Like many of you, I usually have several books I am juggling at the same time. I always try to balance academic work with a novel or two. Over the holiday break I have been working my way through a novel that marvelously combines poetic beauty and intellectual sophistication: Michael D. O’Brien, The Island of the World: A Novel (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007).
The protagonist, Josip, is raised in a paradisiacal mountain-valley in rural Yugoslavia, but as war engulfs his country, he again and again loses all that he cherishes. O’Brien masterfully shows the way in which suffering polarizes–either causing a spiral of hate or a purifying refinement.
A quote grabbed my attention, probably because the affect of social memory on historiography (history writing) has become a burgeoning field of research in Christian origins and New Testament studies. I think for example of the work of Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), Dale Allison Jr., Constructing Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press), and Robert McIver, Jesus, Memory, and the Synoptic Gospels (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), among many others. Apparently, O’Brien has a handle on such issues too, and his prose sparkles:
“The isolated shape of each memory is more or less clear, but their context is altered by a history of subsequent interpretation. Memories are reshaped simultaneously into what they are and what they are not–then pondered as actualities, which in turn are reshaped. Within this laboratory of the mind, the scientific method deceives the scientist who fails to consider that his experiment is changed by his very presence within it. The subtle arts of causality or the subtle causalities of the mind’s primary artform. Or to put it another way: From the alpine peaks of old age one peers into the valleys of the past and sees indistinct forms, highlighted only by the most monumental sub-formations–the valley is a green blur, containing serene flocks of sheep, and buildings in flames. A palace by a sea is an ivory carving, surmounted by an emerald hill, and beyond it a sheet of rippling phosphorous. Within that miniature carving, countless dramas are enacted” (O’Brien, Island of the World, 337).
How, precisely, do our memories, both singular and collective, interface with God’s story? The portraits of Jesus in the Gospels are a result of a refracted social memory-process, so how might understanding that process better help us appreciate the diverse portraits of Jesus in early Christianity? Although some might fear the danger of asking such questions, the Christian story, including the Scripture, claims to be grounded in the real history of genuine people. So in the spirit of faith-seeking-understanding, we must all continue to wrestle with precisely these sort of complexities.