NEWS | Anne Lim
Monday 15 February 2016
Adrian Plass was simply trying to escape from a dark tunnel when he wrote a bestselling book that poked fun at the foibles of the modern church and the perils of being a sinful Christian.
“I’d stopped going to church because I was so fed up with the gap between what was supposed to happen and what actually happened and, because I was going through other tensions and problems at the time, all of those things melded together and made life intolerable,” the writer and speaker says in advance of an Australian tour later this month.
Plass, now 65, was suffering from a stress illness brought on by his experiences as a residential childcare worker when The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37¾ was published in 1987.
In it a fictional character named Adrian Plass chronicles his daily interactions with the annoyingly eccentric folk in his evangelical Christian circle. The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies around the world, thanks in great part to the hilarity engendered by the blustering, proud but self-doubting diarist, who is unable to see the truth behind the things he is saying.
“I think he’s a rather more thick-headed version of me,” Plass says by phone from the UK.
“I mean, I’m quite thick-headed but he couldn’t have written it if he’d been a little more intelligent.”
When that first book came out, people in the evangelical church were not sure what was allowable to laugh at, he says.
“I was in one of those churches where spontaneity is very organised and it was a lid on laughter because I think there was a faint feeling that if you laughed too much, the devil would creep in or something, so you had a lot of very coy Christian laughter over things like toilets,” he says.
Plass’s humour searches for the uncomfortable truths behind the corporate statements of what Christians should be like.
For example, in one book he suggests a list of publications to accompany Selwyn Hughes’ Every Day With Jesus.
“We should have some other publications called Every Other Day With Jesus, Once A Week If I Remember With Jesus, Random Days in No Particular Order With Jesus and It’s Been Ages Since I Spent Any Time At All With Jesus.
“If we all end up laughing together, I think that’s great. Looking after each other and loving each other and accepting that we have weaknesses and vulnerabilities and not trying to create a laminated Christianity, where you can’t actually get through the surface to what’s really going on.”
The dramatic success of his first book provided fodder for subsequent books as he was suddenly in demand as a speaker.
The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, Christian Speaker, Aged 45¾ “was the story of me going from being in the middle of a stress illness and leaving the church to suddenly being invited back left, right and centre because I’d written a funny book,” he says.
“I don’t think it lifted the darkness. It did in the sense that suddenly my impoverished family had a little bit of money. Also I was feeling awful about myself and the fact that suddenly everybody was talking to me and wanting to talk to me because I’d written the book that they’d read … it was a bit over the top really.
“I couldn’t tell you how God works in the world. I just know that at that time it was more important for me to feel a bit better about myself than have any smart spiritual answers.”
In his books and talks Plass satirises the icons of Christianity such as speaking in tongues, because, with Christian humour, “you’re either on the edge or you aren’t anywhere”
“There is this kind of coy Christian humour, which is very safe. My object isn’t to upset people or to hurt people but to release people, really.
Even today, when he does “all the funny voices” on stage, he can see people looking at him and wondering: is this all right? Can you really laugh at these things?
“I think you probably can as long as you’re serious about the heart of it.
“I think I’m actually a very serious person. I write humour but I think I’m quite orthodox really,” he says.
Plass says that over the past several years he and his wife Bridget have spent a lot of time praying with people who have been “hurt or disappointed or just stuck in their Christian life and they need a safe place to say dangerous things.”
“I think writing about it is one of the reasons why people have come to us because they know they can say whatever is going on in their lives and we’re not going to look shocked, we’re way past looking shocked.”
When Plass first came to Australia in the early 90s, he noticed that after his talk he would be approached by a “little row of usually men who had had breakdowns who were not able to talk about it in their churches.”
At that time, any mental health issues were regarded as almost a spiritual sickness that cut you off from the will of God.
“When you’re vulnerable as a speaker or a writer, it creates a little side door for people to slip through, those who don’t think they’ll be welcome through the front door. They can come in and explore without the pressure of having to sign up for everything.
“I really truly believe in being silly. I think it’s a very powerful thing to just deflate some of these things.”
Plass’s books, which now number 36 including three written with Bridget and two with Jeff Lucas, have enjoyed success in other countries, particularly Germany. However, the Americans, with their fondness for 12 steps to success, don’t respond to Plass’s self-deprecating brand of humour.
“My books are like six stumbling steps to even get to the front door. I don’t have the capacity or means to getting someone to some wonderful height. The only thing I can offer is you take a different view of your worth to God, the degree to which you’re loved by God and the fact that you can do something wonderful even if you’re not particularly talented or great in other ways, God will use you, and I think that’s really important.”
Plass, who was converted at age 16, by a talk about the thief on the cross, sees his role as reassuring Christians that God loves them just as they are.
“The thing that got to me was that Jesus didn’t say, well, it depends on your churchmanship or your denomination or whether you’re good or whether you’re bad or any of that stuff, he just said ‘yes’. And I think we – Bridget and I – are still trying to convey that ‘yes’ to people.
“There is a passion in me that is inescapable. I can go through profound doubt, I can get fed up with the whole damn thing, I can wish I was a frog worshipper, all sorts of things, but I can’t escape that passion for Jesus. And it’s still fuels me and makes me want to go on doing things.”
Adrian Plass begins his Australia tour in Geelong on 20 February. For further details and dates, see adrianplass.com/australia2016