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…

Wednesday 5 August 2009

A few years ago Christopher Booker wrote a fascinating book about the seven narratives that form every story known to humankind. I think it was called The Seven Basic Plots – but I can’t look it up here in a bedroom in Central Zimbabwe with no internet connection and my own copy back in Croydon. Booker’s thesis is basically that any story anywhere will correspond to or derive from one of these fundamental plots.

Well, I have sat down and watched South African TV soaps and they are the same as every other British, European and American soap opera. No one has an ordinary life in which ordinary things happen… like meals and chat and falling asleep. Instead, every conversation is pregnant with significance as life-changing decisions are made and statements uttered. Every encounter is a crisis and it’s all about dodgy kids (of any age), relationship break-up, relationship make-up, hope, denial, death, dying, love and romance. It is dire – whichever language it is in.

Then there was the advert promising exposure of celebrity couples and their relationships. Is there nowhere in the world where this obsession is seen for the nasty escapist voyeurism it actually is? How depressing.


So I arm-wrestled the bishop’s five-year old grandson, Simba, seen here this afternoon when he tried on my sunglasses. Just how cool is that?