Friday, November 02, 2012

Jesus and Memory

There's quite a bit being done right now, it seems, incorporating the findings of memory research in relation to Jesus.  I know Dale Allison dips into this.  James Dunn does.

A fascinating piece of this discussion is how the memory tends to mix the past and the present together when we recall events from the past that are similar to events in the present.  Without realizing it, we color the past with the present.

Let me give what I think is an example from contemporary politics.  After years and years in the Senate, Dick Lugar was beaten in the Republican primary this year by Richard Mourdock. What's amazing to me is to hear Republicans saying that Lugar went liberal.  If anything, Lugar was moving conservative to try to stay competitive in his party.  If someone with Reagan's exact positions were to run for office right now, he would be voted out like Lugar, I believe.

What's happened, in my opinion, is that Republican memory of Reagan has retained a basic sense of his positions (deregulation, trickle down, strong military) but mixed those memories with what those positions mean today in a Tea Party climate, which has pushed some of those concepts in a more starkly libertarian direction.  So the memory of Reagan is mixed with current categories.

This has fascinating implications when it comes to Jesus. On the one hand, there are those for whom exact memory of Jesus is part of the deal, those who link truthfulness to precise historicity.  Without getting into it, I think this misses out on a real richness to the text, that this approach actually flattens out a three-dimensional text and impoverishes it.

I generally see the theological dimension of the gospel presentations as intentional.  But memory research does raise the question of whether, on the level of oral traditions behind the gospels, there are mixtures of Jesus as he was precisely in history with the issues of the early church as it passed along Jesus tradition.  Did the oral traditions of Matthew, for example, mix some of its contemporary struggle with Pharisees with Jesus tradition where Jesus conflicted with more generic religious leaders?  Did Jesus' call to his disciples to be willing to suffer for him get mixed later with the cross, so that the oral tradition remembers him saying to take up their cross?

Perhaps this is part of how the Spirit applies Scripture to our lives all the time, mixing our current circumstances, without us even realizing it, with the words of the biblical texts.  It's at least something interesting to think about...


Bob MacDonald said...

Who are we and what is time? These questions are large and unwieldy. Every liturgical act of Eucharist is like the memory of the Exodus - making present a reality that works in us in ways we cannot stand over as if we could say - this is such and this is not so. This active presence of the past colours our hope as if we are also in the presence of the future.

The curious thing since Einstein and special relativity is that we know time is not absolute but is itself created when light is first spoken.

Bill Heroman said...

I'm starting to think the memory angle is likely to bring a consensus that Jesus was pretty much who the Gospels remember him as, at least, essentially. And, as I said long ago, I do think Allison's approach is indeed part of what historians should do with the Gospels.

The Reagan example is potent, and though I'm not sure it quite parallels, I can't really say why. Overall, I remain willing to trust the early church for the content of the Gospels. If he didn't say "take up your cross" I don't care. He may as well have... and there's why the Reagan analogy breaks down for me. I *know* the tea partiers are co-opting history for current agenda. And though some find me naive, I don't see any reason to believe the Gospels were serving a different agenda other than Christ's own.

Mis-remembering details? Sure. No problem. But misappropriating their central figure, in order to present Him the way that they did? Nope. There's no selfish or political gain in presenting Jesus as the Gospels present him.

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Thank for this Ken,

Funny, I just posted on this topic today. Great minds...


Ken Schenck said...

:-) Here's the link to Anthony Le Donne's post for anyone interested: All This Business about Memory

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