Baker Academic

Thursday, June 9, 2016

What is Narrativization and What Can it Do for You?

Greetings from the The 2016 "Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity" Conference at St Mary's University. 

Last night Rafael Rodriguez, Bill Heroman, Alan and Sue Kirk and I were enjoying a nice meal at the King's Head in Teddington. I had the gammon steak, a fried duck egg, and chips. I washed it down with a lovely (hoppy, but not too hoppy) local brew called Twickenham Summer Sun. Bill asked about the pie of the week, learned that it was beef and ale, was told that it was delicious, and then ordered a hamburger. It was almost as if he just wanted a burger. If so, why would he ask about the pie of the week at all?

Over supper we chatted about a number of topics. About where babies come from. About how some people believe that the Queen is a reptilian shapeshifter. About, of course, memory distortion. The conversation lasted for over an hour, maybe two.

In our discussion about memory distortion (what I call memory refraction), we all agreed that memory becomes more vague, less detailed, and more supplemented with generic mnemonic patterns over time. We agreed that if the five of us got together for another supper at the King's Head five years from now we'd be hard pressed to reconstruct the conversation with much detail. We might come up with a general outline while forgetting entire portions of the conversation. But we agreed that parts of the conversation would be easier to remember than others.

The conversation included an autobiographical story told by Alan Kirk. Rafael had heard this story before and prompted the story to be told for the benefit of the group. Alan recounted the story. And now we come to the virtues and vices of narrativization. Because Alan had told that story before, because it had a purpose in our conversation, because it had a memory structure (plot line), and for an number of other reasons, that story is a relatively stable memory. In other words, a portion of our conversation was narrativized.

So if the five of us got together at the King's Head pub in five years Alan's story would probably be retold with a high degree of similarity. While other parts of the conversation will become vague (we call this mnemonic distanciation), the narrativized portion of the conversation might not fatigue in the same way. Alan might retell the story slightly different, or with expanded detail, or with a couple lies tossed in for flavor, but the narrative functions as a vehicle for memory (what we call a mnemotechnique). Hooray for narrativization! If used with care, it can reduce the fatigue of distanciation.

But what is narrativization if not itself a form of memory distortion (or memory refraction)? Alan's story has been reduced, details have been emphasized to serve the telos of the story, details have been left out that seem irrelevant to the agenda of the storyteller. A beginning, middle, and end has been imposed upon Alan's past, by Alan, for Alan and friends. Narrativization can indeed be used to deceive or promote an ideological aim. But in this case, we all played along with Alan as if the story was true. Because the story was true.

We all agreed that Alan's story was incapable of representing the past with 100% accuracy. But the story, while not preserving the past, was a useful link to our perceived past nonetheless. Because it was a true story. A flawed, manipulated, distorted, true story. And we all perceived it as such with no great difficulty.

So let's imagine that Rafael, Bill, Sue, Alan, and I got together for Twickenham Summer Sun in five years. If our purpose was to help each other remember last night's conversation the part that was narrativized would be both the most distorted and the most true part of our reconstruction.


  1. Thanks for narrativizing that wonderful outing. I love this post and I'm overjoyed my irrational teetotalism could help inspire such brilliance!

  2. Dr. Le Donne, did you guys discuss *why* you thought "that Alan's story was incapable of representing the past with 100% accuracy"? Is this an unchecked presupposition, or did/do you have some sort of rationale for why this is?

  3. But the disciples were in awe of Jesus and listened to every word. I'm quite sure you were not in awe of Alan, nor were his words life-changing.
    As well, they were in a culture of memorization.
    Flowed analogy, professors.

  4. Anthony, confusion here. Haven't you been saying this all along? That memory is the process of reframing experience into a narrative form that we're capable of recalling?

    My wife and I love to tell stories together that we experienced together, and disagree with each other about the telling. But to confess, even these disagreements are now part of the narrative.

  5. One further thought: memory should stabilize (not refract so much going forward) once it has been reframed into a successful narrative.

  6. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    If I may join in the fun of this post. (1) First, what media or 'small form' did Dr. Kirk use in telling his autobiographical tale? This is important: I quote from Ruben Zimmerman's Puzzling the Parables (2015), 79-80. Thanks to Dr. Keith for recommending this book.).

    "Can we assume that the remembering of Jesus made use of certain media, or let us say recurring forms of memory, long before the primitive genre of the Gospel was 'discovered' and employed? Thus, the task is to investigate the medial community and formal transformation of a remembering process that was able to lead to the literary end and product of the gospel...I will propose that parables are such small forms, that in addition to other forms, influenced the collective memory of early Christianity, and thus became definitive and identity-giving media of memory."

    Would Dr. Kirk have been wise to use a parable?

    (2) You may want to consider meeting far more frequently and with far less "hoppiness" in the recalling and retelling of the tale. I came up with the following model for your consideration.

    30CE – The 15yo prodigal hears Jesus. He joins a resurrection group. He hears and discusses the Jesus stories weekly, writing some down.
    35CE – He marries, re-locates, joins a new rez-group, and his wife gives birth.

    50CE – The 15yo son has heard the Jesus stories weekly his whole life. He shares and discusses the Jesus stories, writing some down.
    55CE – The son marries, relocates, joins a new rez-group, writes the Q-Gospel, and his wife gives birth.

    70CE – The 15yo grand-daughter has heard the Jesus stories weekly her whole life. She shares, discusses, and collects Jesus stories.
    75CE – The grand-daughter marries, re-locates, joins a new rez-group, writes GMark, and gives birth.

    90CE – The 15yo great grandson has heard the Jesus stories weekly his whole life. He shares, discusses, and collects Jesus stories.
    95CE – The great-grandson marries, re-locates, joins a new rez-group, writes GMatthew, and his wife gives birth.

    110CE – The 15yo great-great granddaughter has heard the Jesus stories weekly her whole life. She shares, discusses, and collects Jesus stories.
    115CE – The great great granddaughter marries, re-locates, joins a new rez-group, writes GLuke, and gives birth.

    130CE – The 15yo great-great-great grandson has heard the Jesus stories weekly his whole life. He shares, discusses, and collects Jesus stories.
    135CE – The great-great-great grandson marries, relocates, joins a new rez-group, writes GThomas, and his wife gives birth.

    1. That's a good generational chronology if you assume an actual Jesus. In my model though, the Jesus narrative, the idea of dying and resurrecting sons of God, appears around 167 BC. With 2 Mac. 5-7, and the Maccabean revolt.

      In that case, the Jesus narrative has 200 years to develop and update. About 10 20-year generations.

      Plenty of time for a very thoroughgoing fictionalization, modification.

  7. This is really helpful, thank you. It makes me realize...I stopped journalling after quite a few years of faithful writing because of my own awareness of how much simply telling what happened that day inevitably distorted the experience. I hadn't thought about the way it also preserved it, even though in a distorted form. Maybe I'll pull those journals out again...