537 What’s the smell of spiritual growth? A surprising answer from Adrian Plass

ear friends, if you’re traveling in the UK soon, stop by Adrian’s and Bridget’s new home in the north of England and have a cup of tea!
    No kidding! The welcome mat is out. They’ve just moved into a beautiful historic estate (now owned by a non-profit ministry group) and they’re helping to reorganize the place as a retreat center. The move is so recent that they haven’t had time to update all the related Web sites. But here’s a link to Scargill House in North Yorkshire, which they now call home. Here’s a link to Adrian’s own home page.
    But, wait! Before showing up on their doorstep, of course you’ll want to check with them first. Starting this week, they’re on tour for more than a month across Canada—and they’re planning a German tour in December. (Click here for their Canadian tour schedule through November.)
    If this sounds like a very odd way to introduce this week’s Conversation With an Author, then you haven’t yet dipped your toes in Adrian’s satirical, friendly and deeply faithful body of work. And you haven’t yet attended one of his appearances with Bridget.
    Once you encounter him, Adrian will remind you a bit of C.S. Lewis—restless, creative, poking sharply pointed words at sacred cows and as much a formidable public figure as he is a writer.

    Of course, Lewis was an Oxford don and a famous Christian apologist who liked to joust with foes in the prime-time media spotlight. Adrian is more like the chap you love to find sitting in his corner of a pub—or a church parlor perhaps—holding forth about faith and spinning tales that make everyday people laugh as they learn.
    For instance, in one of his two new books, Adrian proposes a new smell for houses of worship! We’ll tell you about that in today’s interview. Can you guess what he’s recommending?
    There’s real charm here and real spiritual wisdom for the millions of us who are as restless as Adrian with what passes for organized religion these days. Well, that’s the way Adrian might put it …


    DAVID: It’s been too long since I’ve seen you and Bridget and had a chance to talk with you about your work. Now, you’ve got two new books out: “Silver Birches: a Novel” and “Bacon Sandwiches & Salvation: A Humorous Antidote for the Pharisee in All of Us.”
Let’s start with the novel—or is it a novel? There’s this main character who is a traveling Christian speaker. And you’re a traveling Christian writer and speaker. Is this main character really you?
ADRIAN: Well I suppose it is me although—ahhh, regrettably, younger.
But, yes, all the references to this character’s work as a speaker—and all the things you have to deal with in doing this kind of work—that’s based on my experience. Then, the book looks at how all of these things we think are so important in our lives suddenly seem unimportant when tragedy strikes your life.
In the book, old friends gather for a reunion. I drew some of that from a reunion I attended with old friends who used to meet in a youth group. We met 30 years later and it was an emotional bloodbath.
DAVID: In “Birches,” the characters have a lot of unresolved business that surfaces. They clash. What caused your real friends to clash?
ADRIAN: I discovered that some people get stuck in the past. I don’t know what it’s like in America but over here when you’re a student and you’re going to university, there’s a lot of rich life going on around you. Excitement. But then after that, your life narrows down to a little house and a little family if you’re lucky and a job and your life becomes very narrow. And the blood seems to go out of your life somehow.
    After while, you begin to wonder where all the joy and life of the spirit went in your life.
DAVID: Here’s a line from the middle of the book. You describe one character as feeing that he’s “doomed to a life in which he would never enjoy a warm and meaningful encounter with God.” This character, Mike, has taken to wearing his hair very long and increasingly he’s bothered that people aren’t properly offended by his hair anymore. He’s really a frustrated person!
Adding to the excitement in the novel, these old friends gather at a particularly creepy place: Headly Manor.
ADRIAN: I based that on a night I spent in what is claimed to be the most haunted house in England down in Gloucestershire.
In the book, this haunted house becomes like a capsule removed from the rest of human existence, so these characters are moved to explore parts of their lives they couldn’t explore anywhere else.

DAVID: You’re touching now on one of your frequent warnings to the leaders of organized religious groups. You argue that there are far too many barriers in most congregations that want to force people to seem happy about life. These barriers force people to isolate their real struggles in life and keep their real questions from the very place they should feel welcome to explore those troubling issues. Congregations become more hurtful than helpful if they’re keeping people’s real concerns from surfacing, right?
ADRIAN: Well, in the evangelical church, we seem to insist that people display an almost pathological positiveness about life and about faith! It’s very difficult for people to excavate the things that really are tearing them apart. These things remain hidden and they build and build—and build until they explode.
We need to allow positives—and negatives—all around us.
DAVID: Another way to describe this idea was voiced by an old friend of mine—a journalist who got very deeply into evangelical Christianity for a while and then found himself horrified at what he saw unfolding.
He felt drawn to a life of faith and church. But, as a journalist he was well aware that life is as much about struggle as it is about happiness. Instead, he found that the church wanted everybody to be happy and to behave a certain way—and they’d quickly expel people who represented really serious challenges to these rules. He described the problem this way: “What I don’t like about Christians is—first, they shoot the wounded.”

ADRIAN: Oh, that’s a very good line! Yes. I may use that. Yes, that’s the problem.
I once gave a talk titled, “What about the Wounded?” The people who came to hear me talk that night, I think, were very much like your friend. They were people who were suffering and hurt in ways that were not being dealt with—and were not even being acknowledged by churches.
This is especially a problem in churches where there’s a very strong healing ministry. If you’re not getting well—if you’re not healed—then you get edged off into the periphery and then you’re finally bumped off the edge completely!
As I get older, I find the Christian faith and the ways of God more and more confusing and open ended. We need to be honest about how confusing and unpredictable and really open ended this all is. I don’t know why we insist on making all these rules about how people are supposed to experience faith. They’re rules that keep bumping people off the edge and that’s not what we should be doing at all, is it?
DAVID: I agree completely. Our appeal should be to throw open the doors and throw open the windows. We need radical transparency, which is perhaps another good phrase to describe your books—radical transparency.

I still remember standing in a theater where Rob Bell was giving his latest talk, “Drops Like Stars,” about the real needs of the people living all around us. He asked people—pretty much all of us strangers—to stand up in the theater if our lives had been touched by cancer. About half the audience stood up! That moment changed the whole evening, because we’d suddenly looked behind the curtain at what was really going on in the lives of hundreds of people all around us.
ADRIAN: Absolutely! What you’re describing is wonderful. Yes.
My wife Bridget and I were recently at a conference for physically handicapped people and there were about 80 severely handicapped children there. There’s an enormous joy in that community, partly because these people aren’t covering up what’s really going on in their conditions of daily living.
These people don’t want to be treated with sympathy and pity—that’s not what they want. They want to be accepted as everything that they are—and they’re open about it. We did a drama workshop with people who were blind and deaf and some who were unable to move. It was a wonderful experience.

DAVID: One of the delightful things in your books is that you actually go out and do some things that many of us may talk about—but never actually try. There are lots of examples, but in the novel, you do something that shocked me.
I’m such a lifelong fan of Robert Frost that I memorized “Birches” while I was still in grade school. But, it never occurred to me to actually try to climb a birch tree and make it bend over in the way the poem describes. You do it in “Birches” in one key scene.
    It’s a novel, but it sounds like you might have tried this yourself. Have you?
ADRIAN: I have done it myself. I did it a few times in my youth. I read that poem and more than anything I wanted to do exactly what Frost had done.
Once when I did it, I did it with a friend and we did it at night. We took torches with us and it was pitch black. My tree was fine. I climbed to the top, held on with my hands, let go with my feet and the tree leant me gently down to the ground again.
    But the other tree stayed right where it was—and my friend was stuck there 20 feet off the ground. In the end, his birch tree broke—and he fell to the ground, damaged his back and was in the hospital for quite some time! The memory of that sad and strange night with my friend fed into the ideas in that part of “Birches.”

DAVID: Now, we’ve been promising readers that we’d tell them about your idea for a new smell-scape for churches. You’re not suggesting incense. You’re suggesting “bacon sandwiches”—or what Americans would call BLTs!
You write in the book: “Bacon Sandwiches: a seriously neglected evangelistic tool. Imagine if bacon were to be fried at the front of outreach rallies as the evangelist is speaking. The smell would, of course, be heavenly. Members of the congregation would be informed that any person coming forward to make a commitment automatically receives a bacon sandwich. There would be a stampede to the front. Bacon sandwiches and salvation. What an unbeatable and eminently Jesus-like combination!
How do you come up with a creative idea like that?
ADRIAN: A friend and I were sitting in church one day and the minister asked: “What is the most important thing in the world?”
I rather piously said, “Salvation.”
My friend spontaneously said, “Bacon Sandwiches.”
And I said: “You know, that’s it, isn’t it?! God is so great that we’ve got both salvation and bacon sandwiches!”
    The smell of making bacon sandwiches is just out of this world! If we fried them up at the front of our churches, people would flood inside.

DAVID: “Bacon Sandwiches” is an ABC-format book. A lot of famous writers have created books like this. Ambrose Bierce is among the most famous back in 1911 with “The Devil’s Dictionary.” But Frederick Buechner also has one: “Wishful Thinking, a Seeker’s ABC.”
Now you’ve got “Bacon Sandwiches” and the bacon piece we’re talking about can be found under “B” in the book.
You’ve also got some anagrams that are pretty clever. Also under “B,” there’s “Big Rally Ham,” which is an anagram of “Billy Graham.” Do you really want to take a shot at good ol’ Billy?
ADRIAN: Oh, for more than 20 years, I’ve played with anagrams, especially for well-known Christians and other famous people. People know that I do this and they even send me ideas, now. “Mother Teresa” becomes “Heart Rest Home.”
I’m just having fun with Billy Graham there. Of all the evangelists I’ve ever seen or heard, Billy is the cleanest and most powerful and most effective. I love listening to his sermons. They’re so simple and wonderful. I’ve never met the man, but so many evangelists rely on little tricks to affect people and manipulate their emotions.
    Billy did affect a lot of people’s emotions, but he was very plain in the way he spoke. He laid things out honestly. I think he’s a role model.

DAVID: You don’t have much patience, though, for a lot of so-called “Christian” media. You’ve got a withering entry in the “Bacon Sandwich” book of “Christian Magazines.” You call this niche of media a “dying breed” and you seem to feel it’s good that the genre is dying out. You say that a classic Christian magazine story might be headlined: “Mowing the Lawn the Christian Way.”
ADRIAN: The problem is that this approach to the faith—and to living—wants to make the world so small. It’s as if people want to live in a tiny little world where everything you do can be listed as 6 Points to follow and you never stray outside the lines of what a good Christian is supposed to do.
I think it’s very unhelpful to think of God as some kind of social worker who stands at your shoulder all day long twiddling with your life.
I have a much different perspective on that now. I think sometimes you see God on the horizon and you feel glad. Sometimes God is at your shoulder and it’s wonderful.
    Sometimes God is right in front of you talking to you and that’s best of all. But most of the time you’re in the world without an awareness that God’s there. Pretending that Christianity is like a safe little pub where everything’s OK is not terribly helpful. We take people’s strength away by doing that.
We need a faith that helps us to hope and believe in spite of everything going on around us—not because we’ve constructed all these tiny little circles in which Christians try to live these tiny little lives.
DAVID: I respond most, in my own reading of your books, to your compassion. That’s what your’re talking about here, I’d say. In my own decades of traveling the world as a religion writer, the one thing that seems most important to people in an enduring way is—compassion. I’ve met a lot of self-important religious leaders who really are very angry with the world and often they’re angry with themselves, as well. And their well of compassion is pretty darned shallow.
ADRIAN: Yes, the power of the Holy Spirit is mainly seen in kindness. The Spirit is mainly seen when people care more about others than they care about themselves.
I always say to people: Whatever else you do—love one another.
When we do that, something begins to crackle and burn in our lives—and light appears. Others see what’s happening. They see that people are looking after each other—and they’re doing it for no good reason, for no obvious benefit—and people see that light appearing and they say: I want to be like those people.

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