Sunday, 29 May 2011

Bodily remembering

Somebody said to me the other day that people carrying billboard advertisements is a thing of the past. Perhaps the speaker was right and maybe the minimum wage has something to do with the demise of such living adverts. Or is it that they've been replaced by the designer packaging and giveaway bags that we the customers now carry for free! I know someone who always refuses wrapping and free bags precisely because he refuses to be a free advertisement. The unprinted brown carrier-bag also seems to be a thing of the past. I was musing on these things when a friend showed me this:

Anyone wearing short shorts who sits on these particular benches in Auckland, New Zealand walks on with an ad for a store called Superette's sale of short shorts imprinted on their legs - at least temporarily.
Saint Paul said we carry everywhere in our person the death of Christ, so that the life of Christ may also be manifested in us. I'm tempted to change that 'in our person' to 'in and on our person'. Isn't he suggesting that we should be ourselves 'adverts' for Christ. I appreciate Paul couldn't have had in his mind the techniques of modern marketting, nevertheless surely he meant us to show Christ in all kinds of ways. Sharing the Christian memory requires making it obvious that we are holding something worth sharing. It isn't meant to be all 'inside,' only a matter of subjective ideas, values and feelings. It's also about what other people can see us carrying.
Collective memory mechanism:
Bodily things are important. Shared objects, actions, and places keep the memory living.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Sermon for Easter 6: An Example.

Here's the text of a sermon (well, actually a brief homily) as an example of some of the principles of collective memory.  It's based on Acts 17.22-34 with some reference to 1 Peter 3.13-22 and John 14.15-21.  It uses the recent visits of President Obama and of HM the Queen to Ireland as motifs by which to interrogate what is going in the Acts account of Paul's speech in the Areopagus.  
Several aspects of collective memory seem to me to come to light: 1) Paul asks the Athenians to think further beginning from what is familiar to them.  Often our common memories are like that: what we remember personally is stretched, as it were, by our social interactions. 2) The depth or comprehensiveness of shared memories and ideas may be quite shallow but social relationships can enhance them profoundly.  That I think is clearly the case in terms of President Obama's personal Irish heritage, and I imagine similar processes are going on in St Paul's encounter.  Paul, as devout a Jew as he was by upbringing, can obviously enter Greek ways of thinking.  3)  Empathy and the sharing of memories has to be real - its no use pretending that differences don't exist.  For that reason I highlight the Queen's Dublin Castle speech.  
The homily aims to be memorable by its repeated refrain of the Irish Gaelic version of  'Yes, we can' and its reference to recent news pictures.  It asks for a conviction of faith that seeks common ground without losing its distinctiveness.  Does it achieve its purpose?
Lake Galilee
Is féidir linn.  Is féidir linn.  And the cheer went up, and the smiles were broad across the throng.  Is féidir linn.
Just in case you’re not familiar with Irish Gaelic perhaps I should translate!  Is féidir linn is ‘Yes, we can.’  The motto that President Barack Obama has made his own.
Last Monday he repeated it in Dublin to a vast enthusiastic crowd delighted to be sharing in his homecoming – even if we are talking about seven generations ago.  And given Ireland’s current economic woes, the positive reassurance offered by those couple of words from the President was all the more welcome.  Here’s a man who understands our need of hope, our need to trust that adversity can be turned around.  Add to that the heritage of the Kearneys of Moneygall emigrating to the USA so long ago, and President Obama had a more than ready audience. Is féidir linn.
‘Athenians,’ says Paul, ‘I see how religious you are.’  ‘I feel at home here, I see that you too treat worship with great seriousness.  I see that you too recognize that God is so much bigger than our ideas and systems.  And I see that doesn’t knock your faith that we all live and move and have our being in God.  Can we be certain of these things? Is féidir linn!  Yes, we can.’
So far, so good.  Paul has the crowd on his side.  Not as enthusiastically as Obama’s audience perhaps, but his reception a whole lot better than when he been talking earlier only to the philosophers among the locals.  They had dismissed him as ‘a babbler’ but now at least the crowd’s listening.  Well for the time-being anyhow.
When Paul gets to the resurrection of the dead his audience turns again.  Some think him a clown for spouting such a daft idea, and they make fun of him.  Others just turn away: ‘Oh, we’ll hear about this another time, eh?’ As if to say, if we know that’s what you’re going to talk about we’ll make sure we’re not here!
Familiar words and shared enthusiasms will get you so far, but they don’t necessarily keep people on board.  And sometimes the sympathy created is soon scorned.  Indeed things can become worse as a reaction sets in that puts a doubt against that previous fellow-feeling.  The togetherness of ‘Yes, we can’ all too soon becomes discord.  Did you see the photos of the press conference between Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and President Obama three days earlier?  In the TV version they were looking at one another, although obviously disagreeing in how moves towards peace might be advanced between Israel and the Palestinians.  The still photos, however, were taken after the video cameras had ceased – and the posture of them both made plain the real distance between them.
At the Areopagus there’s a distancing between Paul and his audience.  Paul shares his hope; but the basis of his hope is too much for most of them.  He cannot press his hope without the conviction on which it is based, but the Athenians won’t countenance that conviction.  They refuse to hear this truth.  Only a few, we are told, join him.
Only days before President Obama, there was another speech in Ireland in which an English-speaker used a little Gaelic.  ‘A huachtaráin agus a chairde’ began the Queen at her speech in Dublin Castle.  ‘President and friends,’ she said.  But what followed was of a very different character from the American President’s upbeat style.  She said, ‘It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss.  'These events have touched us all, many of us personally (her cousin, Lord Mountbatten was blown up by the IRA in 1979), and are a painful legacy.’  There’s a realism and honesty there that’s an essential component of changing relationships for the better.
Paul cannot turn his back on the resurrection of Christ, no matter that is loses him his sympathetic audience.  As 1 Peter puts it, this is an essential part of sanctifying Christ in our hearts, and of this we must always be ready to make a defence to whoever asks us to give an account of our hope.  Realism and honesty can be served no other way.  We may be maligned, we may be abused, we may be fearful or intimidated but our conviction must hold fast to the hope of Christ risen from the dead.  Can we live that hope with love?  Can we live it with open hearts eager to win friends, but without compromising that conviction?  Can we be as Christ even to those who scoff?  Can we live the risen life here and now?  Is féidir linn.  Yes, we can.

Monday, 23 May 2011

There's no one as Irish as Barack O'Bama.

Infectious joy is the only way to described President Obama's reception in Ireland today. As strange as it may seem, this was seen by everyone as a homecoming.  Alongside his well-known Hawaian and Kenyan roots the President stood with some 40 million other Irish-Americans and proudly claimed his Irish ancestry.

How that ancestry was proven is a remarkable tale in itself.  Genealogists had been working on Obama's ancestry during the election campaign.  They had uncovered the fact that the would-be-president's great-great-grandmother had an Irish immigrant father, one Fulmouth Kearney, who arrived in New York on 20th March 1850 from Moneygall, Co Offaly, but there the documentary trail went cold. It took the Church of Ireland Rector of Cloughjordan in Co. Tipperary, Canon Stephen Neill, to find the missing evidence.  The church records of Templeharry near Moneygall had been in the care of its Treasurer, Elizabeth Shortt, who died in 2007.  Fortunately her son kept the old books his mother had looked after for so long, and it was in these faded volumes that the Rector found incontrovertible proof of the Fulmouth Kearney connection and more.  It turns out that Kearney family members had in fact been in America since the 1790s with different individuals emigrating there over the course of several generations.

So as the song goes, 'There's no one as Irish as Barack O'Bama,' and the President can justifiably claim to be recovering an Irish apostrophe lost somewhere along the way!  And yet we may wonder whether there's much actual content to that remembering of an Irish ancestry.  Is it really anything more than a curious fact about the past?  

My answer has to be that it is indeed more than just a curiosity.  The 'Irish connection' reinforces again the President's credentials as a real American - an inheritor of that proud tradition of immigrants who against all the odds built a new land and an identity for themselves.  In that way this old lineage serves a very present purpose.  The rather improbable way these connections were discovered only serves to reinforce the romance of it all.  This remembering touches hearts, enhances reputation, and reinforces common ideals expressed in the person of President Obama.

Collective memory mechanism:

Remembering always serves the present.

Remembering we forget.

Many thanks to all those who contributed so positively to the workshops mentioned in my last blog. There was a great 'buzz' at the conference of which they were a part.  It was a memorable forty-eight hours for the two hundred or so people who took part.  Hopefully participants will have been able to talk about it at length on their journeys home.  Some will meet to see how the ideas discussed can be taken further in their own congregations and localities.  Others will be busy on articles about the conference for church magazines. And others will be following-up for themselves things to do as a consequence of their attendance.  But all of us will be conscious that our memory of the content of the sessions we've enjoyed together is already waning.  Talking about the conference, meeting others who attended, and trying to describe the experience to people who didn't attend will all help to slow down that decay of memories, but as those social interactions become less frequent and more distant from the event the recall becomes more difficult.  The group which created the memories (the conference gathering) is no more and our memories of it are dependent on meaningful recall of it in groups of people that share its significance.  That's the heart of what collective memory means.  Gathering, talking, sharing, and acting together is an essential aspect of memory.

Collective memory mechanism:
Remembering needs communication and relationships.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Making it memorable: preaching the Bible in forgetful times.

This weekend I'm leading a couple of workshops on collective memory and preaching.  This is the handout for those sessions.  I intend to amplify some of the points in future blogs:
Maurice Halbwachs (11 March 1877 - 16 March 1945), the French philosopher and sociologist who was the originator of the concept of
collective memory.
Remembering is not just recall.  We remember by communicating with one another.
Remembering is a process of organising and structure.
Memories are ordered in relationship to the epochs of our lives.
Social belonging determines what is memorable. 
Memories are ‘situated/located’ in specific groups and specific places and times.  
Some of what we remember we haven’t experienced but we remember it because it is important to the group to which we belong.

Remembering always serves the present.

His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
John 12.16
Memories are therefore held together by participation.
Western culture is ‘a culture of amnesia’ (Andreas Huyssen).
For the Christian faith ours are forgetful times.  If participation is an essential component of remembering, how is the faith memory to be maintained without participation?  It is as if the links in our chains of memory are corroding and getting ever thinner.  Perhaps some of the links are already broken (Danièle Hervieu-Léger)
Every Christian gathering is a mnemonic event.  We remember we are remembered by God.

Preaching in an amnesic society [three ‘Is’ and three ‘Ps’]:
  • ·         Intentional memory work (soul work not information)
  • ·         Immersed in the tradition (Scripture never just ‘wallpaper’)
  • ·         Imagination that goes beyond the obvious (create links)
  • ·         Presentist (what it means not what it meant)
  • ·         Performative (a creative event in which all play a part)
  • ·         Productive (creates memory)