Maurice Halbwachs, the French sociologist of social memory, detailed the issue many years ago. Christianity, he said, is essentially the commemoration of the life of Jesus. This one event in all its complexity and detail is immutable. Jesus happened and, until Jesus returns, that happening remains set in time and cannot be changed. Whatever Christians do and say must always refer back to this happening. Innovation in the usual understanding of the word is simply impossible. Authentic faith must always locate itself in the teaching and life of the person Jesus. Should I as a Christian have any interest in innovation at all?
Halbwachs went on to say, however, that no institution that seeks permanence can be entirely orientated to the past. No matter how much effort is put in, memory is always attenuated over time. Even constant reference to a past event cannot stop that event fading both in content and significance. According to Halbwachs, social memory must always serve current needs if it is to be kept alive as a memory. The remarkable thing about Christianity, Halbwachs said, is the way it interpreted Christ as a constant presence even from its earliest days. Either through a constant and guarded emphasis on truth in church teaching, or through a mystical appeal to a believer’s interior connection to Jesus and his intentions, the church both formularises and lives the tradition – though those streams are often at odds with one another. Peculiarly this constancy enables innovation, since it allows current needs to be expressed as a refreshment of the Christian inheritance. Perhaps I should look more carefully at those Amazon bargain titles.