“This is a time when we need the poetic imagination to bring reminders of who we are and what is important for us. There is a strong thread of this kind of imagining in the biblical narrative.”
Perhaps it is my age or maybe it is the age in which we live but recently I have been hearing a lot about forgetting and remembering. I have been thinking about these two siblings not so much their presence in the daily routines of life (I can’t find my keys or I have a meeting today.) but more for the insight they provide about who we are. It has been suggested that we live in a culture of amnesia – where the present looms so large that it radically diminishes awareness of the past. One is reminded of the ancient gathering in Athens noted in Luke’s record, the Acts of the Apostles, – where the Athenians and the foreigners had no time for anything but talking or hearing about the latest novelty. Memory is an important resource for life. Not just memory of the pleasantries of the past but memory which recalls both pleasure and pain and discerns something of the truth of what has gone into making us who we are. Memory is commonly linked with the notion of identity – whether collective or individual.
Theologian Miroslav Volf does this in his recent book, The End of Memory: Rightly Remembering in a Violent World. He writes of how our self perception is rooted in what we remember. To lose or repress memory is to lose our true identity. We are easily tempted to revise our stories in a manner that allows us to shape a more acceptable sense of ourselves, our family history, our culture or our nation. This is a temptation that draws us into a false and unreal world. We are of course more than our memories we are also what we hope for in the future.Volf writes, “A person with a healthy sense of identity… will let the future draw her out of the past and the present and will play with new possibilities and embark on new paths.”
Memory can be a context to help us interpret the present and anticipate the futureThere is something else at work here when we engage in recollection. Imagination engages memory to do its work. Walter Brueggemann is instructive on this matter. As he understands it “imagination is not a freelance …operation that spins out novelty. [it is] a fresh liberated return to memory”. One of the things memory is able to do is to affirm particularity something we commonly find in the Hebrew Scriptures. We are inclined to affirm sameness to preserve us from the tensions of difference. Claims such as ‘all religions are the same’, or ‘what everyone is really after is happiness’ posea challenge to our particularity, a challenge which memory resists. Poets (artists) may suffer this loss of memory or they may be advocates who recognize the power of memory to inform our understanding of the present and call us to a hopeful future. This is a time when we need the poetic imagination to bring reminders of who we are and what is important for us. There is a strong thread of this kind of imagining in the biblical narrative. The Christian calendar aids us in engaging memory for the sake of the present and future. Advent is a time to remember and the history of visual art is replete with images that take that story into the ordinariness of life inviting it to do its transforming work.