A friend of mine wrote this and I like it. So I thought it would be a good start since I identify with it thoroughly.
I was thinking about the old Church of Scotland bookshop at 121 George Street. It was a real bookshop. A real bookshop is one that only sells books and, apart from some Sunday school materials and the church magazine, this one only did sell books. It was not what you’d call decorated. Painted yes, and clean (apart from some dust around the secondhand seventeeth century divines) but lacking in nice veneers and soothing magnolia tints. But it sold books and plenty of them.
It had a tea-room too which was very unusual for bookshops in these days with tapioca pudding on the menu on Monday and Wednesday and crowded with old ladies in serviceable hats and sensible shoes lured by cheapness and churchiness. Espressos and cappuchinos were still as unknown as they had been in the days of Miss Jean Brodie (whom I am sure never crossed the threshhold). The old ladies never actually bought books, perhaps a copy of ‘Life and Work’ on their way out to pore over on the bus back to Cramond or Morningside, but the shelves of William Barclay (the man who never had an unpublished thought), John Owen, Robert Lewis Dabney, J C Ryle, John Bunyan and collections of cloth-bound sermons by A W Pink were reverentially undisturbed except by the odd theology student strayed down from New College. It was therefore the place to be for young ladies hoping to become ministers’ wives but I wasn’t one of them. Perhaps they thought I was a wannabe lady minister.
Then it changed. It became brighter, breezier and pastel-hued. The number of books went down and the number of non-Presbyterian books went up, videos and cassettes appeared in quantity as did magazines, and a good proportion of the books that were left were soft theology, comfy reads, self-help and Christianity-lite. Or as my friend Jean used to say, “lo-alcohol religion with nothing to gladden the heart” just more world-weary tripe about how to be a successful Christian. The craggy, dour, dog-collared old chaps who had once graced journal covers (frightening you off sin for a month) and whose lectures and sermons were advertised disappeared to be replaced by cheerful young men and women with carefully coiffed casualness back in the day when an unbuttoned shirt collar was heart-flutteringly trendy and occasionally in those oh-so daring blue jeans. It’s almost impossible to remember now but thirty years ago people still wore suits and hats to church here.
I got tired of those faces very quickly with their perfect skin and de rigueur cheerfulness, that certain sort of girl-next-door, wholesome Christian cheerfulness that makes me feel jaded and avoidant. Or as Jane Austen put it, “pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked.”
I started going to the Catholic bookshop. It was run by an elderly gentleman and his two spinster sisters, all very devout, and was crammed into two tiny 18th century shops thrown together and full of all manner of thing. Secondhand books with old dust from their original attics and new cobwebs. Encyclicals with impressive Latin names. Lives of saints, real and imagined, each one lovingly photographed in plaster of paris on the cover (try telling those old ladies that St Philomena wasn’t real and their soft, kindly wrinkles would transform into something that would stop a gorgon and beads would be clicked on your behalf at Sunday Mass for weeks to come). A pensive Bernadette Soubirous peered down from dim old photographs over crucifixes, waxen effigies of holy corpses, daguerrotypes of 19th century cardinals and sweetly tinted images of the Little Flower, Jesus Himself blonde and simpering, heavy blood-red glass votive holders, and Virgin Marys so pious that you wanted to smack them resulting in meditative journeys home on the subject of what the penance might be for that thought.
I pored over plastic rosaries, holy water bottles in the shape of Our Lady of La Salette, miraculous medals, pamphlets of novenas, the odd relocating monstrance and no end of sentimental, melodramatic and perhaps even true stories of cures at Lourdes as well as the lives of the visionaries of Fatima. I also discovered Monsignor Ronald Knox and Sister Edith Stein as well as new (to me) works by Cardinal Newman and Fr Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ.
And then the brother and sisters retired and new people took over and it became glossy and bright. Today you would call it “pinnable”. And then unsurprisingly, to me at least, it closed.
The premises now hawk hideous tourist tat and I never pass it without a momentary prayer for the nice old people and a little sniff of regret because there is within me that which likes portraits of long dead religious and that indefinable smell of tallow-and-something that Catholic churches have and this shop had too.
And this is the problem with much of the way Christianity is presented today in bright, clean pastels. It’s smooth and glossy, a sort of Instagram gospel, and I don’t trust it. I loathe the way the faith is packaged, it’s not just Christianity, it’s your Christianity, and I want to smack the purveyors of it like the smugly demure madonna. Christianity should never be comfortable. It should be – it is – joyful but it’s not Instagrammable; if it doesn’t hurt, if it provides easy answers, if it dishes out bilge such as “God will never give you more than you can handle” then it’s denying the brokenness of the system we live in and it’s useless. It’s an empty box. Who wants that at Christmas?