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?

The great thing about holidays is the space to switch off and read stuff that has nothing to do with work.

This time I am starting with Elvis Costello's brilliant autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. It was a bit of a silly choice to bring to the beach – an enormous fatty of a tome. But, it follows on from Philip Norman's excellent biography of John Lennon and Sylvie Simmons biography of Leonard Cohen – both perfect, intriguing, funny, poignant and entertaining. They were followed by Bruce Cockburn's epic memoir that laid bare the life and mind behind the poetry and music.

Like Cockburn, Costello wrote the book himself and the same lyrical humour pervades the text. I am only half way through, but can't put it down. Not the usual beach book, but it provides a mental soundtrack that doesn't require sticking headphones in my ears.

Not so much “watching the detectives”, but, in the light of what's going on around the world, more a case of “Poor Fractured Atlas”.

 

Apart from posting scripts and personal stuff, I haven't had time to get back to the sort of blogging that provokes or responds or interprets.

The latest personal news is today's receipt of an Honorary Fellowship awarded by Bradford College. Following on from an Honorary Doctorate from the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena last Tuesday (and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bradford last December), this is a great honour, and the ceremony was very generous. I love seeing students getting their academic awards – the fruit of their labours emanating in pride and celebration. This college is doing excellent work in an excellent city, and it's new main building has to be seen – an icon of confidence.

But, here are three points about what is going on in the wider world:

1. Ukraine remains on the brink and the rouble is plummeting. But, Russia is made of people who are not afraid of sacrifice – indeed they see their history almost entirely in terms of suffering and sacrifice. I am not convinced they will cave in to material deprivation driven from the West.

2. Gordon Brown is standing down as an MP next May. Watching him has been like watching a Shakespeare drama: the prophetic moral courage of a brave man compromised by the sort of “vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself” (Macbeth). To hear him speak about poverty and international injustice was like listening to an Amos or Jeremiah: articulate passion, acute judgement. Parliament will be poorer without him.

3. When the media's attention moves on, the money also seems to dry up. 1.7 million Syrians face hunger because the UN funds are drying up. When the next photogenic massacres or horror stories hit the screens, no doubt we will all wake up again. (At least the base and dehumanising consumerism that was 'Black Friday' demonstrates that horribleness runs close to the surface of most human beings – wherever they are…)

OK, that's enough. Having just read Do No Harm (brilliant account of brain surgery) and Stasiland (brilliant account of life in and under the Stasi in the GDR), I am now reading Rochus Misch's account of his life as Hitler's telephonist, courier and body guard: Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness). And Neil MacGregor's Germany. And a million papers for work.

Goodnight.

 

This 'away-from-home-and-reading' bit of my sabbatical is coming to an end. I haven't read as much as I had wanted to, but there is also a life to be lived (and football to be watched).

Before finishing with a couple of funny German satirical books, I spent the last couple of days reading Ben Quash's Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit. I am very glad I did.

Last year I asked Ben to be (Honorary) Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral and he agreed. He is Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College London and was formerly Dean and Fellow of Peterhouse in the University of Cambridge. Last summer I asked Ben to address my clergy on the subject of 'change' – given all the uncertainties about the future of the diocese in the light of proposals to dissolve three dioceses and create a single new one for West Yorkshire & the Dales (which, as we know, is soon to be a reality). In the morning he presented some of the material that is now set out in this book. (In the afternoon we had Pastor Sebastian Feydt from the Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany, to talk about radical change and its effects – he had experienced the changes in Germany from GDR to FRG at every level, including how such change affects or shapes your theology.)

If Ben had told me beforehand that he would begin with a brief study of modal auxiliaries in English language, I would probably have advised against it on the grounds that … er … it doesn't sound very … er … likely to enthral the busy clergy mind. It was absolutely riveting. Since then, I have waited for the book and for the time to read it properly – even though some bits made me feel a bit dim and slow.

I am not going to attempt to review it here. Suffice to say that this beautifully written book ranges through language, translation, art, poetry, the naming of cats, Bible, text, hermeneutics, history, philosophy, christology and pneumatology. And, yes, that was 'the naming of cats'. I rarely read a 'theology' from cover to cover, but I did this one. Basically, he wants the reader to see that the Holy Spirit breathes through the space that engages our imagination (in its proper meanings), re-lighting the past and shaping the future. En route he has important things to say or suggest about how the church is to handle new phenomena in the light of a proper reading of and handling of scripture – something pertinent to current ethical debates in and beyond the church.

I quote the opening of the first chapter on 'Historical finding':

The theology advanced in this book understands ongoing history as a gift of the Holy Spirit, to relate us to God in Christ, and it is energetically opposed to models of doctrine that assume for it any sort of ahistorical completeness; that assume it to be a set of securely held propositions from which all necessary implications for Christian belief and practice can then be deduced in any time and place. (p.1)

 

Following on from Thursday's visit to Karl Barth's house and my sight of Barth's original handwritten draft of the 1934 Barmen Declaration, I wonder if such a document would be possible in a culture of privatised spirituality such as that assumed by many today to be both desirable and normal.

This isn't a disconnected question. I have spent the last couple of days – on and off – reading the lectures that form the first part of Rowan Williams' Faith in the Public Square. In these pieces he addresses questions of secularism (essentially instrumental/functional, one-dimensional and totalising). Seriously interesting, challenging and written with great lucidity, he goes to the heart of the matter in attesting that the 'public space' of contemporary culture is not in any meaningful sense neutral or free – a a point I keep labouring with less patience and less erudite articulacy than Rowan:

[Telling and enacting a story that is different from that propagated by the modern state] of course involves exposing the fact that the modern state does in fact tell a story: that is, that it is not the embodiment of a timeless rationality. … The main task [of the Church] is to create 'spaces' for an alternative story – to challenge the self-evidence of the narrative of secular modernity. (p.43)

In speaking of the 'market state' – the successor to the 'nation state' – he comes up with the marvellously succinct description of the consumer's role of the last thirty years as “isolated choosing machines in a market-shaped wilderness”. (p.74)

This cannot do justice to the arguments Rowan develops. I do wonder if the leader writers of the Independent newspaper (as well as others) have read these texts and formed any response to the arguments therein. I further wonder if any serious response has been made to Rowan's analysis since the book was published in 2012.

The final lecture in this section addresses the tendency nowadays for people to prefer 'spirituality' to 'religion', but questions the individualism and privatisation under the state that such language assumes. I remember reading a paper in which the writer urged the disbanding of organised churches and the assembling of like-minded 'liberals' who could associate together in the development of a new form of spirituality. I asked how such an atomised peer group would take responsibility for (and on what basis) caring for the poor, the unlovely and those who do not share their premises, and what power such a group would have to challenge injustice on grounds other than convenience or mere opinion/preference. I didn't get an answer.

Journalists used to tell me that Rowan Williams was to obtuse and difficult to read. I used to respond that they were just too lazy to persist – some things are complex and resist simplification. Reading these lectures, I have not changed my mind.

(And the question of the valid/essential role of religion in the public square is not one that Barth would have wasted a moment on, given the choices that had to be made in the face of the rise of Hitler and the criminal nature of 'public truth' in the Germany of the 1930s and '40s.)

Dr Peter Zocher & Prof Dr Martin Wallraff at Karl Barth's house in Basel

 

Aha! I see a thread developing here.

I am on sabbatical (study leave) and in Basel for a couple of weeks. Staying with good friends, I can't spend all day every day reading my books – so, I have managed one film (documentary about Dietrich Bonhoeffer), two football matches, lots of walking, browsing in bookshops, reading in cafes, meeting people, chatting with friends, visiting a radio studio (Basilisk), sleeping, and so on. I can hardly believe it.

I have already posted on three of the books I have read in my first few days: Ferdinand Schlingensiepen on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tom Wright on Virtue Reborn and Miroslav Volf on A Public Faith. Yesterday and today – in the margins of fun stuff – I read Stanley Hauerwas's Learning to Speak Christian. Like the others, he ranges through Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and … er … Bonhoeffer, but also has a good go at Roman Catholic Social Teaching, Methodist theological ethics and other stuff en route.

Now, it is in an interesting collection of essays and sermons on broadly ethical themes. But, it is a little inconsistent in dynamic. Anyway, I don't want here to go deep into a critique or exploration of his views – I would have to be clever to do that; instead, I want to point to four things that struck me while reading the text today. And, I'm not joking, it isn't deep.

1. If I pay £25 for a paperback, I expect that a proofreader will have added punctuation, removed typos and questioned syntax. OK, I expect to have to translate from American into English (both in language, style and context), but, like reading Walter Brueggemann, I had to read half the sentences twice before I understood them. Apart from an odd use of words and phrasing, some sentences are just unnecessarily complicated. Where was the editor?

2. Constant references to Wittgenstein were helpful – especially where they explained Wittgenstein. But, every time I see or hear his name, I also see that photograph of him in the same primary school class as Adolf Hitler. Same education, different outcomes. Maybe education can't – in and of itself – save the world, after all.

3. Bonhoeffer, Wright, Volf and Hauerwas all have something to say about liturgy and the worship language/performance of the church. What struck me, however, was a question arising from a statement: the worship of the church asserts in the world a reality that the world does not see as being real – that the church will live now according to the way of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated; and every act of worship is, in one sense a defiant affirmation of humanity as it should be, of the world now as it one day shall be, of life itself as it should be. What would happen if every clergyperson/worship leader prepared for and led every liturgy with this sense of ultimate hope and defiance, deliberately conscious of doing something powerfully prophetic in the here and now of people's lives?

4. In one sense unrelated to the above, but in the fuss going on in England about bishops banging on about foodbanks and poverty (how dare they?), it has been pointed out that many or most people in the churches agree strongly with the need for welfare reform. Two questions: (a) who said they didn't – and who said that the complaining bishops don't agree with the need for reform (as opposed to noting the real effects of the particular reforms being made just now)? and (b) since when was it the job of bishops to 'reflect' the views of church members? Having just read about Bonhoeffer (again), where would this put Bishop George Bell? Or Bonhoeffer himself, for that matter, even though he wasn't a bishop? The German bishops largely colluded with the views and preferences of their 'members' during the 1920-40s. So, provide us with opinion polls, if you like, but they will not and should not mean that bishops simply go with the flow of popular opinion – even Christian popular opinion.

I conclude this insubstantial ramble with Hauerwas's comment on Catholic Social Teaching and Humanae Vitae in particular:

… the modern political state and economics reduce human activity to choices … that are best for 'me' but do not also lay bare the fact that these choices already subsume us into a worldview in which we must reject some of what makes us human. (p.249)

 

Having read Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I then read Tom Wright's Virtue Reborn yesterday and Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith today. Given that I might now move on to Stanley Hauerwas's Learning to Speak Christian next, I thought I would draw just a few threads briefly here. (This is not to inform the wider world, who probably know all this stuff anyway, but in order that I have a record not only of what I am reading, but also of the trains of thought that the reading set off in my not-very-sharp mind. I do, of course, realise that these writers might find my brief comments do not begin to do justice to their writings.)

Ethics can never be merely theoretical. Bonhoeffer wrestled with what it means to be human, good and Christian in the face of a massive personal dilemma: whether it was legitimate to kill Adolf Hitler. Tom Wright wants to get us away from a preoccupation with rules and back on to paying attention to the development of character – the purpose and end of virtue. Miroslav Volf explores the place of faith in the contemporary, pluralist world and echoes the emphasis of Wright that a developed Christian character would be unafraid of the modern world and be open to all that the world offers.

Try these brief quotes:

The practice and habit of virtue … is all about learning in advance the language of God's new world. (Wright, p.62)

Virtuous character matters more than moral knowledge… Faith idles when character shrivels. (Volf, p.13)

And, a propos of my last couple of posts about current work/welfare/politics/economics debates:

Is the purpose for which I work sufficient to sustain me over time not just as an 'economic animal', but as a human being? (Volf, p.32)

Despite addressing themselves to different specific ends – Schlingensiepen to explain Bonhoeffer's ethical thinking and development in the context of his particular experience, Wright to rescue ethics from mere rules and urge concentration by Christians on the development of Christian character, and Volf to set out how Christians should live faithfully in a pluralist world – all three writers agree that Christians have no alternative but (a) to love God and neighbour, (b) to develop Christian nature by attention over a lifetime to a world-loving discipleship, and (c) to take seriously the common good of all. All further agree that doing this is costly.

The other thing that might hold them together is, perhaps strangely, a notion of 'hope' that calls us from the future (Wolfhart Pannenberg is interesting on this, as is Jürgen Moltmann) and calls us into the future. Volf's observation is probably apt:

Western churches have a past they like to boast about, but a future they seem to dread. (p.77)

All three would seem to say that Christians, truly set free from fear and drawn by hope, have nothing to dread – whatever the future holds and however the world works, we find our true humanity in Christ, and this frees us to love regardless of whether that love is received and regardless of the cost.