Sunday, August 21, 2016

Collective Memory

By Jill Carattini and originally published at rzim.org
Aldous Huxley likened a person’s memory to one’s own collection of private literature. Housed within the confines of memory are countless pages of our own stories, perspectives, and thoughts—vast libraries uniquely existing within our own heads. It is this personal nature of memory that no doubt feeds our dismay when minds begin to slip. Forgetfulness is a fearful quality particularly because it is a quality that seems to erase part of the very person it describes.
The implications of memory are made known in the earliest pages of God’s story as told in scripture. But added to the cultural adage of Aldous Huxley is the idea that this ‘private literature’ can be edited. In other words, what we choose to remember affects who we are. And at that, our private literature is not entirely private; there is a communal aspect to memory as well. Surely we see this played out within the grumblings of the rescued Israelites. From the wilderness, the writer of Numbers reports:
“Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, ‘Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.'”(1)
Recollection, like resentment, is often contagious. In this moment of hunger, Israel together remembered Egypt as a place of produce instead of prison, and together they declared their longing to return to the very place from which they had been rescued. Together they wept; together they remembered; and together they remained lost in the wilderness. What we choose to remember indeed affects who we are—individually, collectively, boldly.
The great creeds of Christianity aim themselves at a similar principle. The Church confesses what we need to remember, what we long to remember. We confess the promises of God; we confess who God is; we confess who we are. The word “creed” comes from the Latin credo, meaning “I believe.” Confessed in unison, we follow the command of God to remember collectively: “These truths I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”(2)
The earliest creeds were used precisely with this power of memory in mind. Affirmations of belief in God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit were bound to the hearts and minds of those who longed to remember. For persons standing on the precipice of faith, the creed was the statement with which they prepared themselves to jump, and in so doing, found they had been given something on which to stand—and to stand in good company.
What Christians remember in creed and confession is a vast library accounting for an exciting narrative we recollect together. As novelist Dorothy Sayers wrote more than 50 years ago:
“The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama…. Now we may call that doctrine exhilarating or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all. That God should play the tyrant over man is a dismal story of unrelieved oppression; that man should play the tyrant over man is the usual dreary record of human futility; but that man should play the tyrant over God and find Him a better man than himself is an astonishing drama indeed.”(3)
The things we choose to house within the confines of memory are like a great collection of stories—stories that tell who we are personally, collectively, eternally. What the Christian remembers in doctrine and history, faith and belief, so holds his identity within this great drama. God has given much worth remembering, and God invites each of us to remember it together, participating in the good news we proclaim in good company: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”(4)

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) Numbers 11:4-6.
(2) Deuteronomy 6:4-9.
(3) Dorothy Sayers in Creed or Chaos (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949), 3-7, as quoted by Michael Horton in “Creeds and Deeds: How Doctrine Leads to Doxological Living,” Modern Reformation Magazine, Vol. 15, Number 6.
(4) 1 Thessalonians 4:14.