Having the gift of space to read and think, it must not be wasted. While in Sudan last week I read Lindsey Hilsum’s biography of murdered journalist Marie Colvin, In Extremis, and Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Red-haired Woman. Now in Jena, Germany, I am reading Francis Spufford’s True Stories and Other Essays. This morning I took a look around the bookshop and read Mark Twain’s The Awful German Languagewhich had me laughing from the first to the last page.

Jena is where Hegel taught and where Schiller met Goethe. On the hills above the town Napoleon had his own encounter with German determination. On 14 October 1806 at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt Napoleon defeated the Prussian armies, subjugating the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire for the next six years. There were 50,000 casualties, the soil rich with the blood of now-forgotten humanity.

I mention this because I am reading Spufford’s excellent essays in a particular place and at a particular time – a place with its own history and memory and a time in which the shape of Europe is once again the object of struggle, albeit not military. I read and enjoyed Golden Hill (just after finishing Robert Harris’s Conclave – both having a similar twist in the tale), but have not yet read his other novels. In his essays he addresses one of these, Red Plenty, and describes the attempt to recreate for a distant generation a sense of the possibility that the USSR held out during the 1960s and ’70s.

This isn’t some naïve approval of Soviet statism or nostalgic reference to planned economies, but, rather, an exercise in trying to enable a new generation to inhabit a world that is now long gone. Most people now simply recall the collapse of the Soviet experiment – with few tears shed – and cannot imagine what it was to live through it without the benefit of hindsight. These essays need to be read in order to do justice to his case (and I now need to read the novel itself).

This has caught my own attention because it recalled for me an experience I had some years ago when I had been asked by a media production company to write an obituary for Pope John Paul II that could be broadcast in the event of his death. With a limited word-count I wanted to capture his part in the destruction of Soviet Communism, but in an evocative word or two. I chose to speak of ‘Politbüro’, but was told by the producer that this sounded ‘political’. I clarified that it is political, and that that is the point. Subsequent discussion led to a sort of enlightenment moment for me: the producer was in her mid-twenties, was born around the time of the fall of the (Berlin) Wall, and had no lived experience of the Cold War or a divided Europe. She had grown in the unipolar world of capitalist free-market monopoly. I, on the other hand, had grown up with the threat of nuclear cataclysm, had known people whose family was separated by the borders of East and West Europe, and had then worked at GCHQ as a professional linguist at the fag end of the Cold War (the first half of the 1980s).

Lucy (for that was her name) couldn’t intuit what I felt in my bones. She couldn’t imagine the world I had thought solid and permanent. I couldn’t explain or describe to her what it felt likeat the time to live in this world, not knowing what was to happen in 1989. A new generation of producers and gatekeepers was growing up who had no experience of what for me had been formative, integral and essential. (I kept the word in my script.)

This is what Spufford addresses in his novel and explains in his essays. We are all time-bound. I can try to explain or describe the thought world I inhabit, but, shaped as it is by my actual history and my personal limited visions and experiences, I have now to allow others to inhabit their world and bring to their conversation (and judgements) the assumed permanences of their perspective, knowing that they are provisional, limited and partial.

It reinforces the need to listen carefully in any dialogue, to interpret wisely, and to learn again to look – with humility – through the eyes of the other at why the world is the way it is and what can and cannot be taken for granted as common.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest Caliban retorts to Prospero:

You taught me language, and my profit on ‘t
Is I know how to curse. (Act 1, Scene 2: 437-438)

What is it about us that seems hell-bent on turning anything good into something bad? Words are wonderful, but they can be used to kill. Science progresses with techniques for curing and healing, but the same technology gets diverted into ways of killing ever more efficiently. Why? What is wrong with us?

Well, none of this is new if you are remotely familiar with any Christian theology… or basic human experience. But, in relation to current news stories, I make two rather simply observations: first re the Jimmy Savile horror story, and second re racism in football.

Various churches have had to pay heavily for allowing the systemic abuse of children and vulnerable people over decades. Quite right, too. Yet there has been a hint of a suspicion in some quarters that those doing the gloating about the nasty churches might one day need to defend themselves and their own institutions on similar terms. No schadenfreude here – just a fear that the problems experienced in the churches have less to do with the churches’ theology and more to do with common human propensities.

The BBC is now under scrutiny and certain newspapers scream at the BBC in judgement – seemingly oblivious to the moral questions hanging over their own treatment of vulnerable people. The BBC faces serious scrutiny and it clearly needs it. For Savile to have been able to exploit its culture for so many decades raises serious questions that must be (and will be) addressed.

But, those pointing the fingers now might need to be a little cautious in their judgements. They might be next. For the basic truth about all this stuff is that human beings have a tendency to turn goodness into badness, to exploit weakness and power, to put self-preservation before truth, and to pervert what began beautiful.

This applies to the banks, businesses that pay no taxes, media organs that treat people like commodities for the entertainment of others, clergy who abuse trust and abase the ‘good news’ they are supposed to represent. As we keep having to remind those who uncritically (and sometimes mindlessly) accuse religion for all the world’s ills, the worst abuses of human life in the twentieth century came from anti-religionists such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot. These are human problems, not just problems to be nailed to people we don’t like.

In other words, this stuff goes right back to being human and not just part way to what humans say motivates them.

This is another reason why people like me get fed up with accusations that Christians are escapists, whilst humanists are people who ‘take responsibility’ for themselves. Christianity is rooted firmly in this world, in facing reality and taking direct responsibility for the whole shebang. The cross of calvary involves God and us looking the sad reality of the human condition in the eye and naming it for what it is. No romantic escapism; no fantasising that if we just tried harder everything would be OK; no wishful thinking about ‘myths of progress’ that seem somehow to end up lying in pools of other people’s blood dripping from the altar of someone else’s tribal ego.

Francis Spufford calls this “the human propensity to fuck things up” (HPtFtU). The Bible calls it ‘sin’. Take your pick, but the former spells out what the latter means after we have drained it of all the negative associations piled onto it as the shorthand that means all Christians are miserable self-haters. No, we are lovers whose experience cries out for some explanation, if not excuse. Read Spufford’s wonderful Unapologetic to see how he deals with this universal feature of human being. (And read Stephen Cherry for a reflection on the book.)

This is where the racism stuff comes in. I am writing this while Liverpool are giving away a two-goal lead against Everton – football being the game that houses racism (leaving match fixing to cricket, doping to cycling and competitive-dadness to Monopoly). Yes, we must do all we can to expose racism wherever it comes to light. Yes, we must legislate against behaviours and language that represent a curse within our society, blighting lives and scarring all of us with sheer nastiness. But, no, we shouldn’t be surprised that these things go on and will not be eradicated by all our best efforts.

As I once said to a neighbour in a General Synod debate on something or other: it is easy to win a vote – but winning the vote does not mean we have won the hearts and minds.

Unless HPtFtU is taken seriously – and the alternative is escapism, romanticism, fantasy, wishful thinking, etc – we will continue to bow at the altar of the sort of relativism that we see in our press: assuming that the best guide to moral goodness is merely that we know we are better than [insert chosen ‘monsters’]. (Which, of course, means that we might be well down the moral pecking order, but at least we are not as low as…)

Ferdinand (not Rio or Anton) bleats to Prospero in The Tempest:

I warrant you sir;
The white cold virgin snow upon my heart
Abates the ardour of my liver.

Says it all, really.

(And, Christianity doesn’t stop at realism or diagnosing the problem of the human condition; it offers a response that takes the human condition seriously. Start with Easter…)

Aong other things (like 'work'), this last week…

I read Francis Spufford's wonderful, funny, totally engaging and sweary Unapologetic – the best book on Christian faith I have read for ages.

I read Joachim Gauck's little book on Freiheit: Ein Plädoyer (Freedom: A Plea). The recently-appointed President of Germany was a Lutheran pastor in East Germany (Angela Merkel was the daughter of another). I heard him speak a couple of years ago in Hannover and he was brilliant. Intelligent, reflective and passionate, I can't think of a UK equivalent.

I listened (in the car) to Johann Sebastian Bach's gorgeous Weihnachtsoratorium – a 2-CD recording by the Thomanerchor from Leipzig which I bought at inflated price while visiting the Bachhaus in Eisenach a couple of weeks ago. Beautiful, inspiring and intricate, it takes you out of the present and into the eternal – Christmas being the irruption into history of the God who pours himself out for a world he loves infinitely.

I listened (in the car) to Mumford & Sons' new album Babel – great contemporary folk music, but very similar to their excellent debut album Sigh No More. Whack up the volume when alone and stuck on the motorway.

I listened (not in the car) to Bob Dylan's superb Tempest – as great as Modern Times and needing many re-listens. Let's hope it isn't – as rumoured – his last one.

I wondered about the sheer moralistic envy of us Brits who insist that anyone in a position of responsibility be cut down to size. I have no time for Chancellor George Osborne or his 'something for nothing' millionaire Cabinet colleagues, but it is quite absurd to prevent MPs and ministers from travelling first class on the trains. I travel on trains a lot – always cattle class… apart from getting on the wrong part of a German train from Eisenach to Frankfurt and being told to enjoy first class by the conductor – and use the time to read papers, catch up on briefings, draft writings, etc.. I also know how hard it can be to concentrate and get stuff done if penned in. If I want ministers and MPs to do the best for their constituents, why would I not want them to travel well and perform well when doing what they were travelling to or for? I suspect the sneering is simply envy or our obsession with pulling people down.

Liverpool won. At home. At last. Nuff said.

I preached (this morning at a service of baptism and confirmation in a parish church) on James, John and Bartimaeus from Mark 10: the 'seeing' are blind (obsession with power, status and personal kudos) while the blind sees. And those wonderful words spoken by the friends of Jesus (who clearly saw their job as to keep people like Bartimaeus away from Jesus): “Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.” Or: “Receive grace. Take responsibility. Don't duck the implications.”

I drove up to Ingleton to preach at an ecumenical service. Ingleton. Up in the Yorkshire Dales between the southern part of the Lake District to the north and the complex urban areas of Bradford and Keighley to the south. The sun shone, the sky was blue, the leaves gorgeously yellow-green-red-brown, the rivers sparklingly beautiful, the hills a reminder that they remain as we come and go.

Bring on this week…