Tag Archives: Alan Kirk

Memory Theory and the Historical Jesus

Alan Kirk

Bloomsbury publishers sent me an electronic copy of Memory and the Jesus Tradition, a collection of articles by Alan Kirk, for review and comment in response to my request. My first post on this book was Memory and the Pursuit of the Jesus Tradition. This post, my second, responds to chapter 10, “Memory Theory and Jesus Research”, which was originally published in the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2011). It’s a good opportunity to do an overview of how biblical scholars apply memory theory in historical Jesus studies.

One of Alan Kirk’s main points in this chapter is that memories are not inert blocks waiting to be brought out whenever called upon, but are malleable, and not only open to modification but also actively shape our perceptions of certain changing circumstances in our lives.

A second critical point Kirk emphasizes is that community memories do not work like the game of ‘Telephone’.  Rather, memories in community settings are like more like nets. Multiple witnesses or “rememberers” are there to correct and refine the stories as they are told and retold. The “net” model safeguards against the sorts of losses and changes that the party game or laboratory experiments experience.

Fellow blogger Tim Widowfield is far more on top of Rudolf Bultmann’s work than I am and he may wish to contribute, perhaps even correct, either what I am writing here or what Kirk himself has written.

In Kirk’s view the old form critical approach to historical Jesus studies (originating with Rudolf K. Bultmann) assumed the former “inert block” view of memory. It was Bultmann’s view that by identifying and peeling away accretions building up on a story one could arrive at the initial account. Those accretions were essentially fabrications imposed on the original story that were created to meet the changing needs and interests of the church.

The gospel tradition was thus construed as a bifurcated entity: fabricated tradition coming to overlay diminishing residues of memory, for their part more or less inert with respect to the traditioning process itself. Tradition thus conceived primarily gave expression to the contemporary debates, predicaments and developments of the early communities.

Bultmann’s analysis was in fact characterized by a programmatic disconnect between memory and the growing tradition, his occasional gestures to ‘reminiscence’ notwithstanding. This was the consequence of according little agency to memory and instead locating the decisive generative forces for tradition in contemporary social factors.

Collective memory, Kirk points out through references to numerous studies, organizes and gives meaning to the data that is being recalled. Citing Barry Schwartz he writes

collective memory thus becomes ‘a social fact as it is made and remade to serve changing societal interests and needs’.

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Turning Awful Prose into Bad Poetry

English: William McGonagall, scottish poet
William McGonagall, Scottish doggerel poet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’t expect to get much out of this post; I’m just letting off some steam.

This afternoon while we were channel-surfing among several games on DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket, I paused and asked my wife to listen to a sentence from a book I was reading. When I finally finished, she admitted she didn’t understand any of it and asked me if the author was a native English speaker.

Sadly, the sentence was not the product of a single foreign author, working hard to compose in an alien tongue, but of two authors — one from Canada, one from the U.S. — both with PhDs. You might think that having two educated minds working on the same essay would result in better prose, with the excesses of one writer being held in check by the other.

In this case it didn’t work out that way. If anything, Alan Kirk and Tom Thatcher appear to have been engaged in a competition to write the most obscure prose imaginable. As a result, reading their essay, “Jesus Tradition as Social Memory” (Memory, Tradition, and Text, 2005, pp. 25-42) is like watching random words splash over your brain. You recall the act of reading, but you have no memory of the content.

I then recalled ex-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s impenetrable prose, which when re-formed as poetry, somehow took on an almost zen-like quality.

The Unknown

As we know, 
There are known knowns. 
There are things we know we know. 
We also know 
There are known unknowns. 
That is to say 
We know there are some things 
We do not know. 
But there are also unknown unknowns, 
The ones we don’t know 
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense news briefing

So, I wondered if perhaps Kirk and Thatcher’s word-piles might fare equally well if given the same treatment. Here’s the versified sentence I read to my wife. read more »