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Christianity in the Public Memory of the West

In most cases, Christianity emerges in the public memory of the West where it is artistically and culturally relevant. Enough people must have an inkling of the story that it makes a difference to the conversation. This is how most Christian narratives stay alive in Western culture. But the story itself is built on fragmentary evidence, the blanks all but forgotten. What would happen if we brought the fragments back into plain view, rather than explaining them away ... and why should we bother?

maccari-cicero-denounces-catiline

Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari (1889). The scene is the Roman Senate House, the year 63 BCE. By rendering the scene nearly two thousand years later, Maccari participated in keeping this moment in history alive.

“History has to have a certain number of people who recognize it,” said Chinese artist and exile Ai Weiwei in his recent interview with Ian Johnson. “But no one recognizes what we do because we can’t reach the public sphere. So it has no influence. It has no influence on education. It has no use in our public memory.”

Here in the West we can point fingers at China’s censorship practices and applaud Weiwei on his bravery for carrying out projects like the 5.12 Citizen’s Investigation, but to do so is perhaps to miss a point that hits closer to home. In spite of the fact that countless bits and pieces of Christian lore have been regularly questioned, debunked, or in other ways undermined by historians, scientists, and philosophers for at least two hundred years—and in spite of the fact that hardly anyone reads the Bible, and that there are fewer actual Christians in the West than there once were—Christianity still has undeniable power in the public square. Speaking especially from the context of the United States, whether we personally identify as Christian or not, Christianity still has a direct and measurable impact on our lives, from birth control regulations to end-of-life decisions to the nature of marriage to the very notion of the American Dream.

Most of us, most of the time, don't even notice.

If you don’t know how a house is built, how do you fix a cracked foundation? If you don’t know which walls are load-bearing, how do you expand and improve upon the underlying structure? Likewise, if you don’t know the common ways a word is used in the English language, how do you employ it well in a new sentence? If you don’t know some uncommon usage—places where a word “plays the edge” of possible meanings—how to do you innovate with it, as artists do?

Embedded in every attempt to tell a history is a web of evidence, interpretation, desire, oversight, and purposeful acts of evasion.

History, too, has load-bearing sections and edges where useful play can happen. Embedded in every attempt to tell a history is a web of evidence, interpretation, desire, oversight, and purposeful acts of evasion. Some circles focus on the load-bearers (facts, evidence) and other circles focus on the edges (deconstruction, or simply a healthy dose of skepticism), but of course both are always implicated in the work. Would Ai Weiwei’s attempts to establish a public memory of the Sichuan earthquake have made any impact at all if he could produce only a story with no evidence? What if he had presented the evidence of 5000 student deaths due to faulty architecture in cut-and-dry statistics and measurements, with no story? What if the story he chose to tell simply wasn’t as compelling as the government’s reinforced silence?

“But I don't see the Christian story as that kind of problem,” one might say. “‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ That's compelling, and it gives people a sense of meaning for their lives. Why undermine something that gives a lot of people hope?”

“I have a different protest,” enters another voice. “We have no evidence—or very little—for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. It is not history in the strict meaning of the word at all. The very idea of a crucified and resurrected Son of God is a myth, like all the other dying-and-rising god myths before it.”

In response to both, we must acknowledge that two stories have become woven together, the story of Jesus and the story of Christianity itself. Ancillary stories about the Apostles Paul and Peter, early Christian martyrs, and so on, form a bulwark around the creedal core story of Jesus. It’s a bulwark built by many, many hands. The story and its subplots are so deeply embedded in Western history that it doesn’t need any central power to pull the strings. A conspiracy theory is of no help to us here. Sonia Smith in “The Road to Damascus” had no Christian agenda in drawing parallels between kidnapped journalist Austin Tice and the fictional Damascus Road story of the Apostle Paul. It was artistically and culturally relevant; enough people had an inkling of the story that she suspected it would resonate. This is how most Christian narratives stay alive in Western culture.

Enough people have an inkling of the story… History has to have a certain number of people who recognize it…

Consider this translation of a poem by the Greek poetess Sappho, who lived around 620 bce. The translator, Guy Davenport, intentionally left blanks bracketed in the fragments to convey a sense of what has been lost:

[               ] slick with slime [                 ] [      ] Polyanaktidas to satiety [           ] [      ] shoots forward [                           ] Playing such music upon these strings
Wearing a phallus of leather [              ] Such a thing as this [            ] enviously
[              ] twirls quivering masterfully
[                                   ] and has for odor
[                 ] hollow [                                ] [                                                                  ] [                                  ] mysteries, orgies

Of this Peter Turchi once remarked, “Omissions, intended or unintended, provoke the imagination.” Is that not what Christian history has so often done to the Western psyche—provoked it with tantalizing fragments? Except we’ve dropped the brackets. You could say we've lost our creative license.

While this sounds like a metaphor, I mean it concretely. I almost hesitate to offer up Christianity’s most obvious example—the Bible—for fear that what I’m trying to communicate will be misread as yet another jab at taking the Bible literally. This is so much bigger than the Bible, so much bigger than fundamentalism and its milder cousins. Yes, the “literal” community has filled in blanks right and left, but to put it only in their corner is to suggest a fringe activity, an extreme act not taken by “the rest of us,” as though our appreciation of great art and literature and the strange posturing of candidates at presidential debates wasn't predicated on our understanding of Bible stories.

rylandsfragment3

Rylands P52, John Rylands University Library in Manchester, UK, dated 117–150 CE.

The Bible is fragmentary in physical terms, monolithic only in cultural terms. What we see in everyday life are whole bound books on shelves, but bound Bibles and their modern children—searchable databases like Bible Gateway—are end products. They’ve been translated and constructed from artifacts like canon lists and the tiniest scraps of papyrus housed in libraries and museums spanning the world (the seven-line scrap of the Gospel of John, pictured here, is our oldest example). Canon lists, papyrus, mosaics, paintings, church architecture, and so on form the actual evidence, the facts, from which the compelling and nevertheless polyvalent narrative known as “Christianity” has been built over the years—a narrative over which no one person anymore has (or likely ever had) full control.

In most cases the artifacts are themselves attempts to tell a story. With no body to exhume, no fragment of a cross, no tomb, what remains to us is part memory, part story. And the memories may not be of what we think. It's possible, for instance, to see the emergence of Christianity not as the triumph of an individual visionary or messiah but as a community's response to social brokenness.

We have to contend with incomplete information, even lies. Ai Weiwei invited friends and family to send him recordings of the names of loved ones who died in the Sichuan earthquake. Those recordings came to form a personal witness that is powerful, but of course it’s at least plausible that one or two people compulsively made up a name or false relationship, much as Steve Rannazzi fabricated a story that he had been at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Weiwei has labored to establish that the earthquake and the deaths really happened, and conspiracy theories about 9/11 remain a constant source of public irritation, so we don’t like to admit elements of dissonance. But dissonance is a fact of human memory and human longing.

Dissonance in the Christian story came into its own at the time of the Declaration of Independence with Hermann Samuel Reimarus, whose 1778 essay “The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples” accused the disciples as out-and-out frauds. Of it, Albert Schweitzer wrote in The Quest of the Historical Jesus:

To say that the fragment on “The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples” is a magnificent piece of work is barely to do it justice. This essay is not only one of the greatest events in the history of criticism, it is also a masterpiece of general literature. The language is as a rule crisp and terse, pointed and epigrammatic — the language of a man who is not “engaged in literary composition” but is wholly concerned with the facts. At times, however, it rises to heights of passionate feeling, and then it is as though the fires of a volcano were painting lurid pictures upon dark clouds. Seldom has there been a hate so eloquent, so lofty a scorn; but then it is seldom that a work has been written in the just consciousness of so absolute a superiority to contemporary opinion. And withal, there is dignity and serious purpose; Reimarus’ work is no pamphlet.

But the dissonance has remained just that, a wavering on the fringe of an otherwise stable story. I feel a sense of disappointment that in the public square one does not regularly hear an alternative story of Christianity that overcomes what Weiwei mourned in his own context: “It has no influence on education. It has no use in our public memory.”

When Weiwei set out to form a story of the Sichuan earthquake, he was answering a systematic attempt to enforce silence by specific state actors. That’s not the situation of Christianity in the West. Where there is no enemy, merely something so amorphous as “popular culture” or “the market,” we are fighting only our own desires and memories. If a story serves us, we’ll go right on telling it. We need to be enchanted by the new story rather than by the promise of a scandal from a tell-all exposé of the old one.

Where there is no enemy, merely something so amorphous as “popular culture” or “the market,” we are fighting only our own desires and memories.

Christianity in the public memory of the West tells a crisis and redemption story. It promises delivery into a good future for those who deserve it. Since we all, at some point, face crisis, the stories well up naturally in response. But the stories include blanks filled in by tradition. Which stories are worth their own fragmentary nature? What vestiges will you retain so that listeners feel the thrum of familiarity behind your version of the story? Otherwise you'll struggle to make it matter at all in the public square.

What I will offer you is this: I'll gift you my blanks, as with Sappho.

[     ] Jerusalem Temple [                                           ] [          ] many thousands were crucified [               ] [          ] a shallow trench [                                          ] [     ] after a hard day’s walk [                                    ] Male and female they exchanged for a day’s bread
without implements for healing [                             ] [               ] light-givers [                                               ] [           ] pierced but not bleeding [                           ] [                                                                                        ] [                                            ] pearls for God's Empire

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.