Baker Academic

Thursday, March 21, 2013

My Reply to Larry Behrendt's Review of my Book - Le Donne

Here is a guest post I wrote for Jewish Christian Intersections a few weeks back:

Larry, thank you for your thoughtful review of my book. I haven’t yet had a chance to read all of the comments, but I plan to soon. This post will simply respond to your review.

A few things come to mind. The first is that I think that Jesus is indeed a good topic for Jewish-Christian dialogue. But it is only one among many. It might also be worth pointing out that that the “historical Jesus” can be a precarious entry point.

This topic has the appearance of being a particularly Christian avenue. As such, the topic of Jesus comes with the danger of alienating Jews from the start. Like a Jewish friend told me over breakfast a few weeks ago; he said, “I’ve been seeking spiritual truth alongside Christians for years now, but there will always be something about the name ‘Jesus’ that will stick in my throat.”

On the other hand, Christians risk much in this discussion, especially when we’re talking about the “historical Jesus”. Historical Jesus scholars have tended to steer toward Arian (not Aryan – although that’s an interesting discussion too) conclusions. It can be a tall order to convince your average Christian (most have Docetist tendencies) that studying the fully human Jesus is a worthwhile task.

My second thought is that I probably need to clarify my argument that memory refraction is (most often) a continuous and incremental trajectory. In making this argument I’ve used the word “reliable”. I’ve gotten so much grief over this that I almost wish that I’d used a different word. But here’s the thing: it’s the right word. Identity (both individual and collective) relies on memory. So when I say that memory refraction is “reliable” I do not mean that we have a reliable window to the past. I mean that memory reliably acts like memory. In other words, memory distorts [refracts] predictably in many cases. It refracts in a way that reinforces identity.

Thirdly and finally, I really like this turn of phrase: “for Le Donne, memory is not a tool – it is the thing he studies as a historian. For Le Donne to be troubled by memory would be like a geologist being troubled by rocks.” I think that this is really well said. As long as historians think that they’re looking for something that existed prior to memory, they’ll lament the evolution of memory. I constantly hear folks retort, “yes, but what actually happened?” Memory is what happened. Mnemonic activity isn’t just integral to the posterity of the event; it is integral to the event itself. It is wrongheaded to think that memory can be divorced from reality.

Thank you for this chance to respond.


1 comment:

  1. For those interested, there are some terrific comments to Anthony's guest post over at my site.

    Anthony, having thought further about this, my present questions focus on the impact of memory-history on religious belief and practice. As a historian, you raise a particular set of issues when you say that "memory is what happened". But as a practicing Jew (and thinking about this from your perspective, as a believing Christian), the question of "what actually happened" has a different set of implications.

    I might say that from a historical standpoint, "what actually happened" with the Exodus is what Jews and Christians remember having happened, and also what Romans and Egyptians remember having happened. But this Monday is the first night of Passover, where Jews are supposed to remember BEING slaves in Egypt, and this may not be the same thing as remembering that we remember being slaves in Egypt.

    From a religious standpoint, do we come to understand religious faith/belief in terms of memory, and religious difference in terms of differences in memory/memory refraction? Does religion work if memory is our answer to "what actually happened?"