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Collective Memory in Homiletics

Chapter Six

Theological markers for the use of collective memory in homiletics

6.1 The Bible and remembering.

The debate about memory in contemporary theological disciplines has yet to reach the level of intensity evident within history and sociology and their associated applied studies, but there is nevertheless evidence of a growing interest in the topic. Scholars well known for their work on social approaches to memory are increasingly cited by theologians, or are themselves offering ways into a theological extension of their works. In biblical studies, for example, the American Sociologist, Barry Schartz, presented a keynote address at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2003 (published in Kirk and Thatcher, 2005); and from this side of the Atlantic, Jan Assmann’s work on cultural memory provides a way into mnemonic devices in a ground-breaking study of Mark’s Gospel from the perspective of the performative oral culture in which it arose (Horsley, Draper and Foley, 2006). Such publications are the beginnings of what is likely to become a major area of interest and debate in theology and biblical studies. As exciting as that prospect is, this chapter concerns itself with one small and closely delineated area where social memory theory and theology in practice are, it is argued, closely related, namely collective memory and preaching.

If, as it is being argued in this thesis, the practice of Christian preaching in contemporary European society must consciously address the mechanisms of collective memory and the issues raised by the decay of that memory, what are the theological resources available to support that task? This chapter seeks to answer that question within a theological discourse that views use of the Bible as the primary step in such ongoing resourcing. Just as Christian preaching in order to be Christian preaching cannot be seen in isolation from the biblical text, so this chapter will argue that a theological understanding of Christian tradition as memory cannot be isolated from an understanding of social memory work present in those same biblical texts. Consequently, this chapter seeks to establish that memory and remembrance, understood as fundamental components of a life-creating faith, are evidenced in the biblical texts themselves. It will be argued that our forebears in the continuing tradition of Abraham’s faith were conscious users of the social dimensions of memory. Establishing this point is key to the whole thesis, since it indicates that the homiletic theory advocated here is more than a knee-jerk response to the social amnesia indentified as being so destructive of Christian social memory. In straightforward terms, memory work will be established as a core component of Scripture and, therefore, a core component of preaching that seeks to use those same Scriptures for the remembering of Christ.

That theological resourcing of the tasks of Christian collective memory will be established through an examination of some key concepts developed in the work of the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann’s work is a good place to begin because he writes as a Christian preacher as well as a biblical scholar. The fact that he has also addressed memory issues very directly in his recent work adds a third justification for the focus of the analysis that follows. After the examination of some of Brueggemann’s ideas, consideration will be given to the mechanisms of collective memory with particular regard to issues of boundary and development, and how these things are evidenced in Scripture. From New Testament evidence the focus will shift to worship and God as the ultimate referent of Christian memory.

6.2 Imagination as interpretative tool in the works of Walter Brueggemann.

The American Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann delivered the 1988-9 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching with the title Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation. The somewhat enigmatic quality of the title is typical of Brueggemann’s style, and his published papers have included many similar aphorisms (for example At Risk with the Text, An Imaginative ‘Or,’ The Shrill Voice of the Wounded Party, all in The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word (2007); and Together in the Spirit–Beyond Seductive Quarrels, Reading as Wounded and as Haunted, and Texts That Linger, Not Yet Overcome in Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World (2000)) but arguably this particular title signifies more than presentational style.

Finally Comes the Poet is Brueggemann’s echo of a line from a poem entitled Passage to India in the Walt Whitman collection Leaves of Grass (1871):

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,) After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work, After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist, Finally shall come the poet worthy that name, The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

The poem has its origin in reflections on the grand technological achievements of Whitman’s era, exemplified in the Suez canal and the American transcontinental railway. Its reference to great and new achievements as ‘but a growth out of the past’ indeed fits well with Brueggemann’s insistence that the ‘old’ texts of Scripture when imaginatively interpreted are productive of ‘new’ ways of seeing and living in the present (2000: 6): but there is, perhaps, a more playful and a yet more profound echo at work than simple topical reiteration.

Whitman began Leaves of Grass as a conscious response to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call in 1845 for the United States to have its own indigenous and unique poetry. The poems, despite being full of traditional biblical cadences, were to prove controversial since they used an innovative verse form with frequent colloquial language and some of them exalted the body and sexual love. Whitman worked on the volume throughout his life; the first edition of 1855 contained just 12 poems, but that grew to nearer 300 by the so-called ‘deathbed edition’ of 1891-2. In other words, Whitman’s work represents an ongoing creative enterprise that in its imaginative expansion and re-working sought to offer a new perspective on experience in an authentically American idiom of English. In that sense the poet comes last, as it were, to take imagination to shores far beyond those to be reached by rail or sea. As the poem concludes:

For we are bound where mariner has not yet dare to go,

And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!

O farther farther sail!

O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?

O farther, farther, farther sail!

Imagination that goes beyond the immediately obvious; creativity that constructs alternative ways of giving an account of reality and interpretive language that profoundly resonates with the contemporary are themes that figure prominently in Brueggemann’s work. In his Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, he writes:

The tradition that became Scripture … is not merely descriptive of a commonsense world; it dares, by artistic sensibility and risk-taking rhetoric, to posit, characterize, and vouch for a world beyond the ‘common sense’. (2003a: 9)

This interpretive imagination that enables ancient texts to speak with forceful authority to the contemporary believer is at the heart of Brueggemann’s hermeneutic. His conviction is that engagement with the biblical texts can be creative of real alternatives to the prevailing and destructive dominant worldviews. His insistence on ‘not what the text “meant” but what it “means”‘ (2007: 83) presents a striking challenge to biblical methodologies that dwell on historical understandings of the text. In Brueggemann’s work, both historical and redactive analysis are but steps towards this more fundamentally purposeful interpretation. His work is, therefore, of particular importance to this study since it so clearly demonstrates ways in which the biblical text can be interpreted anew so as to offer a fresh and challenging voice amidst the clamour of contemporary society.

It is hardly surprising then that Whitman’s poetic ‘fresh voice’ provides Brueggemann with the teasing frontispiece to his lectures on preaching ‘as a poetic construal of an alternative world’ (1989: 6). Nor is it surprising that in the years since his Lyman Beecher lectures, beyond his major studies (for example, First and Second Samuel (1990); Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (1997); and Deuteronomy (2001)) Brueggemann has written extensively about the preaching task (for example, in works such as Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles (1997); Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World (2000); The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word (2007)). His is an approach to Scripture that is essentially homiletical since, whilst remaining academically rigorous, it always looks to how the text resonates with contemporary existence. Indeed, Brueggemann asserts that ‘the key hermeneutical event in contemporary interpretation is the event of preaching’ (2007: 92).

6.3 Imaginative remembering as a way into the text.

In his use of tradition Brueggemann’s method is presentist in just the way that collective memory theory suggests. He writes that remembering ‘is itself shot through with imaginative freedom to extrapolate and move beyond whatever there may have been of “happening”‘ (2003a: 7). Accordingly, his determination is to ‘make the interface of ancient text and contemporary community more poignant and palpable’ (2003a: xi). In this he is following an understanding of how classic texts work in the life of faith that has an ancient pedigree and is exemplified in contemporary scholarship by David Tracy:

I will understand not merely something that was of interest back then, as a period piece, whose use, although valid then, is now spent. Rather I will grasp something of genuine here and now, in this time and place. I will then recognize that all interpretation of classic texts heightens my consciousness of my own finitude, my own radically historical reality. I can never repeat the classics to understand them. I must interpret them. Only then, as Kierkegaard insisted, do I really ‘repeat’ them. (Tracy, 1981: 103)

In this understanding, interpretation, even when it appears novel (as long as that novelty is in an appropriate measure consistent with the tradition), is a legitimate extension of the tradition as represented by the text. Hence, for Brueggemann, what he terms ‘imaginative remembering’ (2003a: 8) is both a way of understanding the formation of the text and an essential way into the text now. He writes of the Old Testament:

What parents have related to their children as normative tradition (that became canonized by long usage and has long been regarded as normative) is a world of meaning that has as its key character YHWH, the God of Israel, who operates in the narratives and songs of Israel that are taken as reliable renderings of reality. Given all kinds of critical restraints and awarenesses, one can only allow that such retellings are a disciplined, emancipated act of imagination. (2003a: 8)

This retelling is, in Brueggemann’s methodology, a necessary extension of the memory work evident in the Old Testament texts with which he works, since those texts are themselves

… a sustained memory that has been filtered through many generations of the interpretative process, with many interpreters imposing certain theological intentionalities on the memory that continues to be reformulated. (2003a: 4)

Brueggemann is at pains to assert the force of this continuity right up to the present time. The preacher, in his understanding, does not stand as a remote and objective commentator on the text, nor as a skill-laden technician who applies ancient wisdom to contemporary life, but is rather in her or his labours at one with and contributing to the ongoing flow of a living stream of tradition:

All the forces of imaginative articulation and ideological passion and the hiddenness of divine inspiration have continued to operate in the ongoing interpretive task of synagogue and church until the present day. (2003a: 12)

This ongoing process of memory work that makes faith possible for the next generation Brueggemann terms ‘traditioning’ (2003a: 9). Although he does not use the language of collective memory theory in his writings, it is clear that he is alert to the mechanisms it suggests. For example, he points out that each version of retelling has as its intention the notion that it should be the final retelling that presents the newly interpreted or understood correct version. As that retelling comes to prominence and wide use, however, it is itself subject to further retelling that will eventually be productive of a fresher version that will displace the earlier version, partly or wholly (2003a: 9).

It is not hard to see in this process what Halbwachs described as new memories created by the pressure of current needs and relationships and the forgetting of other memories that no longer have a supporting social framework. For Brueggemann, this process of retelling and discarding works to reinforce his demand that an exegetical and homiletical use of the text that is creative and imaginative is both legitimate and advantageous. The exegete or the homiletician can use the traces of earlier memories in the ongoing task of traditioning. Brueggemann writes:

The complexity of the text evident on any careful reading is due to the happy reality that as new acts of traditioning overcome and partly displace older materials, the older material is retained alongside newer tradition. That retention is a happy one, because it very often happens that a still later traditionalist returns to and finds useful older, ‘discarded’ material thought to be beyond use. (2003a: 9)

Brueggemann’s usage also echoes Halbwachs’ contention (see section 3.3) that changes in religious collective memory are often strengthened by an appeal to the recovery of ancient memory that has somehow been forgotten. What marks the difference between the two approaches is that Brueggemann sees this reclamation as necessary for a creative and imaginative handling of tradition rather than simply a way of socially legitimizing what might otherwise seem to be corrosive of the tradition. In collective memory theory as delineated by Halbwachs, change and development in Christian religious memory is seen as inimical to faith, whereas Brueggemann believes that variations over time are not only conducive to faith but are required if the text is to retain its power to change perceptions in every age. In acknowledging this process, Brueggemann also acknowledges that the memory held is far from being a straightforward and simple storage of information, or, as he terms it, ‘an innocent act of reportage’ (2003a: 9). Far from seeing the social construction of memory as a denial of faith, Brueggemann uses that constructionism as a way to advance a socially responsible close engagement with the biblical text. This bears on the subject of this study in two very direct ways.

6.4 Living tradition as a field of artistic endeavour.

First, it is important to acknowledge that although Brueggemann’s hermeneutical method is an expression of impatience with biblical scholarship that dwells on historical, redactional and textual issues to the exclusion of social concerns; it is also more than that. His conviction is that the logic of modernity with its passion for linear, objective, and systematized thinking, and its insistence on only working with the ‘given facts’, has too often effectively silenced the Bible even in the churches (2003a: 28). He writes:

Our technical way of thinking reduces mystery to problem, transforms assurance into certitude, revises quality into quantity, and so takes the categories of biblical faith and represents them in manageable shapes. (1989: 2)

His is a style of engagement with the biblical text that goes beyond historical and technical categories (though readily employing those tools when needed) to imaginative and rhetorical aspects embedded in the text so as to focus

… not on the ‘cognitive outcomes’ of the text (though there finally are cognitive outcomes) but on the artistic processes that operate in the text and generate an imagined ‘world’ within the text. Such artistic attentiveness takes seriously the exact placement and performance of words and phrases, of sounds and repetitions that give rise to an alternate sense of reality. (2007: 76)

In terms of homiletic theory this emphasis on ‘artistic attentiveness’ calls to mind the work of R.E.C. Browne (1976) (see sections 2.3 and 5.2.3 above) and the suggestion he first voiced in the 1950s that preaching is an artistic activity requiring similar processes of social understanding and interaction as those necessary to the production of music, poetry or painting (Browne, 1976: 18). Indeed Brueggemann is arguably more in sympathy with the approach of Browne than with his American New Homiletic colleagues. The inductive methodology of New Homiletics beginnings all too easily with human experience, and, according to Brueggemann, its effort to induce from understandings of human experience connections to the biblical text is the wrong starting point. He cites what he perceives to be an increasing inclination amongst seminarians

… who prefer for preaching some idea, some cause, some experience, some anything rather than the text. A community without its appropriate text clearly will have no power or energy or courage for mission; it will be endlessly quarrelsome because it depends on ideology and has no agreed-upon arena where it adjudicates its conflicts. (2007: 42)

With the New Homileticians Brueggemann is determined to connect the text and the world, but since his homiletic conceives the text as always challenging and critiquing commonplace understandings of experience and reality, those commonplace understandings cannot be the interpreter’s beginning.

Interestingly, the word ‘relevance’ is a term he studiously avoids in his consideration of how preaching properly works. Indeed, in a recent article he asserts ‘the text is not directly addressed to us, and we should not work too hard at making it immediately relevant’ (2007: 39). As an alternative he uses the term ‘resonates’ as a way of indicating that the preacher’s task is to enable a word to be heard that comes ‘from outside our closed system of reality’ (2007: 4). Preaching, he insists, must always be subversive (2000: 6) and he means that literally: it offers a version of faith lived in reality that gets under the dominant versions and opens new ways of existing. He writes:

My theme is alternative, sub-version to version, the sermon a moment of alternative imagination, the preacher exposed as point man, point woman, to make up out of nothing more than our memory and our hope and our faith a radical option to the normalcy of deathliness. (2000: 9)

So, far from being a simple preservation mechanism, traditioning, in Brueggemann’s methodology, becomes a creative activity in which each generation of faith reworks the tradition so as to maintain its liveliness:

We now know (or we think we know) that human transformation (the way people change) does not happen through didacticism or through excessive certitude but through the playful entertainment of another scripting of reality that may subvert the old given text and its interpretation and lead to the embrace of an alternative text and its redescription of reality. (2007: 26)

This is a radical understanding of faith’s collective memory in that it lays the emphasis on tradition’s continuity being found in the telling and retelling which is properly productive of changes and shifts in tradition’s content. Here, the maintenance of a living tradition is clearly paramount; but processes of that maintenance are acknowledged as continually bringing to birth new ways of understanding how that tradition is experienced as living. The ways collective memories change are an aspect of how tradition functions effectively rather than being seen as a threat to the preservation of tradition. Brueggemann’s traditioning works towards the creation of world-views in the anthropological sense; it is an insistence on an epistemology that shuns a too strident and dominating objectivism. As he puts it:

Reality is not fixed and settled … it cannot be described objectively. We do not simply respond to a world that is here, but we engage in constituting that world by our participation, or action, and our speech. As participants in the constitutive act, we do not describe what is there, but we evoke what is not fully there until we act or speak. (1988: 12)

In this Brueggemann offers an understanding of the preacher’s task that is akin to David Buttrick’s phenomenological approach (Buttrick, 1987) in that it calls forth a sermonic language that can construe the world in new ways. Thus Brueggemann’s definition of imagination is:

The God-given, emancipated capacity to picture (or image) reality — God, world, self — in alternative ways outside conventional, commonly accepted givens. Imagination is attentiveness to what is ‘otherwise,’ other than our taken-for-granted world. (2001: 27)

This imaginative ability allows new insights and understandings to develop from within tradition. Processes of displacement and forgetting may indeed be at work in this, as collective memory theory suggests; but that does not necessarily mean that previous memories are just abandoned. Rather, imagination enables a reviewing incorporation of new perspectives that are beyond the easy conventions previously assumed.

6.5 Preaching as contested production.

Preaching is at heart, according to Bruggemann, about the construel of alternatives. This assertion discloses a second point about how his work has a direct bearing on this study; and that shifts the focus from the nature of tradition to the practice of preaching.

If traditioning is fundamentally about epistemology then preaching, as a mechanism of memory maintenance, must itself be productive of this shift in knowing. Consequently, preaching is, in Brueggemann’s estimation, always a dangerous, indeed hazardous, activity since it is essentially a process of production understood in its widest creative sense. Like any productive process there is much that can prospectively go wrong in the process itself, let alone in its ultimate ‘consumption’ as a product whose characteristics are potentially suspect or unwelcome. The dominant worldview in which both preacher and hearer exists is one in which reductionism with its relentless crude simplification of complexities and subtleties holds sway most of the time (1987: 13). In such circumstances preaching that is a creative weaving of the tradition into fresh resonant patterns can come as an unwelcome shock; it appears to put a question mark against more usual didactic, doctrinal or moralizing homiletical styles (2007: 29). That, of course, is precisely Brueggemann’s purpose:

Preaching is a peculiar, freighted, risky act each time we do it: entrusted with an irascible, elusive, polyvalent subject and flying low under the dominant version with a subversive offer of another version to be embraced by subversives. (2000: 6, italics original)

Brueggemann situates preaching in precisely that area of contestation and change related to operative social frameworks that is familiar to collective memory theorists. That Brueggemann applies notions of production and consumption to the text and its exposition might seem strange in that kindred concepts such as commodification and consumerism are things he frequently criticises severely. In doing so he is, perhaps, making the point that the tendency of the dominating economic model to corrupt and distort underscores its seriousness and makes using its terms all the more resonant when applied to preaching.

Preaching is to be taken with the utmost seriousness precisely because the world it aims to create offers a profound alternative to the dominating economic worldview. Preaching presents a new choice which challenges the hegemony of the usual way of viewing production and consumption, but the resonance of that choice is such that terms themselves are appropriately used:

When the community has thus produced a text, it is the task of the community to consume the text, that is, to take, use, heed, respond, and act upon the text. The entire process of the text, then, is an act of production and consumption whereby a new world is chosen or an old world is defended, or there is transformation of old world to new world. The purpose of using the categories of production and consumption is to suggest that the textual process, especially the interpretative act of preaching, is never a benign, innocent, or straightforward act. Anyone who imagines that he or she is a benign or innocent preacher of the text is engaged in self-deception. Preaching as interpretation is always a daring, dangerous act, in which the interpreter, together with the receivers of the interpretation, is consuming a text and producing a world. (2007: 87)

In other words, to facilitate this consumptive production, it is essential that the text ‘be kept in conversation with what the congregation already knows and believes’ (2007: 100). This conversation is at its most effective when it is clearly opposed to both ‘a false kind of objectivity that assumes the world is a closed, fixed, fated, given’ and ‘a kind of subjectivity that assumes we are free or able to conjure up private worlds that may exist in a domesticated sphere without accountability to or impingement from the larger public world’ (2007: 100). Preaching has to keep the conversation going—an inevitable conclusion, given Brueggemann’s dynamic understanding of tradition.

It is intended that this analysis of Brueggemann’s writings will have made plain the numerous points at which his thought provides fruitful links to the subject of this study. However, before moving to an examination of continuity and community in relation to collective memory it is worth reiterating some of the keys issues at a little length. In particular, the relationship between tradition, as represented by the Scriptural texts and contemporary concerns, will be examined further. That in turn will allow some extended discussion of the way in which this tradition is able to generate more than a straightforward replication of itself out of those contemporary concerns. Tradition is seen here as an environment within which the preacher is empowered towards an imaginative and artistic creativity that both sustains and develops that environment. That discussion will provide a conceptual bridge into the consideration of a brief but significant essay contributed by Anthony Thiselton to the 1981 Doctrine Commission of the Church of England’s report Believing in the Church. Through Thiselton’s work, issues of continuity and transmission will be directly addressed.

6.6 The presentist use of tradition.

Brueggemann’s perspective on the preaching task fits well with collective memory theory in that it is essentially presentist in its nature. Indeed, Brueggemann’s insistence on what the text means now provides a positive theological and ministerial undergirding of the processes of collective memory. His understanding of imaginative remembering as the core tool of the preacher’s interpretation re-positions those collective memory processes as purposeful rather than simply inevitable. The preacher as hermeneutikos enters the stream of the ongoing flow of a living tradition and strives to be part of that lively continuity through homiletic activity; what Brueggemann understands as a continuing process of ‘traditioning’. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Brueggemann places this dynamic understanding of tradition at the very centre of faithful living. If so fundamental to the practice of faith, then that traditioning must also be essential to Christian mission. As Rowan Williams puts it:

The Christian is at once possessed by an authoritative urgency to communicate the good news, and constrained by the awareness of how easily the words of proclamation become godless, powerless to transform. The urgency must often be channelled into listening and waiting, and into the expansion of the Christian imagination itself into something that can cope with the seriousness of the world. It is certainly true that, for any of this to be possible, here must be a real immersion in the Christian tradition itself. (2000: 40)

In Brueggemann’s thought, preaching becomes a key component of contemporary biblical interpretation in that it makes explicit in a demonstrable way just how tradition works. The essential rootedness of homiletics in a faith tradition becomes its greatest strength.

This point needs to be underlined because it is not to be taken as special pleading for preaching as an exceptional kind of communication that must by its nature be allowed an ideological position inappropriate elsewhere. Instead, this is a declaration that the explicit rootedness of preaching exposes the reality of similar, but frequently denied rootedness, in other areas of discourse.

Furthermore, that that very rootedness provides a platform for a sometimes radical re-evaluation of realities previously simply assumed—what Brueggemann understands as a construal of alternatives. In terms of collective memory, the recasting of memories becomes not the rather defensive mechanism Halbwachs described in his consideration of religion, but a creative and imaginative weaving of new possibilities out of the warp and weft of what has been inherited. This allows an adjustment of Halbwachs’ rather positivistic functionalism towards a more phenomenological perspective that is alert to the dynamism inherent in the tradition itself. Some words from Peter Ochs’ study of Peircean pragmatism in relation to Scripture seem apposite:

For the Christian community, the Bible is thus not a sign of some external reality, but a reality itself whose meanings display the doubly dialogic relationships between a particular text and its context within the Bible as a whole, and between the Bible as a whole and the conduct of the community of interpreters. (1998: 309)

The denial of an objectivizing distance between the preacher and the text may be justly assumed in the ministry of preaching, but Ochs’ study and Brueggemann’s practice are suggestive of more than that: they point to a kind of knowing and learning only available through tradition. What is being challenged here is the easy assumption that a tradition-free, abstract, universal rationality is superior to such tradition-embedded thinking. Indeed, ‘traditioning’ considered in the widest terms must put a question mark against the very idea of tradition-free knowing. In considering the influential works of Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), Alasdair MacIntyre (born 1929), and Charles Taylor (born 1931) Bruggemann makes the point that the imagination so crucial to development and change is generated from within tradition (2001: 31).

6.7 The generative nature of Scripture as tradition.

Although, as acknowledged earlier, the relationship of tradition and rationality raises large epistemological issues beyond the direct scope of this thesis the subject needs to be broached here since it draws attention to an important aspect of tradition, namely its ability to seed fresh, creative understandings that are generative of new developments whilst retaining congruity with the tradition from which they arose. Colloquial usage of the term ‘tradition’ makes it synonymous with preservation, but that fails to acknowledge this generative ability. Brueggemann sees generative traditioning at

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