Tearing down the myth

If you have any wonders about how social memory works, and how it can even be a conscious project, I invite you to listen to a recent Fresh Air interview with author Will Bunch who has just written a book about how Ronald Reagan's legacy is being created by the Washington conservatives in order for the Republicans to have a hero. Wade heard it this week and told me, "This is what you have been talking about on your blog." When I listened to it, I smiled.

Regardless of one's politics, it is a fascinating interview because it shows the process of the construction of a hero-myth in the modern day, which can be documented. Bunch argues that certain aspects of Reagan's career have been marginalized and eliminated, others twisted, in order to construct a hero-myth of a popular republican president whose conservative policies worked. This myth is simply taken to be truth by the generations that weren't around at the time - the second generation and beyond - while those of us who lived through it remember, if nothing else, the Iran-Contra scandal, an arms scandal so big that it almost brought the White House down and nearly impeached Reagan. As for those tax cuts, well, yes we got them the first year. And when it turned out to be too much of a cut, we got taxed again.

Will Bunch's book is called Tear Down this Myth.

What can I contribute to The Jesus Project?

The biggest contribution that I can make to the TJP is in terms of method, bringing into play Social Memory Theory and how it can help us with the recovery of historical figures from the texts that survive. Our field has largely remained ignorant of social, psychological and anthropological models and theories, and has been content to work our materials from a rather shallow pool of understanding. I remain mystified why we keep rolling over the same turf all the time, and now we are back to the discussion that our texts are constructed myths which we can deconstruct (this is no new insight!), and because we can do this, we are comfortable concluding that either Jesus didn't exist historically (he is a fabrication of the ancient mind and their myths) or there isn't enough evidence to say he did (because how can we trust an ancient author who makes things up?).

This reasoning is so flawed that I do not even know where to begin to deconstruct it!

I might start by recommending some reading that has been missed by the majority of academics in biblical studies. If we are really going to talk about whether or not constructed myths have any historical value (which seems to me to be the ultimate goal of TJP), then we better get up to speed fast on what other fields are saying about it. See below a selection of publications that I have found particularly helpful in terms of my own work - but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The field is vast and growing with a huge bibliography.

What Social Memory theorists have found is that all societies create their memories to support their present experiences and to help them move forward into the future as they perceive it should be. This is usually done by taking historical figures and events and reframing them into older myths or legends, and by keying them to older personages and ideas. The best example for us (because we can witness this happening now) might be with Barack Obama. He is already keyed to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. His own historical story is being framed in terms of our collective memory of Lincoln - so we accepted without too much discussion his train-ride into Washington, D.C. and his use of Lincoln's bible at the inauguration. His story of rising from a middle-class family to the presidency is already shaped by the story of Lincoln's rise from the log cabin to the White House. We are understanding and interpreting Barack Obama (and what we hope he will do) within a certain set of stories and myths from our past.

So this is what we do as communities. This is how our minds operate. We understand our history and what is happening in our present by casting it into familiar forms and tropes. This helps us to deal with things and make sense of things. It gives us hope and meaning. It is a natural process of the operation of our minds and human memory.

But because we do this, does not mean that there is no historical value to our stories. All these people lived and did things. Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama. In fact, it is most often the historical people that do great things which we attempt to reframe and mythologize! The people that are average Joes (unless you are Joe the Plumber!) fall into obscurity.

Yes our gospels are theological treatises. Yes our gospels are mythological in their framing of Jesus. Yes our gospels present us with different portraits of Jesus, as do modern scholars who work on the historical Jesus. But none of this suggests even remotely to me that this means that Jesus did not exist as a historical person. In fact, when understood within the communal memory-making process itself, the fact that a Jewish crucified criminal is mythologized as a god that the Romans should embrace as God is highly suggestive that there was such a man, and that there were a group of people who understood whatever he did to be extraordinary. And so they framed and keyed his story with those they already knew, from the Jewish scriptures and from the Greco-Roman classics. And a historical person became an angel and then a god (at least that is my operating hypothesis).

Jan Assmann, “Ancient Egyptian Antijudaism: A Case of Distorted Memory,” in Memory Distortion (ed. Schachter; Cambridge: Harvard University, 1995) pp. 365-378.
Anthony Le Donne, “Theological Memory Distortion in the Jesus Tradition,” in Memory and the Bible in Antiquity (eds. Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Stephen C. Barton, and Benjamin G. Wold; WUNT 212; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007) 163-177.
Doron Mendels, “Societies of Memory in the Graeco-Roman World,” in Memory in the Bible and Antiquity (eds. Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Stephen C. Barton, and Benjamin G. Wold; WUNT 212; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007) pp. 143-162.
Barry Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000).
Barry Schwartz, "Collective Memory and Social Change: The Democratization of George Washington," ASR 56 (1991) 221-236.
Barry Schwartz, “Memory as a Cultural System: Abraham Lincoln in World War II,” American Sociological Review 61 (1996) pp. 922-923 (908-927).
Barry Schwartz, “The Social Context of Commemoration: A Study in Collective Memory,” Social Forces 61 (1982) p. 393 (374-402).
Barbie Zelizer, "Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies," Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12 (1995) 214-239.
Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995).
Yael Zerubavel, “The Death of Memory and the Memory of Death: Masada and the Holocaust as Historical Metaphors,” Representations 45 (1994) 72-100.
Yael Zerubavel, “Antiquity and the Renewal Paradigm: Strategies of Representation and Mnemonic Practices in Israeli Culture,” in On Memory: An Interdisciplinary Approach (edited by Doron Mendels; Bern: Peter Lang, 2007) pp. 331-48.
Yael Zerubavel, “The Historical, the Legendary and the Incredible: Invented Tradition and Collective Memory in Israel,” in Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (ed. John R. Gillis: Princeton: Princeton University, 1994) 105-125.

The First Tendency of Communal Memory

I have been wanting to post about this important topic for several weeks, but I just haven't had the chance to sit down and write something coherent due to time constraints.

I ran across Social Memory theories a few years ago when Tom Thatcher asked me to write a piece for a volume that he and Alan Kirk were co-editing called Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Semeia 52; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005). Alan Kirk was kind enough to send the contributors a starting bibliography, and I will always be indebted to him for this.

Once I started reading, I literally couldn't put the books and articles down. I think I drove my colleagues at Illinois Wesleyan crazy talking about it all the time. What excited me so much about it was the fact that these theories explained why and how people's traditions are the way they are, and it was exactly what I had been observing and writing about for years in the early Christian literature. But here were anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and historians who had already developed the vocabulary to explain the dynamics. I was so taken by the importance of these theories for the study of early Christianity, that I completely rewrote the manuscript I had almost completed at the time. This rewrite became Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas.

On to a quick summary of communal memory and one of its tendencies.

In cultures where literacy is minimal and an oral consciousness dominates, the dominant power of the mind is memory. This memory includes not only individual memory (which I think played a large role in the way our traditions were transmitted too), but also social or communal memory, as I prefer to call it. Communal memory is the dimension of remembering that we share as a people. It's our history remembered. It transcends the individual person to include everything about the community - we are talking its literature, its art, its sacred places, its ruins, its holidays, its relics, its rituals, and on and on.

This might not seem like that big of a deal. Isn't this just the traditions a community shares? Yes. But what Social Memory studies have shown is that it is the nature and dynamics of communal memory - its characteristics and tendencies - that are important to understand. I have found the application of these studies to be particularly significant for those of us to consider while reading and interpreting literature produced by the ancient Christians.

Today I will just post the first of these tendencies. Communal memory depends upon shared frames of references within a culture as it thrives on remaking the past into a history with contemporaneous meaning. The way that communal memory functions is not a simple matter of recall, or retrival, or preservation of past traditions and historical experiences. On the other hand, communal memory does not invent new traditions or history out of thin air, because the power of the memory is within the hands of the community which controls it. What communal memory does, however, is reconfigure the past - its traditions and historical experiences - to make it conform to the present experiences and future expectations of the group.

What does this mean for the historical hermeneutic I am developing? It means that the history we read about cannot be what actually happened, but what has been reconfigured as happened. We should not be talking in terms of "reliable" history and "unreliable" history, "authentic" memories and "inauthentic" memories. Such questions of "accuracy" and "errancy" must be replaced with other questions of community identity, membership, authority, experience, interaction and so forth. The issue must become for us, why a particular group of Christians constructed its memories in a particular way at a particular time, rather than how accurately a text depicts what actually happened.

I will post on the second tendency in a future post. For now, a good first read about communal memory is Barbie Zelizer, "Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies," Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12 (1995) 214-239.