Last week we put out an excerpt from the Relationships book from our First Steps series. In reality, every time I think about the process of writing that book, one memory comes to the forefront—the battle over a chapter heading.
I’d always wanted to write a book. I don’t know if everyone has this fantasy, but I had this idealistic image of the writing process. The reality was very different. Spending hours and hours in front of a computer, trying to come up with something that makes sense and isn’t boring, is harder than you may imagine.
But there is nothing like the editorial process for beating any resemblance or hint of pride out of your character—it’s humbling, humiliating, and downright frustrating at times. Thankfully, not all editors are the same and I’ve been grateful for the last two female editors the publishers assigned me. They have been fabulous—very patient and super helpful. I had this naive expectation that, as the author, I’d get to write what I wanted and it would be published. Well, it doesn’t exactly work like that. The publisher knows from experience what sells and what’s not helpful. Let’s face it—we write books so people will buy and read them.
The Relationships book was one of these books we wrestled with. It was the second book I’d written in the series but, because of timing, the third to go through the editing process. I had a fair idea of what to expect by then, so when the edits came back and I had a couple of issues, I decided to pick just one battle to fight.
The chapter heading When It All Hits the Fan was up for debate. The editors politely asked me to change it. I politely said no. They explained—very robustly but ever so politely—why it should be changed and I wrote back that I understood their point but, in my context, this was absolutely acceptable, and no-one would be remotely offended. This polite ‘toing and froing’ email chat went on for a while before the series editor (Mez) asked me to do him a favour and I submitted.
Now, before you think this is some weird passive aggressive attempt to get back at the publisher (you’d be wrong—our publisher has been fantastic, and they were absolutely right in their reasoning for changing it—which was that many Christians would be offended by the connotation) I want you to understand my reasoning for writing this. What this situation reveals is a classic culture class, one that we see all the time as we partner with people not from our context.
It’s weird how often we talk about the culture clash between middle-class Christians and scheme Christians (unchurched working or benefits class). People often tell us, usually middle-class church people, that it doesn’t exist. This is a prime example that it does. Majority rules.
Maybe you’re sat there thinking: Shabba, it’s just a chapter title. Why does it matter? Well, in the long run, it didn’t really matter. That’s why I changed it.
But here’s the rub and the clash. The bit I find absolutely fascinating is not what caused the offence (to be honest I was expecting the pushback) but, what didn’t. In this book, there’s an illustration, actually it might be the very same chapter, where my character Sean actually slaps his mother about. How can a title that doesn’t even have a swear word in it potentially cause offence, but the illustration where this rat bag violently abuses his mother doesn’t raise an eyebrow? In my culture, this is the offence! I’m not saying it’s not offensive in suburbia. But, in our context, it’s completely unacceptable for a guy to do this.
This isn’t just a bloke hitting a woman—which is bad enough. It’s his own mother. I remember this happening when we where kids. My dad literally never, in our whole lives, lifted his hand to us. I mean, like every kid, we were threatened with the ‘wait till your dad gets home’ line, which scared us, but it was an empty threat. He never laid a hand on us.
Except once—the day my brother pushed back at my mum. I’ve never seen my dad move so fast in my life. He never actually hit my brother, but for a moment I thought he was going to. The message was clear: my brother had crossed a line and my dad wasn’t having it.
I asked around our guys what they would do in the same situation as the illustration in the book, and I got the same answer over and over: “Absolutely smash him. He’d be a dirty wrong yin.” or “As a Christian, I’d smash him then pray for him.” I even asked one of our lovely wee adorable old dears who said she would go ‘radge’ and it wouldn’t be repeatable. She said exactly what I thought she would: “Hitting a woman is bad enough. But lifting his hand to his mother?” she said incredulously “I wouldn’t have that.”
There are some lines you just don’t cross. I wrote Sean and Biddy’s story because I know it goes on. No matter how unacceptable something is, sadly, it happens in real life. Things like this are unpalatable. They cause offence, as they should do. We hear stories like this and weep. But they don’t just happen in the schemes. Parental abuse where the perpetrator is the kid happens in posh-land too. Many mothers like Biddy live in fear of their own children.
Jennifer’s son began hitting her when he was 14 years old. “I just didn’t know what to do,” she told us. “If anyone else had hit me, I would have called the police. But this was my son!’”(Empowering Parents)
Parents feel intimidated as their child’s defiance continues to grow and the violence seems to escalate. We could give good advice, like ensuring they establish good boundaries, follow through with the consequences for their actions, and finally, we could suggest they call the authorities (social work and police).
But I know in the main, from a scheme perspective, there in no way she is going to grass on her kid to the police or call social services for help. How would she cope? Who would help her? She’s trapped! She is parentally responsible for her abuser. In the illustration in the book, Biddy’s son thankfully didn’t live with her, and she simply could refuse to let him in the house again. But the mum of a 14-year-old kid who is abusing her doesn’t have the same option.
Don’t Avoid What’s Hard
This reality should be what causes offence. It’s unacceptable anywhere. In part, this is why I love the ministry we do at 20schemes. As you read the Relationships book, you see the potential of discipleship in action. The character, Andy, gets alongside Sean and Mona and supports Biddy. This shows the church in action, caring as one active and intentional community.
Just like my chapter heading, some things need to be challenged—and in the right way. We need to be discussing situations like this is our churches—this isn’t something that just happens to ‘them.’ Life, in all postcodes, can be brutal and complicated. There may be a Biddy sitting in your congregation—living in fear, terrified of her own child, desperate for your help. She may be ashamed to talk about it because of the perceived judgement she imagines she will receive. I can even imagine the worst-case scenario and the unhelpful response, as someone doesn’t know exactly what to do, chucks a verse in without thought “spare the rod and spoil the child.” True, but not the most gracious or wise response.
We have to ask ourselves: Have we created a healthy culture in our church that would enable someone like Biddy to share about her terror? And, when she does eventually expose all, we need to bring more to the table than “call the police or chuck them out.”
Sometimes we need to talk about and discuss the truly offensive to ensure that we prepare well to care, disciple, and support those who are struggling in our congregations.