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Memory Keeping

by Prof. Jay Green


Have you noticed how great birthdays have become since we started celebrating them on Facebook? There’s nothing like getting up on your birthday morning, logging onto Facebook, and reading the lengthy scroll of well-wishers who thought of YOU on your special day. “Happy birthday!!” “I hope you have a great day and a terrific year!!!” “Have a wonderful day!!” The annual birthday-greeting barrage may be the single greatest reason for having Facebook, and the thing I miss most since I abandoned it. After years of wondering if anyone was going to remember it’s my birthday, or trying ever-so-subtly to drop a hint a day or a week before the actual day (by the way it is December 4)—relying on only my wife or mother to know it’s my birthday—now, a reminder would magically appear on my friends’ Facebook accounts, and dozens of them would dutifully send me kind, affirming greetings.


A couple of years ago, journalist David Plotz became curious about this little Facebook birthday ritual. He was skeptical of these birthday messages; something wasn’t quite right. Although getting several dozen little notes on your birthday feels pretty good, Plotz became dubious about the sincerity of it all—the same way all of us should be dubious about the way “friend” and “like” are used in the land of Facebook. Are all these people sincerely thinking about me and my birthday?


Plotz decided to hatch an ingenious little experiment. His real birthday is January 31. What would happen, he wondered, if he reset his Facebook birthday to July 11? And then after July 11, what if he reset it again for July 25? And, after that, again on July 28? (There are, by the way, no rules on Facebook against changing or repeatedly commemorating your own birthday). What do you suppose happened? Well, you probably guessed it: dozens of “friends” obediently chimed in on July 11 with birthday wishes, 119 in all. And then on July 25, he received 105 greetings (45 of them repeat birthday wishers). And then on July 28, Plotz received 71 jubilant birthday notices. Sixteen poor souls had wished Plotz a happy birthday on three different dates, in a span of 17 days!


The great Facebook birthday experiment probably tells us many things; but among them, it illustrates a firm and enduring truth: we humans are notoriously bad rememberers. Our capacity to remember is fragile and weak, making it very hard to maintain anything like a firm grip on the ways our experiences in the present are linked to what happened in the past. And we’ve outsourced our already feeble memories to electronic technologies to which we submit and slavishly rely on for doing work once accomplished solely by our brains. Can’t remember those song lyrics? Google it. Can’t recall who won last year’s Super Bowl? Wikipedia. What time does Amber’s party start? Search your email inbox. Can’t recollect the name of China’s president? Ask Siri. Afraid you might forget your best friend’s birthday? Facebook has you covered.


I make my living teaching history, and was trained in the methods of critical historical study. History is little more than an enterprise of systematic, organized remembering. Historians are engaged in the practice of preserving, selecting, categorizing, analyzing, and writing about the past so that features of it that we deem significant won’t fade into oblivion. It’s an important kind of work because, as I have noted, in case you’ve forgotten, we humans are notoriously bad rememberers. And this isn’t by any means a new digital-age problem: The writer of Ecclesiastes summed it up nicely: “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow” (Eccles. 1:11). We’re bad rememberers, plain and simple—always have been, always will be.


Not long ago I discovered, embedded elsewhere in the book of Ecclesiastes, an exhilarating, yet heartbreaking little illustration of our woeful condition. This little story, I submit to you, is perhaps the shortest, most distressing tale in all of Scripture. Ecclesiastes 9:14-15: It’s all of two verses in length (a mere four sentences), but I swear to you, it’s got it all! Intrigue. An epic clash of wills. Good vs. evil. The triumph of resilience and quiet nobility over avarice, greed, and naked power. If you read between the lines, you may even find a little romance! I’m convinced that these four brief sentences have the makings of an epic blockbuster movie that could easily demand a multi-million-dollar budget and a cast of thousands! I’m picturing a Russell Crowe, maybe Liam Neeson. And I’ve taken the liberty of casting Ryan Gosling as our hero. Here’s the story:


There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man.


The story has a seemingly glorious, happy ending: this dude saved the city with his wisdom! However, the money line, for me, is that hopelessly tragic last sentence, which should make our collective hearts ache: But nobody remembered that poor man. “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow” (Eccles. 1:11).


Our status as bad rememberers is, as it turns out, a fairly big problem because memory is one of the basic elements of the human condition that make us, in fact, human. To be human is to remember. To have a human identity—one that remains intact, moment-to-moment, day-to-day, year-to-year—requires a remarkable God-given capacity to recollect who we are, and to unite our sense of ourselves as we were yesterday to our sense of ourselves today.


Part of the process of “waking up” each morning involves reconnecting to the self we were when we went to bed the night before. We probably don’t give it much thought; it happens almost instantaneously (or, for some of us, after a strong cup of black coffee). But each time we do, we’re engaging in the most elemental form of remembrance.


Imagine the terror and confusion that would undoubtedly ensue if you awoke one morning to find yourself suddenly without the capacity for this basic kind of remembrance. Everything else necessary for the day would come unhinged; you’d become entirely paralyzed. (This, by the way, is the premise for a lot of really good thrillers in literature and film). So memory is more than a way to retrieve information from the past; memory is what holds our identities together. Many of us have watched loved ones descend into the darkness of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. We tend to think in immediate ways of these as diseases of forgetting, and they are. But the real tragedy that ultimately consumes those who suffer from such diseases is the severing of the self from those relationships, places, and communities that had always otherwise given their lives grounding, meaning, and direction.


Of course remembering isn’t only something we do individually; we also remember collectively; we share social memories with communities to which we belong. It’s interesting that, as communities, we invoke memories of things that we ourselves weren’t present or even alive to witness, allowing us to speak of such events in the first-person plural. As Americans, we somewhat easily recall that, “We defeated the British in our War of Independence,” “We were the first on the Moon,” and “We were attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001.” As a Cleveland Indians fan, I’m proud to say that “we won the World Series in 1948” (and as a statement of pure faith, I affirm that we will do so again one day). And as Christian believers, when we gather at the Lord’s Table, supping together with believers of every time and place, receiving the bread and the wine, as Christ commanded, we do so “in remembrance of” Jesus.


And just as we forget as individuals, we also too easily develop amnesia as communities. And such cultural forgetting can weaken or destroy our shared identities as groups of people, just as thoroughly as Alzheimer’s can send an elderly woman into complete oblivion. This is why I teach history. Historical learning exists, at least in part, to aid communities in the critical task of remembering—recovering a sense of identity by keeping both the triumphant and tragic memories of such communities alive and vibrant.


So memory is a vital concern for all of us. And, as I think I have mentioned, we are notoriously bad at it! But this isn’t even the most troubling news. I would argue that the poor quality of our memories is only matched by our desperate, even obsessive desire to be remembered.


Pastor Tim Keller suggests that our greatest human fear is not that we will become hated or scorned, but that we will be forgotten altogether. Although we legitimately worry about the status of our reputations, we carry an even greater anxiety about whether or not others even take note of our existence. Think back to those Facebook birthday greetings. “Someone remembered me. I matter. I am validated.” There is great power in someone remembering and speaking your name. We long to be known, to be recognized, to be deemed significant enough to be remembered. I’m convinced that much of our striving and struggling in this life stems from a deep-seated longing to do something magnificent enough to make us worthy of remembrance after we’re dead. God created us for eternity, as beings that will live forever. And, because of this, we carry within us an indescribable hunger to have our names spoken after we are dead and gone.


We know in our heart of hearts that the only true answer to this hunger—this longing—to be remembered is surrendering ourselves, body and soul, to the God who knows us by name who has promised to remember us long after we’ve lost the capacity to even remember ourselves. It’s why we should take enormous comfort from the words that begin the eighth chapter of Genesis. After 150 days of torrential rain, producing floods that covered all habitable lands, wiping out every living thing on the face of the earth in Genesis chapter 7, four words of comfort and hope begin chapter 8: “But God remembered Noah.” In the final analysis, these are the only words that will matter to us. Our deep longing to be remembered finds its true and final answer in our faithful God who has written our names on the palms of His hands.


But in the meantime, for reasons known only to Him, God has chosen to use a very human strategy to preserve our relationships with one another and our relationship to Him. The glue that binds these relationships together is our very fragile practices of remembrance. While undoubtedly guided by the Holy Spirit, the survival of our faith depends upon the aptitude of God’s people to remember and to faithfully extend the stories of God’s grace from one generation to another; in other words God continues to sustain us by imploring us to exercise our very crumbly memories. You might say that God has deposited this very precious treasure within brittle jars made of clay. God continues to call us to remember, even as He knows that we are lousy rememberers. Our longing to be remembered is fulfilled, at least in the short term, by entrusting our names and all that our names signify to the memories of those we leave behind.


In 1942, amid the Second World War, when most of the Holocaust’s victims had not yet been murdered, a Jewish resident of Palestine, Mordecai Shenhavi, proposed the first ever memorial to the victims of Nazi violence. He named it Yad Vashem, and it is today the largest Holocaust memorial in the world, spanning 45 acres at the foot of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. The name Yad Vashem is taken from Isaiah 56:5, where God promises “a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters,” and Yahweh here promises this memorial to, of all people, eunuchs—men with no chance of bearing children to carry on their names. Like eunuchs in danger of having their names forever wiped away, the victims of the Holocaust might now in this new memorial receive, in the words of the prophet, Yad Vashem, “an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”


Scripture bears witness to the tensions between our very fragile memories and our desperate need to be remembered. And this is why God implores us not to take the situation lying down. The Bible radiates with urgent calls to remember. God repeatedly implores His people, Israel, to remember who they are, from what calamities they’ve been delivered, and by whose power they are sustained. He does so because such memories provide abiding foundations of hope. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Why remember? For what God has done yesterday, He promises to do for you and your children today and forevermore. Remember. Remember. Remember.


We are no different! Like ancient Israel, we are also called to be “keepers of memory.” It’s our task in this life to carry on the collective memories that have shaped the communities to which we belong. By helping one another claim these collective memories as our own, we implant ourselves more fully within the stories that root us and give our lives meaning.


Being keepers of memory within a culture that worships at the altars of individualism and technological innovation has its challenges. While these ideals have surely spawned creativity in the marketplace and science, I fear they’ve likewise resulted in something like social amnesia. Living in a culture that, as the Doobie Brothers put it, “Can’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow,” we tie ourselves tightly to an ethic of forgetting. “Tear down that neighborhood so we can build a new super highway.” “Throw out that method of teaching math because we’ve developed a new and better one.” “Abandon those old ways of doing church because we’ve discovered modern, more effective practices.” “Push that old guy with his old ideas into retirement, so we can make room for somebody younger, with his fresh insights and creative energy.” Such attitudes have encouraged us to liberate ourselves from what sociologist Robert Bellah aptly calls “communities of memory”—those communities that provide our lives with context, a sense of rootedness, and genuine responsibility for the world beyond our immediate needs and limited experiences. By implanting in us a deeper and longer vision of our place in the world, Bellah argues, communities of memory not only “tie us to the past,” but they turn us “toward the future as communities of hope.”


We all need to root ourselves more firmly in such communities of memory; we need to recognize how the inheritance of such communities enriches our lives and gives us grounding; and we need to embrace the notion that stories from the past don’t merely belong to our parents and our elders, but that these stories—the good and the bad—are indeed our stories. And we need to tell such stories with vigor and with joy.


One evening years ago, my wife, Beth Ann, and I were in different parts of the house, reading or watching television, while our kids were in bed. Our oldest, Lucy, was about three years old at the time. Suddenly our cat became very agitated outside of Lucy’s door. We observed the cat’s increasing agitation, and began to realize that something was happening inside her room. When we opened the door, we discovered that a bird had flown down the chimney and out the fireplace into her bedroom, and was flying round and round in a panicked state. I first picked up still-sleeping Lucy, and moved her to another room, and then we managed after some considerable effort to coax the bird out of her room, and, eventually, out of the house. We then put still-sleeping Lucy back to bed. She’d missed the entire episode. The next day, we told her what had happened, and over the next several years, it became her very favorite story to hear and to tell. Even though she’d slept through the entire incident, the story became, very much, Lucy’s story. It was part of her memory. Part of her identity. It became an integral part of who she was.


This is sort of the way collective memory works; it’s certainly how it’s functioned within our family. Stories of how Beth Ann and I met and fell in love; stories of each of our children’s births; stories of aunts, uncles, grandmas, and grandpas; stories of wrestling with God to discover His calling for our lives; stories of Ohio farms, long trips to Kansas, and of piano lessons; stories of making huge mistakes, failing exams, surviving cancer, and losing loved ones. But the memories we keep among our children aren’t limited to family stories: our family memories have bigger contexts; we also tell stories of our neighborhood, St. Elmo, and of our church, St. Elmo Pres.; of the United States and its cultures; we tell stories of Western civilization and of the development of scientific inquiry; stories of the church in its triumphs and failures; and we tell stories of God’s loving work within our world, His extension to us of His image, His calling on us to subdue and fill the earth, our rebellion against Him, and His redemption of us through the finished work of Jesus Christ. And as we recall these large memories to our children, we hope they will claim these memories as their own.


God has entrusted this task to each of us, as keepers of memory. But God understands who He’s dealing with here. He knows that we are notoriously bad rememberers! Did you ever tie a piece of string on your finger to help you remember something? Well, God also urges His people to find physical, tangible ways to remember what He deems important—to weave them into the rituals of our lives, to tie them as symbols on our hands, to bind them to our foreheads, and to write them on our doorframes. This is why, in addition to merely telling stories, Scripture gives accounts of erecting physical emblems of commemoration (remember when Samuel set up a memorial stone—a so-called “Ebenezer” to remind God’s people of His provision and help)? We name buildings after important people and affix placards as tributes to them on their walls. We enshrine people of our stories in stained glass so that the power and meaning of their lives are given a greater permanence in our consciousness. We also set aside days of remembrance for others, like those that recall Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr., as markers in time as well as markers in space.


Answering the awesome demands of memory keeping is an enormously weighty task that requires a sober-minded commitment to live our lives with grown-up seriousness, with genuine Christian maturity, and with a keen awareness that God has entrusted the persistence of His church to us and our shaky hands. May we today entrust ourselves and our capacity to fulfill this solemn task to the God who remembers, who has promised us “a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters,” and “an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”


Dr. Jay Green has served in Covenant’s history department since 1998. He lives in St. Elmo with his family, and is an elder at St. Elmo Presbyterian Church. This article is adapted from a lecture he delivered in chapel at Covenant in the spring of 2013.