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.

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I have just done this morning’s Pause for Thought on the BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Show. I probably should have done something on ‘leap year’, but I did it on ‘stories’ instead.

Having been reading the Bible for a very long time now, I often wondered why Jesus chose to talk in images and with stories, rather than making points and telling people to agree with them. I used to think it was just a local cultural preference of his time, but I there’s actually something deeper going on – something that nagged away at me during the last week as we heard about Nelson Mandela and Marie Colvin.

Mandela went into hospital and the world waited to see what would happen. Clearly, there’s nothing unusual about an old man whose health is failing. But this isn’t just any old man. This one has become a global icon of selfless reconciliation – a man who suffered for three decades, but emerged as one of the strongest men in the world, enabling South Africa and other countries to look for radically new ways of behaving. Behind the name of the man is a story that moves us deeply in our hearts and our imaginations.

Then the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin was killed in Syria whilst trying to tell a story – not of dry political arguments or power struggles, but illustrating these with stories of real women and children, real people being brutalised, defenceless people in an ordinary place being subjected to the merciless power of heavy weaponry… and those who control it.

As I have observed elsewhere, she is a fantastic example of good journalism. Marie Colvin put herself in danger in order that the wider world might see and hear how the decisions of others – the powermongers of this world – impact the lives of people like us. And it is that power of storytelling that gets into our heads and scratches away at our imagination.

Which is why, I think, Jesus taught with stories and parables and pictures. Words and statements just go in and get accepted or rejected. Stories scratch away and tease us until we grapple with what they are all about.

He once told a story about a man wanting to build a tower and asked if he would begin without first counting the cost. Mandela and Colvin certainly counted the cost of their commitment. And their stories just won’t let us go.

So, nothing too deep there. Something that will no doubt be appreciated by the Sunday Times which, pleasingly but surprisingly, highlighted my Lent address on BBC Radio 4 tonight as their ‘Pick of the Day’ for today. The caption praised me with faint damnation – something about the Lent talk showing more theological depth than is evident in my ‘inveterate blogging’. Interesting, then, that nothing in the Lent address has not appeared at some point in blog posts here. Maybe I should start using longer words…

I am not a fan of the Sun. I have never bought it and I never will. It partly goes back to Hillsborough and the utterly shameful – and never regretted – treatment of Liverpool fansafter 96 of them died. But, it goes deeper.

I was in Oxford last night and missed the Carling Cup Final – probably just as well, given the nerve-shredding result. However, I also missed the arguments in the Twittersphere about the Archbishop of York’s apparent endorsement of both the Sun and it’s new Sunday edition (which was launched yesterday).

In his article the Archbishop writes: “I know there will be those who will criticise me for writing in a newspaper which will be seen by many as filling the gap left by the News of the World. However I am always one for responding to change positively and embracing new beginnings – seeing the best in all people, especially in adversity.

Lent is not a time for pointing the finger at others. As Alexander Pope said: ‘To err is human, to forgive is divine.’ We should always remember that when we point the finger at other people, there are three other fingers pointing back at us! We should rejoice in new life, turning our back on what has gone before.”

Perfectly reasonable and I don’t question the Archbishop’s motive for writing his article and engaging with the paper in this way. His objection to the treatment of young people in the current market is strong and vital and I applaud it. I could not endorse the paper myself, not because I don’t applaud the attempt to bring jobs for journalists or new life out of the destructive awfulness of the phone-hacking (and related) scandals.

My problem is that people who ask for forgiveness as a way to avoid taking responsibility for their crimes need, for the sake of their own soul, to be ‘worked with’. Simply moving on is not a healthy option when (a) it helps the guilty avoid facing the reality and consequences of their crime, (b) it ignores the ongoing suffering or grievance of the victims of their crime, and (c) it has the potential to be a carefully worked con on the public.

It is important not to forget that News International not only allowed criminal behaviour to continue – with an arrogance that is still barely comprehensible – but also tried every way possible to intimidate and prevent investigation of its malpractices. Not only were the police corrupted and compromised, but also those attempting to get justice and transparency (Tom Watson MP, Nick Davies of the Guardian, etc) were repeatedly and deliberately maligned, subverted, misrepresented and fobbed off.

In other words, the same owners and business leaders who ran a company that sanctioned criminal and deeply unethical behaviour have not changed. Those who sanctioned every means of obstructing truth and justice only played the humility card when they knew they had been found out and had no other option. It is hard to see that there has been any sort of ‘repentance’ other than a fundamentally pragmatic bit of business management.

As always, I might be wrong and be missing something fundamental here. But, all my instincts lead me to take a different view from that of the Archbishop of York on this one.

Paradoxically the same outfit employs journalists at the top of their game. The contrast between the criminality at News International and the massive respect for Marie Colvin, killed last week in Syria, is stark and poignant.

However, the Sun did once get me to write a couple of hundred words about (if I remember rightly) some awful ‘search for a husband’ programme on the telly. They published a picture of my smiling face right next to the naked pneumatic breast of the said model, Jodie Marsh. It made me laugh and found itself pinned on the notice boards of various ‘friends’…