This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

Icelandic isn’t one of my languages, but I learned recently about something called Jolabokaflod. It literally means ‘Yule Book Flood’ – a tradition where Icelanders give each other books on Christmas Eve and then spend the night reading them.

Of course, what this Jolabokaflod tradition suggests is that reading is a good thing and worth investing in. Reading – especially fiction – awakens the imagination and has the capacity to get around the intellectual defences to reach the parts propositions don’t usually reach.

Former US President Barack Obama said in an interview with writer Marilynne Robinson: “The most important stuff I’ve learned I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy – with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to work for that.”

Clearly, there is something powerful about reading beyond your own experience and looking at the world through the eyes of characters who are different from yourself. It is how good stories work: opening us up and not closing down our capacity for reflection.

The Christmas story is no different. A million Nativity plays have the power to make the story of the birth of Jesus either remote and fanciful or just dulled by familiarity. It isn’t hard to see why some people assume the whole thing is a quaint fantasy. But, this is to miss the point. The Nativity smacks of real people, real human experience and the real world of politics, injustice and fear.

Jesus wasn’t born in a school hall or at the front of a church in England. Rather, he was born to bewildered and conflicted parents in a part of the Middle East occupied by the Roman Empire … who were not known for their philanthropy or human kindness. This was a world of violence in which life was cheap and survival everything.

And, yet, the gospel writers shine through this scene of childbirth-against-the-odds the light of hope and possibility. They suggest that light has shone in the darkness of a complex world and whispered a hint of newness into the human lives that we know – with all their pain and joy and doubt and confusion. The power mongers scheme to keep the world shaped in their own interest while a vulnerable baby breathes in the air of freedom – the freedom of one who will grow to challenge the powers, the ‘this is just how the world is’ merchants.

In other words, whatever dominates the news and crowds out our consciousness can be challenged by the leaking in of a different light. That’s Christmas. Is Jolabokaflod worth a go, even if I can’t quite pronounce it?

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Ths is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme – delivered five minutes after the announcement that Tory MPs have triggered a vote of no confidence in Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party.

Today Russians are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their post-Soviet constitution. Russians tell a powerful and emotional story of their past – of their identity, the “soul of Russia” – a story that gives meaning and direction to who they are in the world today. For them, the idea of the Motherland is everything.

But, Russians aren’t unique. Every country, every community lives within a narrative – a story that shapes their unconscious worldview and directs their affections … for good or ill.

Christians inhabit a narrative that emerges from particular stories in their scriptures. The liberation theologians who sided with the poor in South and Central America in the 1970s onwards were fired by the story of Israel – held captive in Egypt for four hundred years before being liberated to freedom in a new land.

As these people prepared to start a new life there, they developed narratives and rituals to remind them of their fundamental story and identity. For example, they would always bring the first 10% of their future crop harvests to the priests and recite a creed that began with a founding statement: “My ancestors were homeless nomads.” So, inhabiting this story today, backed by ritual, should suggest how poor homeless people should be seen in the society being shaped.

Later, in the New Testament account, when Jesus invited his friends to share bread and wine in memory of himself – what we call Communion or the Eucharist – he did so knowing that they would filter this through the story of the exodus.

So, Motherland, Exodus, Communion: our guiding narratives grow out of what’s gone before and now shape our behaviour and values. But, what happens when stories collide or pass each other by? For example, the current mismatch between understandings in the UK and Europe of their shared history of the last century – particularly over the purpose and value of shared EU institutions. In a UK that itself comprises a number of national identities, we must ask if it is possible now to create a shared story that can challenge the clashing assumptions feeding our current confusions.

The thing about the Christian narratives I mentioned earlier is that they are spacious. That is, they demand human agency and commitment, and they do not remove moral accountability from those who claim or inhabit their narrative.

So, can the British agree on a story that will guide us in the future, reminding us where we have come from, who we are and who we want to be? Faced with a crisis that demands an immediate fix, it is probably this deeper story that will fire our affections and drive our allegiances.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 Today programme:

Some years ago a Church of England report confidently asserted that people increasingly live in networks rather than localities. According to this thinking, people relate to people with similar interests and commitments rather than being constrained by geography. The growing power of the internet and the massive explosion of social media communication enabled us to transcend mere physicality and the limits of place.

Of course, this is questionable. Although we can now communicate across the globe instantly and with people we have never met, human beings still have bodies and – as Neddy Seagoon* once put it – “everybody gotta be somewhere”. In other words, place still matters.

This notion lies at the heart of a recent report from the think tank Theos. It is called People, Place and Purpose – three words that encapsulate what it means to live well as individuals in community. The report is based on research done in the North East of England, but the title offers a lens through which to look at any community – recognising that even those who prioritise social networks still live in a physical place.

You have to be pretty well off to ignore your immediate environment. One of the lessons to be learned from the whole Brexit experience is that communities who feel ignored, left behind or deliberately disadvantaged will eventually remind the complacent secure that place matters to those who are privileged or condemned to live in it.

This is hardly new. Way back in the Hebrew Scriptures a simple ethical dynamic lay at the heart of social order and religious ritual, and we might describe it like this: human beings live in particular communities that find their common life shaped by the physical environment and the people who inhabit it; their common purpose is aimed at mutual thriving with the freedoms and responsibilities that make it work. Being realistic about human nature, these scriptures don’t hide from the need for restriction or sanction if all in a community are to flourish. And this is why the Ten Commandments still make moral sense – they take people seriously and recognise reality with all its fragilities and failures. It’s why many of the seemingly obscure rituals of this community make sense when you start to think about how we might create a society that works for everyone.

What I learn from this is that if people, place and purpose are reduced to slogans or political categories, then we begin to lose the plot. If political purpose reduces people to mere economic consumers, human identity is diminished.

Amid the loud voices claiming attention in the week ahead, we could do worse than to defy any kind of reductionism and insist on the priority of real people in real places seeking real purpose for our common life.

*It wasn’t (as many pointed out) – it was Eccles.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

Of the thousands of photos in my phone one I return to time and time again is of a single rose planted alone in dry soil on a parched farm in Zimbabwe. I was walking with a group from farm to farm back in 2007 – somewhere near Gweru in the Midlands Province – and listening to stories of political oppression, fear, suspicion and hope. There was no water in town (the pumps had all broken), you couldn’t get fuel, and inflation was then at only 10,000%.

Later in that trip I found myself misrepresented all over Zimbabwean media, we had problems with the secret police, and we strengthened our ties to the Church under pressure there.

That rose, watered regularly, surrounded by aridity and barrenness, spoke of defiance, of hope, of a future.

Zimbabwe was always a very beautiful land. Under Robert Mugabe it had been transformed from the breadbasket of Africa into what some have described as a basket case. Yet, no one seemed to know what to do about it. People repeatedly expressed ‘hope’ that something would change; but, few seemed ready to be the agents of change. It was all too paralysing, too threatening.

It seems a long time ago. Mugabe has retired, so to speak. Emmerson Mnangagwa has led the country into elections that appear to have been free and fair, but has been challenged by opposition parties. It looks like Mnangagwa has won a majority of seats in Parliament, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that he will continue as president. The question my Zimbabwean friends will be asking, of course, is whether the future will be bright … or a further disappointment.

And this is where hope comes in. Hope is not the same as wishful thinking. Hope for many Zimbabweans was what kept them believing that freedom would one day come. For others, it was what motivated them to put their lives on the line in order to make change happen. For neither was it entirely cost-free.

Standing by the rose near Gweru I remember hearing the words of Isaiah 40 from the Hebrew Scriptures: “Comfort, O comfort my people,… she has served her term, her penalty is paid.” It is always hard for people to hear words of comfort when the evidence of the reality around them is so bleak. But, biblical hope was never fantasy. Rather, it was always about defying ‘reality’ and being drawn by a vision of how the world might be – even when the so-called realists around you just keep saying, “the world isn’t like that”. And it has always meant getting stuck in to the world as it is.

That single rose is an emblem – an investment in the future. We will have to wait and see if Zimbabwe’s rose will continue to bloom in the new world.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service, millions of words are being written and spoken as its merits are being either celebrated or debated. But, I was struck by something said by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. I quote: “of all the words used by Bevan to describe the benefits of the NHS, the one he returned to most was a word we rarely use today – serenity.” He goes on to say: “After years in which great-grandparents, grandparents and parents had no peace of mind when their loved ones were sick, because they simply could not afford the treatment, serenity was what the NHS provided. It still does.”

What an odd word to use about a massive national enterprise that swallows enormous quantities of money, employs thousands of people and provides the source of endless stories of human living and dying in every community. Serenity. Yet, isn’t that the word that sums up the aspiration as well as the oft-criticised reality of the NHS – a peace of mind that is easily taken for granted by people who have not experienced any other system of national health care? Or the constant fear that illness or debility will necessarily provoke massive anxiety about affordability on top of that of mortality?

I think this is where health professionals and priests have something in common: neither can avoid those deep questions about the meaning of living and dying or of life and death. Meeting people at their greatest points of need and vulnerability, questions of suffering and pain cease to be merely academic and become people with faces, families and stories. Not just a lump of inconvenient chemicals stuck on a stretcher, but a human being whose ultimate value cannot be counted merely in economic numbers.

I think this is important. Debates about the health service often revolve around the experience or demands of those in receipt of care; yet, those offering care through the NHS (in its local manifestations) are themselves intimately caught up in confronting their own humanity, their own mortality. Adam Kay, in his funny and sobering book ‘This is Going to Hurt’ remarks at one point: “Remember [health professionals] do an absolutely impossible job, to the very best of their abilities. Your time in hospital may well hurt them a lot more than it hurt you.”

It will come as no surprise that a Christian approach to health and illness begins with an acceptance of mortality, but sees people as a body/mind/spirit unity. Hurt one part and the rest is hurt. So, serenity is as important for the doctor and nurse and hospital porter as it is for the patient in their care. It is a rare word that needs to be revived.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (broadcast from Berlin and focusing on the impact on Germany of Brexit):

I was in Vienna recently and saw something that sums up the challenge of Germany in the last century. At one end of the Judenplatz is the haunting Holocaust Memorial by Rachel Whiteread; facing it, twenty metres away, is a statue of the philosopher, poet and Enlightenment hero Johann Gottfried Herder who re-shaped German education and culture. The question that cries out is this: how did Germany go from Herder to Hitler in a mere century?

This is the question that Germany has been unable to escape in the last seventy years or so. Walk around any German city and you will find yourself stepping on small brass plaques in the pavement bearing the name and dates of Jews deported to their deaths from the houses before which you now stand. They are everywhere – and they are called Stolpersteine: stumbling blocks that get in your way and compel you to face responsibility for what happened to your neighbours only a generation or two ago.

Because of its history Germany has had no option but to confront its past and choose its future. Yet, as time moves on and memory becomes history, revisionism becomes easier for some people. Recent changes in the political landscape come on the back of concerns about immigration in general and Islam in particular. Yet this phenomenon was almost inconceivable only a decade ago.

What it demonstrates is that human beings all too easily re-shape their worldview according to the world they now live in. We can accommodate all sorts of challenges to our ethics … until we find their foundation has been undercut and we have given away too much. Perhaps history teaches us that it is not a big step from ‘every human being matters’ to ‘some matter more than others’ to ‘these are not really people of value’.

If you go into Berlin Cathedral and look up at the dome, you will see in gold lettering words from the Lord’s Prayer: “Dein ist das Reich” – “Thine is the Kingdom”. I have sat there and thought of the generations of people – from the Second Reich through Weimar and the Nazis, through the GDR and the now-reunited Germany – and wondered what Christian worshippers thought that meant. And how could they so easily confuse the Kingdom of Caesar with the Kingdom of the Jesus we read about in the gospels? Whose Reich/Kingdom do we really serve?

The question goes to the heart of how human beings make sense of themselves and the world – and whether, when the heat is on, the foundation of our ethical frameworks is as sound as we like to think it is. Humility, generosity, loving your neighbour, protecting the weak – or self-preservation at all costs?

Every generation faces the same question. So does every nation.

 

* I originally wrote two scripts for this. The first I set in Weimar where you can stand by the statue of Herder and look to the hills beyond … and Buchenwald concentration camp. I decided this was not the right introduction, so went to Vienna instead. However, I didn’t change the statue from Herder to Lessing. Only one person pointed this out. It doesn’t change the point, but the error should be noted.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

Remember this? “Humpty Dumpty to Alice in ‘Through the Looking Glass: ‘When I use a word,’ he said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’” It’s no wonder Humpty ended up having a great fall.

The point of language is to allow for a common comprehension – mutual understanding between different parties. If we all, individually, get to choose what meaning we attribute to particular words, it is not only communication and comprehension that break down – so do relationship and society. Language matters.

Now, the reason that quote comes so readily to mind is that we now seem to live in a world in which comment is king, perception is everything, and meaning has become subject to individual whim. In his response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, Donald Trump said this: “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

Set alleged culpability aside for a moment and what is noticeable here is this novel understanding of what facts are. A fact is a fact, even if, as Mark Twain wryly observed: “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please”. What can it mean to “agree with the facts”? To disagree with facts is deliberately to choose to ignore reality – and that would prioritise ideological prejudice over reality. As Aldous Huxley put it: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Yes, facts have to be interpreted, but that’s a different question.

Facing reality, however inconvenient, is essential to honest living and the functioning of a reasonable society. The Old Testament prophets told the truth about the danger of short-termist thinking when establishing military and political alliances – and were roundly ignored until their people went into some miserable exile. Jesus never seduced anyone into following him, but kept talking about carrying crosses and the dangers of gaining the world and losing your soul. I don’t understand how people who think the earth is flat or that a theory of evolution is some satanic conspiracy manage to integrate all this.

There is no alternative but to live in the real world and face the challenges that throws up. Religious faith that has to be kept in some sealed compartment lest reality intrude is, in my view, not a faith worth having. If God can’t cope with the real world as we know and experience it, then what is the point?

As Christians now approach Holy Week we need no reminding about harsh reality. Fantasies of political liberation will soon bleed into the dust beneath a cross. And the disciples will find their world turned upside down as they are confronted by the power of death – an inescapable fact of life, but one which will prove not to have the final word.