Adrian Plass has been writing books which make people laugh and think about faith ever since he turned 37 and three-quarters. "I started out angry and upset and fed up with the church, and wrote stuff I thought no one would read," he says. We sent Steve Tomkins to talk to him about humour and faith, and here's what happened...
You did a rather confusing thing in the Sacred Diary: you wrote about a fictional character who had the same name as you (and bore an uncanny visual resemblance to you too). It's only now I think how unusual that is. Why did you do it?
I'd like to say there was some profound reason for it, but there wasn't at all. Andrew Butcher, the assistant editor of Family magazine, said to me "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole is doing really well, how about you doing a column called The Secret Diary of Adrian Plass?" It wasn't a book concept I'd never written a book I just wrote some funny bits for the magazine.
I think on reflection, if someone'd said, "Will you write a book?" I wouldn't have done it like that at all. It's involved quite a bit of confusion over the years, because people insist on addressing my wife as Anne, ask me how Gerald is, and assume he's remained about 19 for the last 15 years.
So it was an odd thing to do, but in a way it established a sort of intimacy with the reader. Because it's self-revelatory: it's just a little book, but it's a man exhibiting what he does think instead of what he should think.
Yes, you say in the introduction to View from a Bouncy Castle, "What I do have is a determination to live, privately and publicly, with the gap between what I am and what I ought to be." That sounds like something close to your mission statement.
Yes, I suppose it does. Someone said everything I write is one long confessional. Because the whole thing began with an awareness of the gap between public and private Christianity, there has been this drive in me to bring to two together.
I wrote a poem not long ago called 'It Is Finished'. It starts, 'It is finished. Is it? No, not yet. Not until...'. Then there's a whole list of not-untils, and one of them is 'Not until the troubled faces of my private and public Christianity can meet, and recognize each other'.
So it's a yearning for an authenticity, a realness in Christian living, thinking, feeling, that is constantly thwarted by these acts of corporate dishonesty that we are perpetually guilty of in the church. I don't think you can ever get rid of those, but you can at least acknowledge between each other that it is ragged.
But it's been a rich source of humour as well for you, hasn't it, the contrast between what we are and what we'd like to think we are, or what we think we're supposed to be?
Oh yes. I mean, that's what humour is. Humour arises out of contradiction. I was watching The Vicar of Dibley last night, and there was this wonderful moment when Hugo is about to marry the vicar's assistant, and when she says "If you know of any reason why these two should not marry..." someone comes in the back and says "You married me three years ago.... Oh, sorry, wrong church."
That isn't really an example of what you were talking about....
But it was funny.
Yes. I often read my own version of the Prodigal Son. It's rewritten, so that instead of getting all the good stuff, he gets a smack in the ear and sent to work in the toilets. And it has quite an odd effect on people, because I think they realise that they believe that version, and not the original.
Most people were born apologizing to the midwife for causing so much trouble. Christians are born to guilt as the sparks fly upwards. And it's all the wrong people who feel guilty. The people who should feel guilty get away with murder.
Your average Christian longs to be good, really wants to get it right. And they've been taught all their life that they're not good and they haven't got it right. But they haven't been taught that that's the whole POINT! So closing that gap up I think is essential.
That makes me think of Ben Elton, who talks about 'the reality gap': 'from the cradle to the grave, we are all trying to live up to images and ideals that we cannot possibly fulfil'. He's spent a lot of time pointing out how things like adverts sell us those images. Do you see yourself providing the same service to the Christian world?
Well, I think it's rather inflated of me to suppose I am... but I care about that. Yes, I do. You see, I don't think of Christianity as a hobby or something you 'do'. I think you follow Jesus.
And if you look at the disciples, the same thing happened then as happens now. They would be rejected by some village, and say to Jesus, [booming voice] "Shall we call down fire from heaven on this village, Lord?". And he would say, "No..., not call down fire from heaven." So even then they were creating little religious worlds at every step, that he had to sweep away.
The reality of it is appallingly and frighteningly ordinary. Jesus says, "Will you follow me", and we say "Where are you going?" and he says, "I'm not going to tell you." And you say, "Just give us a clue", and he says, "No, if you want to follow, come; if you don't, stay here."
Has it been painful for you to realize the ordinariness of Christian life?
I think so, yes. Though I feel relieved, in a way, because it means it's real. If I really thought Christianity was about large ornate services in cathedrals, or strangely created behaviour in small tin sheds, I would be very sad indeed. Having said that, I love all these things. But the place where God challenges you is your sitting room, with the person you work with. That's where you're following Jesus.
Isn't it rather an indictment on the church that people have found your honesty so liberating?
No, I don't think so. I think that wherever people get together, this happens, because people get nervous. It's like when you leave children in charge of a house and they make these horrendous rules for each other, because they're not able to handle it properly.
The church is similar, I think. You find people in positions of leadership are driven to corral everybody in and make rules and set things up to keep it tidy. And because Christianity's not tidy, in the end it's going to fail, if it's based on those human endeavours.
So no, I don't think it's an indictment. It's a reminder to the church that we are not just another group activity. We're dealing with the very fundaments of being. I mean, ordinary, yes, but extraordinary.
But I never started out with any of this. I mean, we're talking as if I have some great mission. I don't have any mission. I started out angry and upset and fed up with the church, and wrote stuff I thought no one would read.
You're not still angry and upset?
Has your writing helped you work through that? What's changed?
Oh, I was disproportionate. I mean, I was going through a crack up, so I was disproportionately angry with everybody else, as often we are. I still get angry with people making other people feel silly or small or guilty when they should be building them up and supporting them.
But for goodness sake, I have enough trouble with just being me, let alone anyone else being them. So we have to support each other as much as we can.
Do people ever take offence at your attempts?
It depends. I write a column for a Dutch newspaper every month. And in Holland there's a very clear division between those who think I'm half way to Gomorrah need I add Sodom? and those who think it's liberating.
So I wrote this thing I'm afraid it was deliberately and purely provocative which began with the question 'Who is more dangerous to society a paedophile or a liberal professor?' And I pictured this scene where a famous Dutch liberal theologian gets to heaven, knocks on the door... and so on.
Now some people took great exception to that, partly because you shouldn't characterize God, or dare to mess with the idea of God really speaking. And I think it's the cheek of it: they don't like the idea that you can play with these ideas. And a lot of Christians in this country have trouble with that, the idea that like a child you throw all these up in the air and see what happens when they land.
A creative approach to evangelism, for instance, worries a lot of people, because it feels as if you've strayed off the point.
I'll give you an example. Someone came to see me a while ago and said, "I've done these talks for radio, and I know you've done some, so would you tell me what you think?"
I had a look at them, and they were OK, you know, but there was this one about the lottery. And it was more or less telling people 'You mustn't do the lottery, be a Christian instead.'
And I said to him, "You don't think it's just a little bit negative?"
And he said, "No...."
And I said, "Well, why do people do the lottery?"
He said, "To make money".
I said, "But it's more than that. Why do they really do the lottery?"
He said, "Well, I suppose they want something wonderful to happen."
I said, "Exactly, they want something amazing to happen in their lives. Something different and big."
He said, "Yeah, but the lottery's for money..."
I said, "Hold on, we haven't got there yet. What did Jesus promise his followers?"
He said, "Eternal life."
I said, "Yeah, but what else?"
He said, "Nothing."
I said, "He offered them riches."
He said, "No, he didn't."
I said, "What's treasure in heaven then?"
He said, "Yeah, well, but that's not money."
I said, "Hold on, we haven't got here yet. So you go to heaven, and what is the currency?"
He said, "Well, love, I suppose."
I said, "So you go to heaven, go to the Divine Bank, get a great wad of banknotes worth 5 million loves, and you go and spend them. So what you could say to people who do the lottery is 'Your instincts are absolutely right. You want something wonderful to happen in your life, and you want to be rich. You are halfway there, to understanding why people follow Jesus.'"
So then I said to him, "Are you going to use that?"
And he said, "No, I don't think so."
Because it feels unsafe, as if you're moving away from the gospel, whatever that is.
That's a rather C.S. Lewis approach, that these delights that can be distractions from God are also gifts from God to point us the way to him. But he also said that he wouldn't recommend a religious writer to use a comic genre, because it's not appropriate to the message. Does that surprise you?
Well, I think that's an extraordinary comment from Lewis, who used comedy an enormous amount to convey truth. I think it was a question of fashion as well at the time. In the 50s would have had trouble telling more than the old Anglican jokes, but in the 80s and 90s it's very different.
But comedy without passion would be a very hollow thing in the church. I think people are sometimes disappointed to find that I am a passionate Christian, rather than a don't-care piss-taker. I can sense they don't like the Christian faith and they'd like me to support them in that, and I can't. It's the most important thing in my life.
Do you have to censor yourself?
Yes, I think I'm pretty good at self-censoring now. Sometimes a joke is so funny that I get self-indulgent. You're always on a pretty narrow margin.
Besides which as you know, everybody feels differently. I mean, the thing in the Ship of Fools about the housegroup, I was well aware when I wrote that that it couldn't be published anywhere without causing a lot of... different responses. But I quite deliberately wrote it so that people would be pushed into talking about it.
And I couldn't give a tinker's if they don't agree with it. That's fine. The idea's just to stimulate debate in an area that really needs it.
As you saw, homosexuals thought it was about them, and others thought it was about them. And some people loved it and some people hated it. And that's great, that's sometimes what one is after.
People who aren't homosexuals also read it that way. Were you trying to be more ambiguous about whom it was about?
Oh, yes! Absolutely, yes. It wasn't about homosexuals at all. It was asking the question, quite clearly, 'How far do you go?' Is there a line, is there a limit, and if there is, what is it? But I suppose because the current debate is about homosexuality, people homed in on that. And I can understand why, but I absolutely don't accept that that's what it was about.
Do you find there is sometimes something of an uneasy relationship between religion and humour? Humour can be a useful tool for getting people to look at things in a new light, but there seems to something not 'spiritually correct' about what makes us laugh. So much comedy is either saying the unsayable, or at the expense of someone else, like the noble tradition of racist and sexist jokes.
Well, humour is humour. I mean, I hear vile jokes that make me laugh, because they're funny. But I would hesitate to repeat them except to my closest friends in the pub, because the chances of us corrupting each other any more than we already are corrupted are very small.
And as an example of 'the kind of thing we're up against'.
Yeah. But humour is neutral, I think. The subject of the humour is not, and for me there is now a greater sense of responsibility than I ever thought I would have, because if I use a particular kind of humour, or laugh at certain things, there's a whole swathe, particularly of younger people, who will say, "Oh, it's all right then, we can do that."
So I am aware that one has to be careful, but you have to be equally, if not more careful that you don't retreat too far from the edge of where humour should be. Satire should be on the edge.
So do you find yourself pushing boundaries?
Yes, I think so. But you earn the right to do that, throughout an evening. You do an hour's stuff, and by halfway through you can do stuff that you wouldn't have been able to do at the beginning, because people have understood the direction you're coming from.
I suppose the best example is that I wrote something about Jesus encountering a leper. And I suggested that if the people who always find excuses for people not being healed were to rewrite the Bible, this is how it would be.
Jesus says "Be healed" and walks away rejoicing.
And the leper says, "Err... excuse me, it may hath escaped thy notice, but I am still an leper. A small point but important to me...."
And there's a bit where Jesus says, "There are several reasons why you have not been healed. Count them off on thy fingers."
And the leper says, "Well, it will have to come to less than four then."
Things like that, which I think if you isolate them and stick them up just like that, they're pretty vile, but if you put them into a context, they mean something.
Is what you can say limited by people's reaction?
Hmm.... No, I don't think so. The limitation goes the other way: if people think you're going to say things that are shocking, it's very important to make it clear to them that you don't only exist in order to say shocking things.
I mean, I'm the most orthodox Christian I've ever met. And I'm very anxious to let people understand that, so that they can understand the rest of it. That's why the Ship of Fools thing would have been difficult, because people would have been saying, "Well, what is he? What is he saying?"
Are you surprised by your success?
Well yeah, initially I was amazed. I expected to be pursued down the street by charismatics with large knives. But of course you get used to it it's been 15 years now.
And the secret knowledge that you gain as a writer, which you'll understand yourself, is that everything you need in order to identify with people is within you. And that's what people want. The comment I hear mainly from people is "I do that I didn't realise other people do too."
And people love laughing, and they love crying, so if you put the two together, it's likely to be successful.
Is it hard always having to come up with funny stuff?
Well, if you do humour a lot, you train yourself to hear everything. I'll give you an example. We had my son's girlfriend staying and she's from Azerbaijan. And one day I said "Would you like a cup of tea?", she said yes, so I got this huge teapot from the kitchen and said, "Now that's what I call a teapot." She said, "Yes... that's what I call a teapot too."
Little moments like that I'll come and write down, whereas other people would probably just forget. A line like that, when you're public-speaking, will get a huge laugh and people say, "Where do you come up with these things?", and the answer is you just listen.
I had a letter from a Christian couple recently saying they'd started a new group for hurting people. And they'd had a special prayer room built with a disabled toilet attached.
Do you find that with book titles: you come up with a great title and think "I just need a book to go with it"?
Oh yes, I did that with An Alien at St Wilfred's. I met a man in the pub who said "I go to St Wilfred's". And I thought he looked a bit like an alien.
And sometimes something will happen and I'll think "That's a great story. What does it mean?" When our daughter Katy was three I found her standing in the garden one day with one arm stretched in the air as far as it would go, holding a bluebell, and she was shouting, "Daffodil! DAFFODIL!"
Feeling the need to put her right, I said "No darling, it's a bluebell." Not lowering her arm one inch, she shouted "Bluebell! BLUEBELL!"
I used that as an illustration of the way we might accept a correction from God, instead of saying "But all the time and effort I've invested in this theology, it must be right!"
You've got this bank of lines and ideas on your computer. Is it hard to switch off from collecting? Any time something happens you're thinking "How can I use this?"
Oh yes. About the same time as the story I just told you, we went on holiday in Denmark, and I took the three children out in a hired boat. It capsized, and I was stuck underneath. I can't swim, and I didn't know where my children were, and the first thought that entered my mind was "This will make a great story...."
Adrian Plass is the author of The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass (Age 37 3/4) and other novels which poke fun at evangelical culture in the UK. His most recent book is Stress Family Robinson 2, on the trials and tribulations of the "perfect" Christian family. A collection of three Plass books in one omnibus volume, Adrian Plass Classics, is also available. Adrian lives in Sussex, England.
To order copies of Adrian's books from Amazon UK, please click the links above.
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