Baker Academic

Saturday, June 17, 2017

2017 Christian Scholars' Conference

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the 2017 Christian Scholars' Conference (no, I had nothing to do with naming this event) took place earlier this month on the campus of Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. This was my first official CSC meeting, so I'm not the best person to evaluate this year's program. I participated in two sessions on the first day, and I attended a plenary address by Prof. James H. Cone, wonderful presentation by Prof. Margaret M. Mitchell, a panel discussion of Jesus in Christian and Muslim perspectives, and a series of papers on Augustine and John Chrysostom.


The first of my two sessions featured a 60-minute keynote presentation by Prof. Stuart Zola (Emory University), "How We Remember and How We Forget," which presented some fascinating information on the neuroscience of memory. Professor Zola's presentation brought out the link between perception and memory, which are perhaps distinguished only by time (perception = attending to stimuli in the present; memory = recalling stimuli that are no longer present) and are both subject to similar—if not exactly the same—dynamics of distortion, selectivity, omission, attention, and interpretation. As complex and impressive as the human brain is, it is not a recorder of information, either in the present or in the past. Seeing, then, may be believing, but it is no guarantee of truth, veracity, authenticity, or any other quality of correspondence with reality.

In personal conversation (and in print, I'm sure), sociologist Barry Schwartz has complained that memory studies are set up especially to expose and highlight memory's failure and that such studies are actually disinterested in the normal, proper functions of memory. Professor Zola's presentation put this predisposition (I don't quite say bias, but I nearly do) on display in interesting ways. For example, Prof. Zola showed a variant of the famous "how many passes" video (see below), in which not just memory but perception itself are shown to be remarkably fallible. But here's the question I would ask in response: How many people, given the prompt, "How many passes does the team in white make?" get the answer to that question right? The answer, I would wager, is very high, especially if we allow for a slight margin of error (say, ±1). So while it's true that "it's easy to miss something you're not looking for," it is also true that it's possible to accurately follow something to which you're attending, to which you're expending mental energy and effort to perceive and/or understand.



In the end, Prof. Zola's presentation concluded with a shocking claim: "The fundamental outcome of most communication is misunderstanding" (his italics). But this is a sensationalist and problematic conclusion. Or at least, I think it is, if I've rightly understood his point. ­čśĆ True, misunderstanding is a constant feature of interpersonal and intercultural communication. But it is not the fundamental outcome, at least not most of the time. If it were, we would stop trying to communicate. Perhaps we usually miss or misunderstand this or that nuance. Perhaps sometimes we even fundamentally misunderstand an intended communication. But this is not the case most of the time, and only an artificial and blinkered re-creation of real-life scenarios—one as misleading as telling subjects to count passes when we really want to see if they'll notice a moonwalking bear—could truly lead us to think so.

All of this illustrates why memory studies are so vital for Gospels and historical Jesus scholarship. If we learn anything from Prof. Zola—and we surely do; his work is fascinating and well worth accessing—it's that neither eyewitness perception nor eyewitness memory are the guarantors of historical or factual truth that we often think they are, especially in judicial contexts. The connections between memory's contents and history's realities are forged on a different plane. Claims, therefore, such as Richard Bauckham's, which have just been republished in a second edition, that the Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony and are, for that reason, reliable, rest on shaky—even crumbling!—theoretical and empirical foundations. But I will return to this claim in the next post, in which I discuss my second session, "Remembering Jesus: Memory, Texts, and Baptism."

4 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for this. Investigating the nuances of how reliable and unreliable memories can be *specifically conditioned* seems a most promising way beyond the caricature of these debates as 'reliable vs unreliable'. Likewise, to say communication usually leads to "misunderstanding" requires an absolute standard for perfect understanding - which is unrealistic, as you helpfully point out.

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  2. Bill: If you haven't read Alan Kirk's work on cognitive and cultural dynamics of memory, you should. Just yesterday I read his essay in Social Memory and Social Identity in the Study of Early Judaism and Early Christianity (Novum Testamentum Et Orbis Antiquus/Studien Zur Umwelt Des Neuen Testaments) https://www.amazon.com/dp/3525593759/ but he also has a related essay in Memory and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity: A Conversation with Barry Schwartz (Semeia Studies) https://www.amazon.com/dp/1589839528/

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    1. . . . and then also his book, Q in Matthew: Ancient Media, Memory, and Early Scribal Transmission of the Jesus Tradition (The Library of New Testament Studies) https://www.amazon.com/dp/0567667723/

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