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.