Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Third Tendency of Communal Memory

In this ongoing discussion of communal memory, I would like to now press its third dimension. In addition to the tendency of communal memory to rewrite the past for the present in a fragmented manner, the process of recreating the past is ongoing for the group since it is constantly under pressure to adjust and respond to societal, political, cultural, and religious pressures that the group experiences.

The experiences of the community cause its memories of the past to confront each other, to fuse together, to become mixed, and even to be erased. When this happens, the group can experience a memory crisis, which can even threaten their present and its connection to their past. The tendency of communal memory in these cases will be to transform or shift its traditions to accommodate, alleviate, or explain the present crisis. So the response is what I call "mitigative" because it relieves the pressure of the crisis, while maintaining its connection with the past. This shifting can occur because communal memory operates in the past, present, and future simultaneously. It is dynamic. As internal and external factors change, the communal memory which houses the group's traditions is subjected to renovation in both gradual and sudden ways.

In my studies of the ancient Christian literature, I have found this particularly helpful to explain how and why we see the developments that we do. There appear to me to be a number of "constants" that served to shift the communal memories of Christians across the Mediterranean world.
  • the death of the eyewitnesses
  • the destruction of the Temple
  • the delay of the End of the world
  • the growth of the Gentile mission (and decline of Jewish converts)
  • the development of a distinct hermeneutic - a rereading of Jewish scriptures that was rejected by the majority of Jews
  • sporadic persecution
  • problem of the participation of women
All of these items resulted in communal experiences that threatened their past memories. All of these items resulted in the reformulation of the past in order to alleviate the pressure of the threat. The death of the eyewitnesses called for the actual writing down of the memories themselves. The destruction of the Temple meant the end of the cult center and wrecked havoc on what remained of the Jerusalem Church. Authority for the Christian tradition was loosened and moved north to Antioch, at least for a while. The delay of the Eschaton meant that Jesus' apocalyptic message had to be reinterpreted either in more vibrant terms (as in Matthew) or as a mystical collapse (as in John and Thomas). The growth of the Gentile mission meant accommodations for them in terms of the Torah and its requirements. The rejection of the Christian hermeneutic by the Jews meant a shift in worship location (no more synagogue) and new way of reading the scripture especially in terms of types and allegories. Sporadic persecution led (among other things) to series of ideologies about righteousness, the body, and martyrdom. The early participation of women in the movement was a liability that eventually was shut down.

All of this was done in terms of recasting the past so that it conformed to the present. Women were written out of the narratives and leadership, Jesus became non-kosher, the resurrection from the dead already happened and the Kingdom came as the Church, the prophets spoke about Jesus' advent, Jesus' death was the final Temple sacrifice (or Jesus abolished sacrifices), and so forth.

What is really fascinating to me about communal memory and its reshaping though, is that all of this is done without awareness of those who belong to the group, and it is always done in terms of remodeling what is already in place. I have yet to see an instance in early Christianity (or elsewhere) where a completely unique or new tradition erupts. There may be an eruption of something that looks new or unique, but when you really examine it, you find that it has shifted an old tradition to accommodate the new experience.

I just had a nice conversation with Brian Krumnow, pastor of Shepherd Drive Fellowship here in Houston, that confirmed this again for me. Pastor Krumnow has been working with a professor at the University of Houston, recording the stories of survivors of Katrina. One of the things that he has noticed is the emergence of stories that the government blew up the dams to flood the ninth ward. He has done his own research on this and has found that there is an older story about a government plan to blow up the levies in case of flooding - that the levies to the west would be exploded to divert the flood waters into the swamps and save the city. Now I haven't yet confirmed this, but I find it quite interesting that if such a plan did exist (or even if people thought it did exist) that after the flood we would see such a shift in the communal memory of the victims whose memories reworked the old story to accommodate their horrific experiences in the ninth ward.

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