Tag Archives: New Testament

Social Memory, History Writing, and the Gospel

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).  Island of the World

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.

My Apologia

I begin with an apologia, a defense of my actions.  Why blog?  The reality is I have wrestled with this entire blogging-business for quite some time.

This blog has pleaded with me for attention.Black_Labrador_Retriever_portrait  I have brought it up onto my lap and dandled it for a few moments, only to banish it whimpering away to the corner.  Then I have invited it back, embraced it, and hand-fed it scraps from my dinner plate, only to scold it and send it running away again.  In other words, although this is my first post, I have already had an ambivalent should-I or shouldn’t-I relationship with the blogging craft for several years.  After doing an invited guest post on another biblioblog (Dunelm Road, link here), I have finally decided that I can’t ignore the pleading eyes  any longer, so I have taken up my keyboard.

The question, “Why blog?” is especially acute since as a published scholar I have access as an author to traditional (purportedly “real”) publishing venues such as books and professional journals in order to disseminate my work.  In at least some of the hallowed halls of academia, it is fair to say that there is still a certain taint associated with blogging–as if in the act of publishing online somehow your skin picks up a faint yet unmistakable odor.  Eewwwhhh.  I think I can start to smell it beginning to ooze from my pores right now as I type my first post.  WHAT IS THAT?  I did shower this morning, didn’t I?  It reeks of oily rags, sweat, stale popcorn, hotdogs, bleacher-seats, and cheap beer.  Oh, I know what this is–the smell of the masses, of popularizing.

Real academics don’t popularize, they blaze the trail where others have not yet dared to tread.  They coin phrases, toss about specialized jargon, sprinkle in elitist Latin terms, and overwhelm the reader with a torrent blast of pedantic footnotes.  Above all, they publish only in peer-review journals and with university presses!  Although offering a slight lampoon of academia, I only half-jest.  (After all, I have titled this post my apologia rather than my apology).  Undoubtedly it is crucial that academics sometimes publish solely for other academics, as it is not always practical (or interesting) to lay a foundation by reiterating the basics every time a new scholarly proposal is advanced.  Yet, it is equally vital that these ideas, once sifted, weighed, and processed by scholarship, ultimately be communicated to a broader audience.

I plan to continue publishing books, articles, and book reviews with refereed academic presses, God-willing, as I have time, ideas, and energy.  And although most of my published work thus far has been aimed at other scholars, I do have a couple book ideas percolating that will bridge between scholarship and a more general theologically engaged audience.  So I hope this blog proves to be a helpful resource to other scholars, my students (both past and present), and any fellow pilgrims of goodwill.

The aim of this blog, at least as currently conceived, is to foster discussion (whether on this site or elsewhere) among anyone interested in the Bible, the apostolic tradition, the rule of faith, and the theological implications of early Christian literature.  I plan on reviewing books that I think are worthy of further attention or that I personally find stimulating.  Some of the books will be older classics.  Others will be new releases–sometimes books that I am reviewing for professional journals.  One advantage of a blog is that the reviews can be as long or as short as I judge to be helpful.  One disadvantage to writing reviews for professional journals is that these reviews are severely restricted in length and do not tend to be widely read even by other scholars.  So, in order for these reviews to gain maximum exposure, I will be posting these reviews or abridgements of these reviews on Amazon.com, and this site will aggregate all my reviews.  As I am reading, I will also sometimes add quotes or interactive thoughts.

Also, since I am not as well-known as Bart Ehrman or Kim Kardashian (I’ll allow the reader to determine whether or not these two names should in any fashion be linked together) and I am just starting this blog, it will probably take a while to develop a readership, but that is actually good because, as a new blogger, it will give me time to learn more about the mechanics of running a blog.  Thanks for reading!