of an unknown god. In Reformation Europe, on fire with the philological ambitions of the great Bible translators like Erasmus, Luther, and Tyndale, there were debates as to whether the gospel was sufficient if only heard preached, or whether the gift of grace required one to actually read the written words of scripture as well. Does God enter the soul only through the ears, or does he require the portal of the eyes as well?

Three-and-a-score centuries before Hong would be converted by reading, Martin Luther’s soul was turned in a similar way. Despite the reputation of his thundering-yet-calming, apocalyptic-yet-funny, colloquial-yet-moving German preaching the Augustinian monk who is popularly taken as the initiator of that Reformation was also converted through the eyes and not the ears. His hot personality and modest background notwithstanding, Luther was of a scholarly temperament. As with Jerome and his lion at foot, or Luther’s contemporary Erasmus, faith was not just a thing of the heart and blood, but of the book and ink as well. Luther used the writer’s tool of the inkwell to to chase out the devil, and with those tools he consolidated the maxims of what is a profoundly textual way of living religion. As he recounts, it was a passage of Paul, Romans 1:17, which was to him “a gate of heaven.” In studying a book that as a monk he was of course intimately familiar with, he affected a conversion: “Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning.”

Notice the organic metaphors, whereby the anthology which is the Bible is conflated with the garden of paradise. (The Greek root for anthology after all means “flower pressing.”) The regenerative nature of Edenic restoration and salvation are superimposed upon the pages of the volume, paper being both from and in and of itself a type of leaf. For Luther, the Book is not just metaphor for the Garden of Heaven, but indeed it is the thing itself.

But the anachronistic triumphalism that takes the Reformation to be the child of Guttenberg’s machine should be avoided, for this new textuality of conversion was not limited to Protestants; indeed it preceded them. We should be suspicious of the commonplace knowledge that the Catholic Church abjured the printing press. Despite the anecdote that recounts a crimson-clad Prince of the Church who felt the press must be destroyed lest it destroy them, the Magisterium was actually a fervent enthusiast for the new technology. Before Luther would become the multimedia juggernaut of sixteenth-century Germany, the most commonly printed material was not the Protestant Bible, but rather fill-in-the-blank forms to administer indulgences.

Luther’s pamphlets and translations were sold in all of the printing capitals of Europe, from Frankfurt to even Venice, in the hope that the printed Word could affect conversions as fully as the gift of grace had been imparted to him. But indeed if Luther would ultimately become the great evangelist for printed redemption in the form of read scripture, then his nemesis Johan Tetzel offered his own form of printed salvation in the indulgence forms he offered throughout the German countryside. Whether a form of conversion affected through reading, as with Luther, or written contract, as with Tetzel, the printed word was what was important. Neither listened sermon nor spoken oath was permanent enough to turn one’s soul.

One thousand, four hundred and fifty years before Hong read that Methodist missionary Bible in Guangzhou, and six thousand miles to the west in North Africa, another man a decade older than Hong would be when he had his religious visions, heard a voice that similarly affected him. After years of sinning, whoring, drinking, blaspheming, the 31-year-old man sat in his mother’s paradisiacal garden underneath a fig tree, and heard a child’s voice imploring him “tolle, lege,” that is to “take up and read.” (I like to think this happened while he was hung over, but future Saint Augustine doesn’t say.) The former Manichean, fornicator, and repentant thief of pears was compelled to grab his mother’s Bible. In a pique of bibliomancy, the man’s book fell open to Romans 13:13-14, where he read, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” By an act of reading, the man who had once asked the Lord to grant him chastity, “but not yet,” was suddenly converted. In his Confessions he records, “No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended—by a light, as it were, of security infused into my heart.” The English translation conflates the end of the “sentence,” as in penitential time served, and the completion of the syntactical unit—a connection again between the magic of reading and conversion. A year later, Ambrose, whom, the penitent would marvel, could read the scripto continua silently to himself, would baptize Augustine in Milan, taking him from being the son of a strange god to one of the living God. Augustine, who would arguably become the most central western Christian figure, after Christ and Paul, had, his entire life, heard his mother Monica adjure him to convert, but it was the injunction “to read,” and its completion, that had final efficacy.

The words of the resisting prophets are among the most potent stories of occasionally violent transformation. The prophets believed the very act of writing, and consequently reading, to be divinely inspired, enchanted with a sacred power, so that spiritual transformation becomes a profoundly textual act. Of course, how conversion is conceptualized differs broadly across Christian denominations, not to speak of how it would be understood by an Axial Age prophet. Luther conceived of his conversion as being “born again.” Some speak of “getting right with God.” Both Luther and Calvin, upon their conversions, felt a release from the anxieties associated with their lives before their religious awakening. One presumes that Hong perhaps felt consolation upon his conversion, or at least the palliative that comes with being given a mission—or upon discovering that Christ is your half-brother. But not all moments of theophany provide succor. Indeed, being called by the Lord, whether you are Muhammad or Joseph Smith, was often an event of sublime terror. But both of those initially reluctant prophets still had their calling intimately tied up with issues of textuality—Muhammad’s transcription of the Archangel Gabriel’s divine recitation of the Qur’an, and Joseph Smith’s discovery of the angel Moroni’s tablets. Again, reading, writing, listening, is all tied to religious transformation.

Before Hong, before Luther, before Augustine, and even before Paul, he who was converted by the Euripides-quoting-Christ, there was the prophet Ezekiel. If Luther felt a pacific mood descend upon reading Romans, and if that same epistle quelled Augustine’s internal turmoil, the Jewish prophet’s godly encounters were more ambivalent, and bluntly strange, compared to those later men—if just as profoundly textual as theirs was. If the reformers disputed whether the word of God entered the soul of man through eyes or ears, then Ezekiel knew that it sometimes entered through the mouth. Ezekiel 3:1-3: “Moreover He said to me, ‘Son of man, eat what you find; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and He caused me to eat that scroll. And He said to me, ‘Son of man, feed your belly, and fill your stomach with this scroll that I give you.’ So I ate, and it was in my mouth like honey in sweetness.” And so, with not just his head and his heart newly filled with the word of God, but his belly too, Ezekiel could bear witness and hold accountable the House of Israel.

God’s love of Ezekiel often seemed troubling, such as the time He forced him to lay for 390 days on his side, and then to reverse position and lie for another 40 on the other. But the ingestion of the very physical manifestation of His words seems particularly odd; one can’t help but try and imagine the feel of tough, fibrous, stringy, bitter papyrus being slowly chewed and roughly swallowed, and count it as miracle enough that it somehow tasted sweet to the prophet. His fellow biblical eater-of-text John of Patmos was less fortunate, for him, God warns in the book of Revelation, that the scroll shall “turn your stomach sour.” For the earlier prophet, one wonders of the contents of this ingested scroll, in a fit of metaleptic symmetry, did he eat the Book of Ezekiel itself? If Augustine allowed for the magic of bibliomancy to turn him into an instrument of the Lord, than how all-the-more radical that Ezekiel committed an act of bibliophagy?

As strange as it is, the actual consumption of books for spiritual purposes is not unheard of. For what embrace of textuality is more complete than to literally make ink and fiber part of your flesh and blood, a type of readerly Eucharist? This is perhaps an extreme form of the Benedictine lecto divina, whereby scripture is not to be examined by the hermeneutic mind, but rather to be digested by the pious intestine. Origen believed that scripture was a sacrament; it is not so extreme to imagine actually swallowing the word of God as one does the communion wafer. This way one is all the more holy, God’s letters and words and punctuation flowing in your very bloodstream. Examine the washed-out letters of gnostic gospels and illuminated manuscripts and medieval grimoirs, and wonder: how many of these physical texts have been diluted and mixed with holy water, to be drunk by the penitent as the soul’s curative, as did the Ethiopian king Menelik II? Derrida tells us that “There is no outside text.” How to make that pronouncement more certain than to place that text inside of yourself? If our converts had their moment of illumination while reading, imagine how much more full that transformation is to make those very words part of your physical body. What more profound textuality could there be than that?

That’s at least one radical option. The converse to making the book a part of yourself is to make yourself part of the book. Only a year after Hong’s conversion, another man but a few miles from where Hong’s evangelist would be born had his own turn of the soul. Witness the repentant nineteenth-century American cutpurse James Allen, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove. He chose his Christian name for the Narrative of the Life of James Allen, the Highwayman, a deathbed confession to the warden of the Massachusetts State Prison in 1837. The conversion narrative is a popular genre, especially in these pious United States of America, where we thrill to the tales of degenerate thieves, drunks, and whores who once were blind but now can see. But seldom has a story of contrite redemption been presented quite like that of the highwayman James Allen, who had his account bound in his own flesh upon his execution, and presented to a brave man whom he respected for successfully resisting Allen’s attempt at robbery. Today, Allen’s cemetery plot is a bookshelf, his graveyard the Boston Athenaeum, where, presumably, he cannot be checked out. (Whether Allen is slated for republication is known only to his Author.)

Whether seen, heard, eaten, or ourselves bound, reading and conversion describe remarkably similar processes of absorption and reaction. The narrative of conversion may be a genre; and indeed reading of scripture may occasion conversion itself, but reading itself is also a type of conversion. As the conversion narrative is printed, print itself often enacts the conversion. For the act of reading is also a transcendent experience, whereby the prosaic, material world of faded paper and smudged print abuts the eternal world of hidden sacred things. Christ became flesh, but the printing of books is all the more representative of an incarnational poetics whereby the sacred book is also a material embodiment of more noumenal things. This type of material object is one whose existence any of us can confirm, as surely as Thomas could place his finger in Christ’s wound. The word “conversion” comes from the Latin conversio, which literally means “to turn,” as the word “translation” from translatio mean “transfer.” Both enact spatial metaphors. To convert is to turn, to face God or the Truth, and to translate is to also move something, in this case meaning. In reading, there is a transformation that acts on the individual as surely as conversion can act on the soul. In A History of Reading Alberto Manguel writes, “Nothing moves except my eyes and my hand occasionally turning a page, and yet something not exactly defined by the word ‘text’ unfurls, progresses, grows and takes root as I read.” Not all conversions need be as dramatic as that on the road to Damascus. For both good and bad, think of Hong’s Methodist pamphlets, or of Luther and Augustine reading their Paul. Sometimes the turn of a soul is as subtle as the turn of a page.

Ed Simon is the associate editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, where he specialized in seventeenth-century religion and literature. Regularly published at a number of different sites, he can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.