A small conversation I had with the Badger about shirts and about four years ago so surprised me that it stuck in my mind as a little shard of something different that didn’t really belong there.
I had ironed the said shirts and hung them up in his wardrobe, but at some point he expressed a wistful desire to have the top button done up as well when I put the shirt on the hanger. This hopeful suggestion was not especially well received. At a later point we had a conversation about the conversation (as we do), in which he explained to me that the problem was, if you don’t do up the button to make the shirt look all smart and tidy, “it spoils the whole effect”.
It’s interesting being married to someone from a different planet. On more than one occasion, when I have been prattling on easily, clambering around in my thought systems and commenting on the view, the Badger has remarked that though he understands the prose sense of all the words I have been using and is familiar with the vocabulary and listening carefully, he has been completely unable to extract any meaning out of what I have just said to him.
In similar wise, I still have stuck in my mind this bright blue (or is it red?) thought-shard stuck in my head – “It spoils the whole effect”.
The thing is, nothing in my upbringing, as far as I remember, was ever done for effect. Nothing. Achieving an effect was not on anyone’s agenda. We did things like taking the bucket of steaming layers’ mash across the river on a winter morning and bringing back the eggs from the nest-boxes. Or wrestling a sheep to the ground because we’d spotted a blow-fly attack and needed to lift back the flap of fleece and clean the wound mighty quick, pouring in Jeyes-fluid-and-water until all the fat maggots came boiling out and stopped eating the poor animal alive. Or mixing concrete to make a new floor for the barn, or picking gooseberries in the hot sun – a spiky and backbreaking task. Or walking down the lane to Evensong when the day was done, or standing in the ford watching the water rippling over my feet and the amber weeds waving on the submerged road. Nothing, but nothing, was ever for effect.
Even when at fourteen I stitched a moon and stars onto the swirling black cloak someone had filched from a theatrical department for me, and went everywhere with a silver-topped cane, and a copy of the complete works of Shelley stuffed into a nosebag and slung over my shoulder, that wasn’t for effect. Why would anyone ever look at me? I was being and imagining, not looking like.
And when one time at about the same age, while roaming our sleepy market town one Saturday morning I fell in with a group of lads and one of them was so beautiful I had to kiss him – just had to – it wasn’t for effect, it was for pure necessity. He didn’t mind. I never saw him before that moment or ever again, but I remember him.
The notion stopped me in my tracks and the surprise is ever-new: the concept of doing things for effect.
And this is the nub of my most serious problem with the church.
It’s a funny thing being married to a publisher of Christian books.
Some of the authors have had magnificent adventures, with stories to tell that would make your hair stand on end, like Andrew White and Simon Guillebaud. Some have such heroic souls that their stories should be told, like Michael Wenham. Some have great status as preachers, or a wonderful pastoral ministry or have achieved marvels as street pastors or in gangland or whatever it might be. Some have been archbishops or explorers or scientists or apologists or missionaries or undergone spectacular conversions.
The authors of these stories can in some cases put a manuscript together with impressive ability, but not every one can write well. Styles vary very much of course, and skill likewise – because the point is, a publisher of Christian books will go for an amazing story even if it doesn’t come from an amazing writer. There are jobbing writers who can tidy up and fill out and generally titivate and bring up to scratch any manuscripts that need it.
But though they aren’t all splendid writers, they are all supposed to be Christians of great integrity – they are meant to be living the Gospel story they are telling. Their preaching, their teaching, their forth-telling is not meant to be just for the effect.
The Badger is a bit of a workaholic, and his authors all have his phone number, so “work” tends to flow over into “holiday” more often than not. One year, holiday got a bit cramped because he just had to take on someone else’s work as well as his own, since three authors had so badly overrun their deadlines that the publishing schedules became impossible for the staff whose task they were. And on another occasion, an author sold hundreds and hundreds of books at some Christian festival, then threw all the toys out of the pram and subjected the Badger to a series of semi-abusive messages because on the last day of a very long festival the bookshop (who had judged the required quantity almost perfectly) had sold the last 50 books in stock and run out.
We never know who we’re speaking to, do we?
That famous Christian speaker with the famous Christian book and famous Christian ministry (who I am entirely sure will never read this very unimportant and unfamous blog) will never know that whoever else watched and listened to the marvellous sermons and read the marvellous book, I was here watching and listening to the preacher’s life behind the scenes. A ministry exercised, it appeared, for effect. And it did indeed have an effect on me. That writer’s ministry was one more pair of hands pushing me to the very edge of church so that I have to grit my teeth and cling on – I will keep going . . . I will keep going . . . Jesus deserves that much from me . . . He is my Lord.
“ESSE QUAM VIDERI” A quotation from Cicero’s essay on Friendship, adopted as North Carolina’s state motto.
It means “TO BE RATHER THAN TO SEEM TO BE”.
Esse quam videri is what’s wanted in a writer of Christian books. Anything less will always be found out. There is always someone like me tucked away unnoticed, watching . . . listening . . . that much more encouraged or more disillusioned by what we see and hear.
I watched my Badger get more and more distressed over two days arrogant bullying from this wonderful preacher. I don’t care if that Christian celebrity can talk the moon down out of the sky, I shan’t ever be interested to hear, not now I’ve looked underneath and seen how the engine works. Doesn’t matter. Shan’t be missed. Who am I? No influence, not one of the in-crowd, a nonentity. But I do see. It's a minority, God be thanked, but not that tiny a minority.
As I turned it over and turned it over in my mind, it brought to light that thought-shard from four years ago, lodged in my head from a neighbouring planet: “It spoils the whole effect!” Yes. It does rather. And it shows up that “an effect” is all it ever was. Just a buttoned-up shirt on a hanger. Give me a bucket of layers’ mash and a can of Jeyes fluid any day. I can do more with it than with some of those sermons.
In the heart of the Forest of Bowland stands the Hark To Bounty inn - I remember it from my childhood, and I understand it's still there. The inn sign swinging high on the wall outside has two pictures - one of a preacher sounding forth and one of a dog that won't stop barking. Very expressive.
This was a handy wooden box a bit shabby inside but good for storing shed things in etc. As with so many things one owns, it was so useful.
I am finding it helpful to disregard if things are a) useful b) beautiful c) I like them. Those are not the criteria I apply any more. I try to consider if it is necessary for the journey I am making rather than if it is attractive or has intrinsic virtue – because if it didn’t I’d not have got it in the first place and therefore would be inclined always to keep everything forever.