Adrian Plass is a tall man with a large face and thin eye slits behind spectacles. He is a Christian writer and speaker who has written mostly satirical and devotional books. Listening to him, one gets the feeling that Christians get on his nerves with their arrogance and the fact that they miss the point. In a time of crisis, he wrote a book to “get something off his chest,” as he says, and decided it would be best to make it humorous. When I read the result, “The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 ¾,” a several years ago, I laughed at his account of Anglican attitudes and parish life, but it made me very curious about what makes a man write so critically, albeit with a humorous streak.
The German Christians I knew were very enthusiastic about the book, probably because it was so exaggerated that they did not feel criticized – “it was clearly about someone else”. The German version was titled “Tagebuch eines Frommen Chaoten,” (Diary of a pious slob) which gave a clue to the content of the book. It is very English, and when I saw him on stage in a church in Germany years later, I too had to laugh, although I was slightly ahead of most of the audience waiting for the translation. I had the feeling that they were also waiting for what the majority did, and I also noticed how the translator “adapted” Plass’ statements to his pious audience.
I had to laugh, because he knew exactly what it was like to live in a congregation that self-consciously described itself as pious, but his interjections often weren’t translated, such as “doesn’t it make you sick?” It is true that the portrayal of congregational life he exaggerated in his talk was disgustingly sweet and pretended to be incredibly humble, while at the same time revealing a pride that completely contradicted self-presentation. He made fun of his audience, but no one seemed to mind – or not notice. He once made the comment that after the book came out, he thought he would be hounded in the streets, but it seemed to be received like a breath of fresh air. After all, it was about someone else.
Many church communities in Germany are different from those in Anglican Britain, but not so much that the book is about different people. Both German and British readers recognized characters in their own congregations or communities who would fit into the stories. Plass told us of people coming up to him and saying, “I’m not sure I should talk to you, I’ll become a character in your next book!” So it was obvious that there was some awareness that what he was portraying was indeed a pious truth. The German audience could also find people in its midst who behaved similarly.
Listening to Plass, and meeting him briefly when he was signing books, I had the feeling that he was indeed a needed reflection of what was going wrong in many parishes. He was putting his finger on some sore points, especially those that made communities repulsive to others. He was actually told by a “well-meaning” Christian, that the book shouldn’t be sold to non-Christians “for fear that they think that we are really like that!” Plass’ comment was, “talk about missing the point!”
At the bottom of it, Plass wants to point out what love is. The Christian message is about the love of God, and he tries to bring this over in his talks. Sometimes he resembles his characters in his books when he does so. However, he also points to the areas where power structures raise their ugly heads, where “well-meaning” means strict observance and underhanded punishments for not doing so. The blows that are dealt out often leave no bruises, but people are hurt, sometimes seriously, and Plass feels for these people, having suffered a breakdown himself after working as a residential child worker with disadvantaged children. A common problem in social work with a lot of idealism, seeing the state of families in which children are seen as a problem.
Having worked in a similar area, and for a church with high ideals, I can feel with him about how things often go wrong and out of control in church circles, and problems are brushed to one side. The ideals become bothersome when you have to make financial decisions, and principles can cause hypocrisy in people, when it matters. Employees often look up to management in such institutions, hoping for a different decision to what one might expect in industry, but when there appears to be no difference, a disillusionment strikes home. The “diaconal difference”, as it was idealistically called in Germany, was no different at all.
Adrian Plass isn’t a star and doesn’t want to be. He is making a living with a “ministry” of humour and thoughtfulness. He isn’t what everybody would call their “cup of tea”, but he is sincere. I think that that is as much as one can expect.