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?


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.


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.

The Once and Future God

What is the future of God? How can we talk about God, and what do we mean by that word in a postmodern, perhaps even post-atheist world? With these questions Westar Fellows Joseph Bessler, author of A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better, and David Galston, author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, kicked off the first day of Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? with "The Once and Future God" at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, California. As Joseph Bessler said, "We are living without an end to the story" of what life means, individually and communally. Bessler and Galston, with insights from conference participants and presiders Jarmo Tarkki and John Kelly, tackled this very modern problem by exploring how earlier generations have confronted and explained God conceptually.

Christian Theology's Debt to Plato

Early Christians recognized that the significance of Jesus required a wider context than a simple narrative of his life and teachings. They cast the life of Jesus through the lens of the life of Socrates, which we can see in texts such as 1 Corinthians 1-3, in which Paul is confronted with the problem that the cross is a "scandal" - humiliation in the extreme - in Roman culture. He needed to give the cross a new meaning. To kill Christ was to kill a wise one, and this was something Hellenistic culture had done 500 years earlier, with Socrates. Even the condemnation of the State could not undo Socrates; so, too, the Christ.

Joseph Bessler

Joseph Bessler

It is important to understand that Plato, the student of Socrates, created a foundation for Christianity that lasted over a thousand years, so much so that Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) would later describe Christianity as "Platonism for the masses." Plato's theory of the Forms enabled Christians to articulate that appearances are different from reality. What seems like a scandal is in fact, the power of God. There's a sort of longing in Platonism that translates into Christianity, too - a longing, perhaps, for stability. While we can participate in ultimate reality from a Platonic perspective, it's "shadows all the way down." Without guidance, we cannot fully grasp reality. According to Plato, we can reach ultimate reality through reason, which is reliable with proper training. The Christian theologian Augustine would later argue differently, that we cannot reach ultimate reality (God) because of moral fault brought about through moral freedom. This necessitated a savior, the Christ.

God: The Modern Problem

The Platonic view of reality dominated until the 13th or 14th century, when the West shifted toward nominalism, a focus on words and the relationships among words. We have a concept of something not because we know the Form but because we experienced it: a horse is a horse because I saw one, experienced it, and named it. In a world like this, God is free of nature ... and nature is free of God. This shift in thinking about reality simultaneously opened up theology for Protestant revolutionaries and nature for scientists.

David Galston

David Galston

This transition didn't come without losses, however. We can no longer have a transcendental relationship with the universe anymore; we now experience the universe as all there is. What happens to the idea of Jesus if he does not participate in the eternal substance of God? We woke up to the notion that the historical Jesus is really very, very different from the Christ of theology. We are struggling in the wake of this transformation, brought about by modernity, to find the rhetoric for modern religious language.

Modern theologians have attempted to save God: they have explored God as the Word beyond word, God as a mystery in which we participate, God as pluralistic (liberation theology, feminist theology, queer theology), and God as the energy of becoming. All these models struggle with modern language about God. Buddhism offers some help in this situation, inasmuch as it expresses how the world arises all together in relation with everything else. All is defined by relationship, and this fact is experienced as liberating. But we have by no means resolved the issue.

God and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

As modern society gained historical consciousness, theologians like Martin Kahler set aside the historical Jesus as less important, less historic, than the Christ of faith. Theologians didn't do this arbitrarily; the various quests for the historical Jesus are marked by the sociocultural context in which each quest arose. While Kahler found the Christ of faith a better route, theologians like Reimarus and Strauss responded to the hostile environments of their times by appealing to the historical Jesus. The Christ of faith might be associated with princes, but the historical Jesus related with peasants and told parables that upended normal social expectations. The Christ of faith, which society embraced, stood for an important end; the historical Jesus spoke parables without aim, playful in Nietzsche's sense. This opened up the possibilities of Christian language.

Neitzche, too, found a role for the historical Jesus where he rejected the Christ of faith. Neitzche prioritized vitality, forging one's own path, as a direct response to the dominant Christian framework of his era. Neitzche's child, inspired by the historical Jesus, is the one who is open to experience and embodies the "eternal return." Jesus' parables break down the habits of everyday life in a similar way; the stories can be humorous, but they have an edge to them. They are critical. The child, too, is about creativity, critical imagination, seeing things differently. That is the challenge of theology today. Perhaps God as a metaphor has run its course. We need to reawaken our language. The historical Jesus succeeded at that.

A Way Forward

Conference participants asked a variety of questions about the way forward. What role can mystical and ecstatic religious experiences play in our language of God? How do individuals like David Galston and Joseph Bessler, who are both affiliated with particular religious communities, make new language "work" within those communities? What questions will be addressed by the emerging God Seminar?

Want to know more? You can see a video clip and Twitter timeline of live updates from The Once and Future God Q&A Session. Follow @WestarInstitute on Twitter to get updates about future Westar events and projects.

Fellows Jarmo Tarkki, David Galston, Joseph Bessler, and John Kelly responded to conference attendees' questions in the final session of the day.

Fellows Jarmo Tarkki, David Galston, Joseph Bessler, and John Kelly respond to conference attendees' questions in the final session of the day.