Baker Academic

Friday, October 19, 2012

Memory and Identity—Le Donne

About eight years ago, back when my The Historiographical Jesus was just a few chapters long, I was asked to present a paper at the Fifth Durham-Tübingen Research Symposium (2004). About the same time that James Dunn was receiving rave reviews for his Jesus Remembered, I had stumbled upon a book called Social Memory by James Fentress and Chris Wickham. Professor Dunn and I had discussed his misgivings with the approach of Fentress and Wickham at length and on more than one occasion. But it became clear during the symposium that he and I were going to agree to disagree on the value of this “new theory”—the truth is that folks like Jan and Aleida Assmann were in the process of reviving the work of Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945) for about almost two decades. However, for Jesus studies, the Durham-Tübingen symposium was one of the very first English-speaking discussions of Halbwachs’ conception of “Social Memory” (on the other side of the pond, Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher were making similar waves).

Dunn’s opinion at that time was that the Social Memory folks were overly enamored with the creative aspects of memory. For Halbwachs and many of his modern adherents, memory is constructed and reconstructed in the ever-present now. That is to say that the present context (cognitive, social, cultural, etc.) rules the roost of memory. Professor Dunn was concerned that Social Memory folks had overemphasized memory’s creativity and underemphasized the necessarily “retentive” aspect of memory.

In my paper for the symposium, I suggested that Social Memory might provide Jesus studies with a few helpful categories. In my view, Halbwachs needs to be critiqued heavily before any of his insights can be applied to the historical Jesus. One of the keys to my program, and this can be seen in my most recent book, is that memory most often exhibits an aspect of “continuity”. So while memories shift with every new social context, these shifts (most often) are slight and unrecognized. This allows for the perception of continuity between past and present. It is this continuity, I suggest, that maintains our identity—by “our” I mean both individuals who are part of groups and of collective identities too.

In short, memory shapes identity. For Jesus studies, we might say that the memories of Jesus “commemorated” in the Gospels (and elsewhere) tell us both about the identity of the early church and also about the initial perceptions of Jesus. I think that there must be a continuous chain reaction of memories between these two identities. On this point, I think Dunn and I might have more in common than those symposium papers will show. Moreover, I think that both of us come to conclusions that lean toward Social Memory theorist, and Abraham Lincoln scholar, Barry Schwartz. However, I have a particular affinity for the work of French theorist, Pierre Nora, who is sort of the “Bizarro-Dunn” at every turn when it comes to memory theory. Nora, with his total disinterest in the continuity of memory, is just the kind of Social Memory theorist that Dunn criticizes. All this is to say that wherever else Professor Dunn and I disagree, his thesis about Jesus’ “impact” upon the memories about him is quite compelling.

It was at this symposium that one of my fondest personal memories was set in motion. I had the great pleasure of sitting down with the late, great Martin Hengel. Professor Hengel had a great deal to say about the necessary relationship between personal memory and collective identity. He conveyed the importance of the memories of community elders, both for the elder and for the passing on of identity. When aging members of a community (with whom Hengel self-identified) begin to lose their autobiographical memories, the community must reinforce the social memories of that member for two reasons:

1) The elder’s status among the community is at stake. In order to avoid mutual shame and dismay, group memories will be employed out of devotion.

2) Institutional memory is at stake. In the face of the loss of important autobiographical memories, the community will reinforce their own collective identity with collective memory.

Again, and here I attempt to tie Professors Hengel’s observations to my previous point, autobiographical memories and collective identity are most often continuous. This is especially true for personalities (like Jesus) who gather followings to themselves. In the face of losing the personality that most formed the collective identity, groups will commonly reinforce their own identity (that which gave their membership meaning) with memories that run continuous to their elder.

Of course, this will look differently depending on whether the elder’s death has been anticipated. In the case of Martin Luther King (representing a figure who died suddenly), we witness collective memories that coalesce around those who knew him best. In the case of Bob Dylan (representing a figure who was still alive on his 70th birthday), we are privileged to coalesce our memories around his guiding autobiographical memories. In either case, for those of us who find our identities around the orbit of these cultural giants, our memories are only supportive of our identity insofar as they cohere with the autobiographical memories of the central personality and those who presently guide these memories.

With venerable figures like Dunn, Dylan, King, and Hengel, we do our best to employ our memories in appropriate ways. Because we honor them, we enshrine our memories, create monuments of memory, create pedestals, publish Festschrifts and the like. We should expect no less with the disciples of Jesus. At the same time, part of honoring our elders is to do right by the impacts of the personalities that set these spirals of memory into motion. This is so because collective identities are continually reshaped to coalesce around authoritative guides of autobiographical memory.

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