Preaching as Memory Maintenance

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Chapter Seven

Preaching as memory maintenance: A contemporary imperative

7.1 The perspective of this thesis.

Our story is narrated by a fallible witness called a ‘preacher,’ on the basis of smallish and sometimes ambiguous stories called ‘texts,’ amidst a less-than-powerful minority group called a ‘congregation.’ That it identifies itself as a witness or a confession testifies to its vulnerability in a world of totalizing discourse. (Lischer, 2005: 101)

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Such is Richard Lischer’s judgement in his 1999 Lyman Beecher lectures of preaching’s place in contemporary discourse. His assessment of the foolishness of preaching (cf 1 Corinthians 1.21) and its humble place in our contemporary social circumstances is a fitting backdrop to the argument presented in this thesis. The preacher’s recounting of ‘the story’ is part of a battle to be heard and to be attested as being worth hearing, for, as Lischer puts it, the Christian lives ‘waist-deep in competing narratives’ (2005: 101). Whatever else the argument of the current thesis demonstrates, it clearly discloses the precariousness and vulnerability in our society of that story that is the Christian tradition of faith.

It has been argued in this thesis that the nature of that vulnerability in Britain underwent a decisive gear-change in the 1950s. As the negative impact of that gear-change on the public awareness of the Christian tradition was increasingly recognized so homiletic theory sought to develop strategies to ameliorate its consequences. Much of that theory originated in the United States where its development, at least in the earlier part of the period under review, was prompted not so much by a sense of preaching’s social weakness as by a new appreciation of social pluralism and what that means for public discourse generally. Coupled with both the awareness of preaching’s social vulnerability as a form and the recognition of a new social pluralism was a widespread sense that the communication techniques of preaching were not as good as they needed to be in a mass media world. On both sides of the Atlantic, the publication of books of sermons was replaced by the publication of theoretical and applied practice books concerned either to make sermons better or to establish that a particular voice or style was an authentic example of Christian preaching. The sheer volume of American texts published meant they increasingly dominated in influence and in the diagnosis of need and strategy, despite differing social contexts.

The consequence of such dominance, as was noted earlier (sections 1.2 and 2.3), is that many of the ‘voices’ of preaching recognized as distinctive-for example, black preaching, liberationist preaching, and feminist preaching-have about them a markedly American tone, even if the commentary originates elsewhere. Likewise, the most influential theoretical and strategic studies this thesis has examined, namely Buttrick’s phenomenological approach (section 5.3), the New Homiletic prompted by Craddock’s inductive method (sections 1.5, 1.6 and 2.8), or the contextually related hermeneutic of someone like Tisdale (section 5.4), are all American; Browne’s preaching as art form (sections 2.7 and 5.2.3) being the one British exception. Arguably the beginnings of such American hegemony goes right back to Phillips Brooks’ Lectures on Preaching of 1877 (section 5.2). Certainly those lectures have been strikingly influential for an amazingly long period of time, and the psychological awareness inherent in Brooks’ preaching methodology was prescient of what has become sine qua non in preaching practice (section 2.4).

One of the increasingly common themes of the theoretical work mentioned has been a focus on practice in the light of intellectual paradigms such as postmodernism, deconstruction and radical hermeneutics that are deeply suspicious of all overarching generalizations. The emphasis on delineating schools of preaching that have previously been unnoticed, giving new prominence to ‘recovered’ styles, or the advocacy of a radical diversity of voices as a good, can be seen as an outworking of this focus. For those at home with the idea of postmodernism, preaching is assumed to be part of that totalizing speech characteristic of an overweening modernity that claimed too much authority for what is actually but one take on reality amongst many others (section 1.6). In that sense, preaching is inevitably imperialistic in that it seeks to convert the hearers to a hegemonic worldview, or so goes the argument. In this estimation, the New Homiletic with its inductive use of images, metaphors and symbols is no less under suspicion than older deductive styles. To critics such as McClure (2001) and Long (2009), all such developments are criticized as having based themselves on an appeal to common human experience that is in reality hegemonic. Those taking this line ask where are the voices that have been silenced in the juxtapositions the preacher unhesitatingly adopts. They also point out that deconstructionists insist that the notion of language serving an ontological function is, at the least, questionable. It is opined that words at best can only hint at what always remains otherwise than Being. The preacher speaks too easily of God, denuding God of the otherness that makes God God. Ironically, despite the philosophical complexities raised, in the contemporary social shift towards the spiritual as opposed to the religious, these ideas appear to fit comfortably with populist notions of ‘mystery’ and the inadequacy of language to express what the spiritual seeker needs. As this thesis has noted repeatedly, that sort of radical questioning put alongside the mass media pressure towards simple, personal-expressive, and brief communication, has inevitably reinforced doubts about the very notion of preaching as a purposeful task, even within the churches themselves (see for example, the website, which challenges the purposefulness of what is termed ‘monological preaching’). Underlying this thesis is a belief that the commonplace nature of such arguments works to obscure the essential part played by collective memory in preaching (and indeed in all areas of discourse).

If, as the theory examined here insists, all meaningful discourse is rooted in memory, and if an individual’s memory can only function in relation to social interactions, then participants in any social discourse need to be alert to memory mechanisms as inevitably operational in what they say and do. Making such processes apparent is all the more significant in discourses that are explicitly and foundationally dependent on right remembering. The Christian faith is one such discourse. The unique contribution to that ‘making apparent’ this thesis seeks to advance is the part preaching has in that memory work. It is not that critiques of homiletic practice or the focus on distinctive preaching voices are inappropriate strategies, but rather that, without a prior appreciation of the processes of collective memory, they are likely to be of little avail.

The argument defended here can be outlined in straightforward terms: Christian faith is focused in a right remembering of the action of God in Jesus Christ; it is therefore essentially a living from an inherited tradition; to be creatively operative in this way tradition is formed out of collective memories; to remember we need the support of social belonging and action; preaching is a key component in the maintenance of collective memories, but it can only be so if the power of social frameworks are properly acknowledged since present needs determine the liveliness and continuity of collective memories; preaching therefore has, at one and the same time, to contend with the decay of memories on which it is reliant and rework present memory resources so as to enable them to become collective memories. Preaching understood in this way validates tradition’s immense creativity by itself being a practice of faithful living, imaginative construal, and social criticism born of tradition. Such memory maintenance is of necessity centripetal and inclusive of the other because social memory can only work in a participatory social environment.

This, then, is the broad outline of the argument of this thesis. Before drawing together its conclusions and by way of an orientating restatement, this chapter now briefly returns to the social and theological concerns that prompted it in the first place.

7.2 The social significance of the problem restated.

This thesis argues that utilizing the processes of social memory is an essential part of the contemporary homiletician’s task. Underlying that argument is a conviction that the collective memory of the Christian tradition, understood in its widest terms, has severely decayed in recent years in British society. The erosion of the inherited cultural references, spiritual consciousness, and social and personal knowledge, of the Christian faith means that the preacher cannot rely on a currency of common symbols and understandings in ways preachers previously did. Of course, the prevalence of that socially located awareness of the faith in earlier times should not be over emphasized. As this study acknowledged at the outset, concerns about preaching’s lack of social connection were voiced vigorously in Victorian times. The fact that First World War military chaplains were dismayed at the profound ignorance of the faith amongst the troops (Wilkinson, 1978) should make for a proper hesitation about any sense of a golden age in terms of this aspect of homiletic practice. Nevertheless, as was argued in earlier chapters, since the 1950s, the direction of social change has been relentlessly that of an accelerating decline in the social memory of the Christian faith.

Symbols, stories, and codes of behaviour based in the Christian faith no longer connect with many people in the way that they did in earlier generations. That statement might properly prompt many different approaches to the analysis of the place of religion in contemporary British society. This thesis, however, concerns itself with just one closely defined area: what that change means for the practice of preaching. The current proliferation of preaching styles, it has been argued, is a direct consequence of that erosion. What was once characterized as ‘the voices’, or even ‘the voice’, of Christian preaching has morphed into a highly heterogeneous cacophony of expression and style. It might be objected that although often unacknowledged such a plurality of approaches was in reality always the case. What is different is that the multiplication of approaches is now often assumed to be a positive and proper response to divergence in all kinds of arenas of discourse in the wider society. Where once the sermon as a well structured and biblically focused monologue was almost unconsciously considered a proper vehicle of expression in all circumstances, that propriety is now challenged by a plethora of sometimes mutually exclusive approaches. Preachers alert to the radically changed communicative environment in which they work have responded by diversifying the ways in which they operate. And that diversity represents a huge variety of judgements about what should be the determining criteria of effective homiletic practice in current social circumstances.

An understandable urge to preach so as to be relevant to contemporary society has prompted a thorough reworking of practice and theory, as witnessed in the proliferation of books published. The sermon as Christian practice has been, and continues to be, extensively analysed in terms of Scriptural authority, hermeneutical authenticity, communication design, contextual engagement, and psychological salience. That in all these areas the issue of social relevance figures prominently, but generally without any reference to the mechanisms of social remembering, is from the perspective of this study, a major cause for concern.

The case being made here is that preaching is an aspect of the ongoing maintenance and creation of the lively and life-giving tradition that is the Christian faith. When the notion of the faith is abstracted from the tradition as a body of knowledge, or some other separated and bounded content however described, without reference to lived and social memory frameworks, its ability to perpetuate itself is damaged. Without the social framework of communal religious experience, the ability to connect religious ideas and teachings with life as ordinarily experienced becomes ever more attenuated. The shift in society noted here presents a very real challenge to the continuity of the memory for Christian faith in the light of Halbwachs’ assertion that that collective memory truly rests not on what is learnt but what is lived (Halbwachs, 1980: 57). Amplifying the consequences of that distinction is something to which this chapter will have to return at a later stage. For the moment, however, attention must be drawn again to this study’s contention that its close focus on the practitioner dilemmas of the contemporary British preacher does not mean that its argument is irrelevant to broader issues. Consequently, in the section that follows issues of social memory, in its widest terms, are briefly examined. The purpose in so doing is to underline the fact that the problems of homiletic practice being examined here do have some bearing on wider social concerns about memory in contemporary Western society.

7.3 The preoccupation with memory in Western culture.

In public arenas as diverse as museums, wayside shrines to road accident victims, family history websites and associated software, public policy concerns about an ageing population, battle re-enactment societies, the interpretation of works of art, food marketing, and car boot sales, concerns about memory are exposed. The urge to recover memories believed to have been lost, or to create memories to serve the purposes of marketing or commemoration, or to establish ways in which the future of memories can be assured, are activities recognizable in a diverse range of settings. At one and the same time, both nostalgia and ahistorical novelty are used as marketing tools. Ours is a world in which events of a distant past require apologies, while the immediacy of a furiously changing cultural environment seems to deny any value to inherited forms. Our society so often appears ill at ease with memory. Such concern is, as Gibbons observes (2007: 5), surely related to the often noted discontent with modernity’s universalizing and objectifying tendencies. The sense of coherence and progress so confidently expressed in the idea of modernity has given way in many quarters to an altogether more subjective and relativizing postmodernity. Starkly put, everything seems less simple, less rationally determined, and less certain than in even the recent past; questions of contingency and relativism touch everything. Ambiguity is the order of the day. In such circumstances, what to remember and how to remember have become pressing topics.

According to Andreas Huyssen, whose 1995 collection of essays Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia has been highly influential amongst cultural analysts in many different subject areas, this amounts to a crisis in the way time is perceived and experienced. He suggests that the information revolution works towards making categories such as past and future, experience and expectation, and memory and anticipation, obsolete. Accordingly, he sees the preoccupation with memory as an effort to recover a mode of contemplation outside the universe of simulation and high-speed information networks. Rapid technological changes are indicators of a widespread and threatening cultural heterogeneity, lack of synchronicity, and information overload that makes experience puzzling and rootless (1995: 7). For Huyssen, the turn towards memory is a desire to find a way of anchoring ourselves in a world of increasing instability.

That is not to say, however, that memory can be a tool to somehow replicate the former certainties of modernity. It is the very ambiguities of memory, its subjectivity and its confabulatory nature, that makes it so significant in many areas of contemporary discourse. Thus, Susannah Radstone (2000: 9-11) writes of the tensions and equivocations produced by the ambiguities of memory as crucial elements in its social value. She notes that memory tends to occupy a range of threshold or liminal positions: not only between subjectivity and objectivity, the outer and inner world, the self and society; but also between forgetting and remembering, and she suggests that these tensions have enormous implications for the purposeful use of memory (2000:11). Colloquial discourse frequently works to make a distinction between the highly variable and unreliable aspects of memories and a verifiable and scientifically reliable idea of memory. Here, the metaphors of memory popularly employed are drawn from the world of computers, although they hark back to the permanence and reliability of the ancient world’s use of the image of marks in a wax or clay tablet. In this contemporary usage, religious social memory is bracketed with transient and fleeting memories rather than permanently recorded memory. That distinction, however popular in everyday discourse, is unsustainable.

The neurobiologist Steven Rose makes the point that the prominence of computer and technological metaphors for memory in effect constrains appreciation of the radical indeterminacy, complexity and subtly of the human brain (Rose, 2003: 69-114). If that is a problem for the neurosciences, it is even more of a problem for religion in a secularized environment. Recognition of the problem in the highly rationalized discourse of molecular biochemistry, however, suggests that collective or social memory is as generally significant as Halbwachs claimed it to be. Rose writes:

Brains do not work with information in the computer sense, but with meaning. And meaning is a historically and developmentally shaped process, expressed by individuals in interaction with their natural and social environment. Indeed, one of the problems of studying memory is precisely that it is in this sense a dialectical phenomenon. Because each time we remember, we in some senses do work on and transform our memories, they are not simply being called up from store and, once consulted, replaced unmodified. Our memories are re-created each time we remember. (2003: 104 italics in original)

Later in the book Rose talks of ‘re-membering’ as ‘active re-making of the memory’, or a process of ‘reconsolidation’ (2003: 380). Although Rose does not directly discuss Halbwachs’ work (indeed he uses the term ‘collective memory’ in a rather narrow way as only referring to shared artificial, emotional or ideological remembrances) his terminology and understanding is redolent of the social mnemonic processes Halbwachs described. That a distinguished scientist with a life-time of memory research behind him recognizes the crucial significance of social factors in the dynamics of memory as a biological process is a heartening reinforcement of the worth of examining those processes within a field as small and specialized as homiletics.

The position of a scientist like Rose, which admits of the significance of elusive social and psychological aspects to measurable and observable physical changes, lends weight to the argument that the concept of social memory is more than a narrative or interpretive convenience. That admission should not, however, be used to sidestep issues of veracity. Recognising the power of factors that are sometimes disputed, contradictory, conflictual and prey to self-serving fictions does not mean that memory is, or should be, wholly abandoned to a sea of relativism. Yet it is the case that contemporary usage sometimes seems to point in that direction. As Gibbons observes:

The subjective, or even fictionalized, aspects of memory now seem to take precedence over trained and disciplined memory and its equivalent in history in the negotiations of the world. This is not to say that memory is no longer a vital agent of knowledge, without which our experience of the world would be ever transient and ever instantaneous; it is simply to say that the contingency of the knowledge that is held by memory is now widely understood, and that this has occasioned changes in its status and in the roles that it is given as a tool for understanding and navigating the world. (Gibbons, 2007: 5)

That the highly subjective, or indeed the fabricated, can be a significant part of an individual’s mnemonic processes is self-evidently true. As I have argued, however, that is not to claim that collective memory can be indifferent to the idea of veracity.

7.4 Memory as a problem for the practice of Christian faith.

The acknowledgement that estimations, such as those of Gibbons, about memory’s place in contemporary discourse raises profound and disquieting issues for the practice of Christianity has been a recurrent theme of this thesis. As I have argued, questions of authenticity and legitimization are matters which Christian memory cannot treat lightly. They are also, however, issues that have been troubling parts of the very concept of collective memory from the beginning, since the power given to the presentist determination of what is remembered has prompted critics to question the genuineness of the memories evoked. If ambiguity, contingency, and subjectivity are significant aspects of what makes memory such a vital element in discourses as diverse as art, history, literature and journalism, the same is not true of Christian discourse-where such things can appear as threats rather than positive motivators. ‘Trained and disciplined memory’, to use Gibbons’ (2007: 5) expression again, has usually been thought of as an essential part of faith formation; so memory work that plays down the significance of that rigour in memory is difficult, and all the more so because that playing down is widely socially affirmed. As Halbwachs so clearly understood, the mechanisms of collective memory he delineated present a particularly sharp challenge to Christianity’s insistence on historical remembrance as the foundation of its authenticity. That challenge is made all the more powerful by the contemporary ubiquity of memory work and the almost playful use of memory categories in so many areas where cross-disciplinary and ‘multi-vocal’ perspectives figure strongly. As Hervieu-Léger observes, in contemporary systems of meaning the forces of pluralization, subjectivization and individualization work together against the maintenance of collective memories that formerly united people with a sense of mutual belonging (2000: 30). Paradoxically, however, that very disintegration of collective memory structures works to spur ever more ardent preoccupation with memory work. Hervieu-Léger sums it up:

In the fluid, mobile domain of modern belief liberated from the hold of all-embracing institutions of believing, all symbols are interchangeable and capable of being combined and transposed. All syncretisms are possible. (2000: 75)

This leaves memory work in preaching as a particularly difficult task. As discussed earlier (section 5.5), none of the rhetorical strategies popular in homiletics in recent decades, namely an appeal to psychological impact, to authoritative teaching, to contextual connection, or to phenomenological engagement, provide resources to address directly collective memory maintenance, nor to deal with the profound shift towards subjectivism and ambiguity in the social understanding of memory itself.

This thesis has argued that memory occupies a central place in the Christian faith. Indeed, Volf’s assertion that ‘every single Christian confession is an exercise in memory’ is far from being hyperbole (2006: 97). As he points out, even the simple faith exclamation ‘Jesus is Lord!’ is, in effect, a memory statement, since it invokes the name of a person who lived in a particular time and place in the past. Christianity always, and in all circumstances, looks to the saving acts of Jesus Christ in history; and is not conceivable as Christianity without so doing. The oft repeated ‘do this in memory of me’ of the Eucharist signifies in bodily actions what is the Christian’s constant faith commitment to remember Jesus in all aspects of living. This remembering goes far beyond simple commemoration; it connects every believer in the body of believers with Christ as a living presence. It is indeed, as Rowan Williams has suggested, a way of ‘becoming contemporary with Jesus’. He writes that it involves … an openness to those other believers, past as well as present, in whom Jesus is believed to be active. Mature Christian identity is at home with the past-with diverse aspects of it, in diverse ways, but always as posing the question of relation with Jesus. (Williams, 2005: 91)

Halbwachs was indeed correct in his assertion that the Christian’s need to overcome the distance memory imposes between the believer and Christ is fundamental to faith. From the perspective of faith, however, the methods employed to overcome this distancing identified by Halbwachs, give a less than adequate account of the relationship between the believer and the founding events of the faith.

This memory of the community of memory serves present imperatives in just the way Halbwachs described: but in doing so the believer claims authenticity for the memory that goes way belong a convenient congruence. As the memory is rehearsed in worship and prayer, spoken of in sermons and decision making, and associated with places and social interactions, it incorporates people in a web of memory that each person can identify as ‘mine’. Such remembering spurs further action and touches every component of a believer’s life-emotional, cognitive, personal and social.

As Dahl demonstrates (see section 6.15), this kind of memory work has been a fundamental aspect of maintaining the faith since apostolic times, and draws on earlier Jewish associations of memory with action. This memory work requires a repeated requirement to celebrate, reflect on, and rehearse the memory concerned. In other words, its usage is structured and disciplined, and is recognized as formative within the body of believers. Incorporation of the Christian memory into the lived experience of the believer is a primary way of being a faithful believer. The faith’s symbols and meanings can only become resources for ongoing discipleship if they are embedded within social frameworks that enable them to be remembered, or perhaps more accurately re-membered.

There is an inherently cyclical nature to this remembering; as a group practices its memory it provides the framework that enables others to become part of that experience and shared memory, which in turn creates a new group of practice. But, as I have demonstrated, such structured formation from tradition is a social practice that often appears more and more problematic in contemporary Western society. It is pertinent to recall Hervieu-Léger’s fundamental question: ‘What constitutes the foundation of obligation in a society of individuals?’ (2000: 115). There is a double bind here: if obligation is dependent on shared memory which can only be shared memory if individuals share actions, or at least an appreciation of potentially shared actions, how is it possible to share and sustain that memory when no obligation exists to share action? If the symbols no longer connect because they have fallen out of memory and it is impossible to prompt the actions that would operationalize that memory because the symbols no longer exist, then the links in the chain of belief, action and memory are well and truly broken. The evidence of such a break is, of course, varied and ambiguous; in some places the links appeared weakened but still intact, whereas in others they seem largely shattered (this being Hervieu-Léger’s (2003) own estimation of the Roman Catholicism of her French homeland).

Cultural change, the varied nature of tradition, and how traditions gain or lose public recognition are topics that Graham Ward (2005) has recently addressed at length. One comment of his is particularly relevant to this study’s emphasis on the preacher’s place in sustaining tradition. He writes:

Traditions can be authoritatively stronger or weaker, more authoritarian or less. The authoritative strength or weakness of any tradition is governed by a number of factors such as the length of its history, its geographical distribution, its ideological content, the organisational structure that has given and continues to give that tradition its current public recognition, the character of that public recognition (whether the tradition is seen as significant, useful, good in any number of senses in which those terms might be interpreted), and the charisma of the figures who gave or give it public prominence. This authority, then, maps only to some extent on the tradition’s symbolic capital, for it is an authority that is stronger or weaker with respect to its power to discipline the desires (and therefore the bodies) of those committed to and situated within it. (Ward, 2005: 83)

A Halbwachsian perspective might raise several objections to Ward’s account; not least concerning the significance of the length of history of a tradition and the omission of any reference to the dynamics between the social and the individual in terms of how a tradition is recognized. Nevertheless, Ward raises two important issues that apply to the assessment of preaching’s role in the maintenance of tradition- namely, the charisma of the preacher and the bodily effect of preaching. On both counts, contemporary British preaching appears weak if these things are indeed indicators of a tradition’s authority. For example, in contemporary society preachers are not generally considered as charismatic communicators: a fact well illustrated in popular culture by the BBC’s highly successful Public Speaking Award show (first run in 2007) that has included broadcast comment from a huge range of ‘good’ speakers from the arts, the media, politics, entertainment and business but has never included a preacher. Likewise, within the Roman Catholic Church the acknowledged weakness of preaching about that Church’s teaching on sexuality in effecting behavioural compliance with such teaching suggests that preaching is often weak in its ability to direct action. Of course, it is not sensible to place too much weight on such cursory evidence, and certainly the suggestion that these aspects were substantially stronger in the past is not necessarily wholly accurate; yet it remains the case that, as popularly perceived, these are indicators of a weakening of religious tradition and the memory that goes with it. The perception is that affiliation and memory links that were once strong are no longer so; that things that were socially, as well as personally significant, have shattered.

The evidence around that perception of shattering is, of course, contentious and debatable. Nevertheless, as I have reiterated, it is clear that the sustaining of a lively and living Christian memory is a pressing issue in contemporary Britain, since even where the links are not broken they are decidedly decayed. This is more than the application to the Christian religion of a widely appreciated social concern for memory; this is about the very possibility of Christian believing in a society like ours. It is to preaching’s part in that possibility that this chapter now turns.

7.5 Preaching in an anamnestic community.

The churches of Western Europe have been characterized in this study as anamnestic communities set within uneasily amnesic societies. I take the church to be a canonical community; that is, a body of people who strive to orientate themselves in living according to the canon of Christian practices and texts. Christians in this understanding are in a constant cultural negotiation that works to order their lives in relation to the canons of the faith and life as it is presently lived and understood. Memory is the heart of the canon. Thus, as was said earlier, the quite literal statement in the canon of the Eucharist, ‘Do this is remembrance of me’, is a sign of an even wider and all embracing remembrance that is the living out of the canon. This understanding reinforces the insistence that word and sacrament belong together. Both components reinforce and sustain the memory from which each finds its origin, as well as, in their differing ways, expressing the continuing power of that same memory.

The earlier analysis of the works of Metz, Dahl and Schmemann (sections 6.11 to 6.17), arising from their varied Christian traditions, established that contemporary believers, in striving to assimilate their thought and action into the links of an inherited ‘chain of memory’, are doing what earlier believers did. Such memory work, however, goes beyond simple incorporation, repetition, replication or mimicry, into what Brueggemann terms ‘traditioning’. The collective memory of the church as a tradition in use, rather than as historically distanced by mere acknowledgement, is able to generate imaginative developments whilst retaining congruity with the originating tradition. As was seen in the previous detailed discussion (section 6.18), that generative ability is largely a consequence of the tradition’s eschatological and epicletic nature. The remembering to which the preacher is called, and to which the preacher re-calls the worshipper, is fundamentally a remembering that we are remembered by God, whose memory is reality and eternal life. It is of God’s nature to remember; an understanding of God’s nature that goes beyond ideas of impersonal timelessness to an engaged and engaging relationship with human action and memory.

This emphasis on the power of an inherited stream of understanding, and how indwelling that stream functions purposefully in the here and now, is reminiscent of Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument in his influential study in moral theory After Virtue (first edition 1981). This thesis echoes MacIntyre’s point that an adequate and lively sense of tradition opens up future possibilities, since it discloses to the present things made available from the past which are not otherwise accessible (MacIntyre, 1985: 223). MacIntyre’s conclusions about the character of a living tradition are worth quoting at length, since they demonstrate a fruitful symmetry with some of the mechanisms of collective memory examined in the present thesis. He writes:

A living tradition [then] is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations. Hence the individual’s search for his or her good is generally and characteristically conducted within a context defined by those traditions of which the individual’s life is a part, and this is true both of those goods which are internal to practices and of the goods of a single life. [Once again] the narrative phenomenon of embedding is crucial: the history of a practice in our time is generally and characteristically embedded in and made intelligible in terms of the larger and longer history of the tradition through which the practice in its present form was conveyed to us; the history of each of our own lives is generally and characteristically embedded in and made intelligible in terms of the larger and longer histories of a number of traditions. I have to say ‘generally and characteristically’ rather than ‘always’, for traditions decay, disintegrate and disappear. (1985: 222)

MacIntyre makes much of the narrative quality of existence and how the story a person believes him or herself to be part of has determining consequences for action. It is not an exaggeration to say that his is a narrative view of the self. Although he believes that that story of the self is always embedded in a communal story and that to over emphasize individualism underplays the significance of larger social forces (1985: 221), nevertheless, his focus is properly and primarily on those things that pertain to a unified moral self. Consequently, although several parts of MacIntyre’s discussion appear to echo Halbwachsian memory mechanisms (for example, his observations about tradition as socially embedded argumentation, his ideas about the decay of tradition, and what he says about the role of tradition in making things intelligible), some proper caution is, nevertheless, necessary in pressing that congruence. As MacIntyre is highly critical of social science generalizations that claim too much for their predictive power (1985: 88-108), it could be considered bizarre to adduce his work in support of a wide-ranging and sometimes contentious sociological theory.

Hopefully, however, the application of that theory has been tempered sufficiently in this thesis to allow the point that although MacIntyre’s work should not be subsumed into an unthinking reinforcement of Halbwachs, his work does offer some supporting insight. His repeated insistence that the concepts, arguments and judgements of moral philosophy are embodied in social groups and their continued existence through time, lends weight to collective memory theory. MacIntyre’s account of rationality as tradition-guided enquiry, like Thiselton’s account of habituation described earlier (sections 6.8 and 6.9), offers insights that work towards undergirding the notion of memory work advocated here. It is not necessary to share Halbwachs’ ideas of social determinism in memory processes in order to acknowledge the significance of inherited wisdom and the threats to that inheritance in an environment such as ours which is often contemptuous of tradition. Reliance on a canon, in the sense of a body of understandings passed through time because their importance and authority is recognized, is an essential way of knowing. To be forgetful of that way of knowing, or to be dismissive of its significance, is indeed to become amnesic.

Within a canonical community, as I have characterized the church, ways of rehearsing, reiterating and recalling the canon are essential to the community’s continuing existence. Without that memory work the community ceases to be. Where right remembering (see section 1.3) is a fundamental category of a group’s very existence, failures in mnemonic awareness and practice are catastrophic; a point made powerfully from their varied perspectives, as has been discussed, in the works of Hervieu-Léger (2000), Brueggemann (2007), and Yerushalmi (1996). The argument presented here is that the Christian preacher has a particularly significant role in that memory work, and that the failure of preachers and the communities of faith which they serve to appreciate that role is destructive of the very faith they seek to advance. The preacher is a community authorized bearer of memory, a role acknowledged in one way or another in the polity of many Christian churches. The processes of collective memory are regarded in this analysis, therefore, as things a preacher needs to keep constantly in mind, since they are aspects of the way a tradition is maintained as a lived tradition. It is to those processes that this chapter now turns in order to delineate the contours of that ‘keeping in mind.’

7.6 The processes of collective memory.

Halbwachs’ concept of collective memory is properly located within the orbit of what a person does. This is an understanding that contrasts sharply with the colloquial notion of memory as something that a person has, in the sense of what a person possesses. Colloquial usage suggests that memories are filed like so many papers within a cabinet, and that the mysterious capabilities of the brain lift out, as it were, from their storage place the appropriate page/memory when needed and then files it again after use ready to be lifted out anew when it is required further. Such metaphors of storage and retrieval have a very long heritage that goes right back to Plato’s Theaetetus (section 191c-e). Current usage, unlike the ancient texts, however, tends to underplay the active processing involved in favour of an altogether more static notion of possession drawn from comparison with computer memory chips. Contemporary scientific research into the processes that generate the engram, the memory trace within the brain, support the contention that memory is altogether more dynamic than simple storage and retrieval (see, for example, Rose (2003); Edelman and Changeux (2000); and Damasio (2000)). At its least contentious, the concept of collective memory suggests that such dynamism within the brain is echoed in the social dynamism of human interactions that provide the stimulus for memory work in the brain.

In The Collective Memory, Halbwachs discusses the difference between remembrances a person can evoke at will and those that cannot be recalled readily, or are only recalled with difficulty and great effort (1980: 46). He notes that the first type is also familiar or accessible to other people; whereas the second type is only available, as it were, to the individual concerned. Remembrances evoked with the most difficulty appear to be uniquely individual possessions, as against remembrances that appear most significant to the individual yet are readily available to other people. Paradoxically, remembrances that escape the purview of others only do so at the expense of oneself also (1980: 47). Halbwachs explains this difference in terms of social relationships. That which is easily remembered is preserved in the groups we easily and repeatedly enter in which relationships are known and familiar. That which is remembered with difficulty is associated with groups that are more remote to the individual’s present experience, or where contact is accordingly intermittent or non-existent. As Halbwachs puts it:

Groups that associate frequently enable us to be in them simultaneously, whereas others have so little contact that we have neither intention not occasion to trace their faded paths of communication. (1980: 47)

In other words, as an individual’s memory within the brain is a system property which cannot be simply equated with any one component-synaptic changes, circuitry, biochemistry, or whatever-so the relationship of that activity to what the individual is physically and mentally doing cannot be simply equated with an individual’s awareness or cognizance. The dynamics and complexities of social relationships are always part of remembering (and forgetting), and any activity explicitly concerned with the creation and preservation of memories must, if it is to be effective, acknowledge that fact. For the preacher, recognizing these communal dimensions and working positively with them becomes a crucial task, since felt common experience is vital to memory. As Halbwachs put it:

To be aided by others’ memory, ours must not merely be provided testimony and evidence but must also remain in harmony with theirs. There must be enough points of contact so that any remembrance they recall to us can be reconstructed on a common foundation. (1980: 31)

In terms of the subject of this study, it could be objected that this is, in effect, little more than an appeal to the idea of preachers as individuals called out from a community to be representative voices of the communities from which they came. More positively, the theory of collective memory brings reinforcement to the value of the preacher as a person engaged and involved in the social relationships and institutional life of the group in which he or she preaches. As was acknowledged earlier (section 4.5), these aspects of engagement bring with them issues of power. As Hervieu-Léger puts it: ‘the recognized ability to expound the true memory of the group … constitutes the core of religious power’ (2000: 126). Even in a society in which the social status of the preacher is much reduced from that of earlier times, the power inherent in the public voicing of the memory has not evaporated. Those who are holders, in a sense, of a collective memory, cannot avoid the fact that with that holding there is power, and the responsibilities that come with power. An individual voicing a group’s memory on its behalf will inevitably be authoritative, in terms of collective memory.

That, however, must be tempered by an awareness of the fact that not all social influences are easily apparent. Much that works for or against the remembering the preacher is striving to achieve is hidden from view, or goes unrecognized. This is an aspect of how collective memory works on which Halbwachs was most insistent; and he was convinced that supporting social structures often go unnoticed, and that most of the social influences we obey remain largely unperceived (1980: 45). He wrote:

A current of social thought is ordinarily as invisible as the atmosphere we breathe. In normal life its existence is recognized only when it is resisted. (Halbwachs, 1980: 38)

Those words bring to mind Ricoeur’s more recent expression ‘the available belief structure of an era’ (Ricoeur, 2004: 199). The expression comes at that point in Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting at which he is discussing the historiographical shift between the consideration of mentalities and representations, a discussion beyond the scope of this study. Nevertheless, a point is made there that is pertinent to Halbwachs’ notion of unnoticed social structures of thought and what that concept might mean for the preacher’s task.

Ricoeur notes how different discourses inevitably focus on their own substantive concerns to the exclusion of other aspects. This, for example, the history of ideas considers only ideas and thoughts, the sociology of knowledge focuses on ideologies or social superstructures, and psychoanalysis looks at competing psychological drives detached from any social history (2004: 208). As useful as such foci might be, according to Ricoeur human habitus is constituted by a psychic economy that is altogether more integrated and holistic. Habitus, argues Ricoeur, lies at the crossroads of ‘historical psychology’, what is conceivable and believable in any age, and ‘social cohabitation’, the nature of human interrelationships and their social settings (2004: 208).

The present thesis is a defence of preaching as memory work which sustains Christian faith as a lived wisdom-that is, as essentially a Christian habitus. It goes without saying that to advance that lived wisdom the preacher must be both competent in and knowledgeable of the faith-a required competence widely recognized in the procedures adopted for the authorization of preachers in many churches. Alongside that competence, preachers are usually also required to demonstrate the skills necessary for effective communication, for presiding at worship, and for relating matters of faith to life in contemporary society. Collective memory theory, however, suggests that sustaining a Christian habitus requires all those things and more.

If the social structures that undergird memory are, as Halbwachs insisted, often hidden from view, and if, as Ricoeur suggests, habitus is formed in the interplay of what is conceivable and life lived in place and relationships; then the preacher must, at least, be alert to these processes and subtleties. The preacher’s task becomes one of constant cultural negotiation in which the dynamics are not only those between the inherited faith tradition or Scripture and contemporary experience, but also those concerning an assessment of what may be conceivable in the social circumstances of the community in which the preaching takes place. The preacher needs to be alert to what undisclosed or unrecognized social factors are impinging on social memory, and what physical, emotional and social interrelationships are at work. Of course, that assessment is very difficult or even impossible to achieve in the sense of an absolute and verifiable analysis, but that does not mean that attempts at achieving it, even in a limited sense, cannot work to the benefit of the homiletic task. As in Clifford Geetz’s famous defence of ‘thick description’ as a methodology, the issue is to make such assessment possible rather than worry about its completeness or generalizability (Geetz, 1973: 3-30). Such assessment offers at least the possibility that the preacher’s activity will challenge the power of the cultural forces that drive the forgetfulness of faith.

7.7 Collective memory and the practice of preaching.

According to Halbwachs, the inherently social reference of memory leads to several other invariable elements in the processes of remembering. Although these elements have all been discussed in earlier chapters, they are returned to at this point in order to re-emphasize their direct relevance to the circumstances of contemporary preaching.

7.7.1 The individual and the group.

Halbwachs points out that an individual’s movement between different groups, often associated with aging and development in experience, causes memory change (see for example, sections 3.2 and 3.5 above). He writes:

The groups to which I belong vary at different periods of my life. But it is from their viewpoint that I consider the past. As I become more involved in each of these groups and participate more intimately in its memory, I necessarily renovate and supplement my remembrances. (1980: 73)

The issue of renovation will be returned to below (see section 7.7.3), but at this point the emphasis is on group experience and what that says about the preaching event.

The prevalence and popularity of technological media, are utilized at the whim of the person employing them, works to reinforce a widespread notion of communication as the delivery of messages to individuals. On the face of it, the individual is the arbiter of what is communicated-whether the medium be the Internet, a cell phone, a personal music or video player, television, radio, or the printed word. Of course, a moment of critical reflection discloses that the individual’s use of the medium, and indeed the very existence of the medium, relies on a vast array of technical and economic activity and that the content the medium delivers also consists of a huge array of signs and significances reliant on even wider cultural signs and significances. Without entering the complexities of communication theory (see for example, Schirato and Yell, (2000); or Peters, (1999)), it is clear that all communication practices and media are inherently cultural; and that all communication, even when it appears easy and unskilled, actually requires a sophisticated cultural awareness and learning that can properly be called a necessary literacy for human existence.

Communication, whether interpersonal or more widely social, is only possible within an environment of social-learnt skills and knowledge. Despite that fact, however, when day to day communication is felt to occur satisfactorily its semiotic and systemic complexities go largely unnoticed. It would, of course, be both tedious and unproductive to be constantly analysing the cultural embeddedness of every conversation, joke, or song, but that absence of noticing does sometimes have consequences. When it comes to preaching, the all too prevalent avoidance of any notion of cultural literacy works to undermine further an appreciation of preaching as a socially valuable activity. Here, preaching is seen as being akin to ordinary conversation in that it employs speech that is mostly in the form of common parlance which is directed in a straightforward and unmediated way towards hearers. In this view, electronic speech enhancement through amplification and the dominance of one voice in the group are thought of as minor matters in comparison to the overwhelmingly conversational character of what is going on. Judged in these terms, preaching is found wanting because it often lacks apparent immediacy and social engagement.

It is not only in the realm of a conversational kind of discourse that the dynamic of the individual and the group has changed. If preaching is viewed not in conversational terms but rather as a specialized religious form of discourse, other issues come to the fore. It will be remembered that Hervieu-Léger’s concept of metaphorization suggests that in contemporary society symbols have achieved a new autonomy largely free from older institutional control. The individual is now able to express belief in subjective and diffuse forms which can be combined and reordered into a multiplicity of meanings, orderings and combinations. As was detailed earlier (section 4.4), Hervieu-Léger uses Séguy and Weber to show how things such as values become an analogical religion. In this process things that are characteristically religious, for example, meaning-making, transcendence and appeals to that which is beyond the everyday and mundane, are utilized but without any reference to supernatural powers. In terms of symbols and their use, Hervieu-Léger employs these changes as indicators of the fluidity and a stark individualism that denudes religious institutions of their power. Of course, that is not to say that the general power of the group to shape memory in Halbwachsian terms is any less, but rather that it is more difficult for religious memory to function in these circumstances and that other things come to occupy those spaces that were previously considered wholly religious.

7.7.2 Changing relationships and changing memories.

Halbwachs also suggests that as a person’s relationships and group affiliations change so does that person’s perspective on collective memory. He writes:

Each memory is a viewpoint on the collective memory … this viewpoint changes as my position changes, and [that] this position itself changes as my relationship to other milieus change. (1980: 48)

In other words, it is not just that memories are remembered in relation to social frameworks, or that when a social framework no longer exists in any form the memory also ceases-both of which are clear conclusions in Halbwachs theory-but also that the milieux of a person’s life should be seen as overlapping, as it were, and that overlaps provide sufficient social support for memories to continue whilst at the same time shifting that support far enough to change a person’s estimation of the shared memory. Halbwachs here talks of the ‘intensity’ of a remembrance and how that varies from person to person.

Applying that point to preaching means that even sermons heard as having a high degree of pertinence and experienced as having a significant charge in terms of both memorability and the memories provoked do not retain that charge indefinitely. Something rather more subtle is being said here than merely the self-evident truth that the remembrance of spoken words decays with time. The point is that, even on those occasions when a sermon is received as especially significant and the tenor of it is remembered as such, what that remembrance means shifts in terms of the part of the collective memory it undergirds as relationships change. Even when the person remains associated with the group in which the event originally took place, the meaning of the memory will change as the person physically ages. For example, conceptions of calling and vocation might make a sermon particularly significant to a young adult considering those things for his or her own life, and that in turn may relate to a prominence given to the wider congregation’s self-understanding as a body that has special talents and responsibilities in nurturing young adults. This congregational self-understanding will be perpetuated by, and be associated with, recurrent theological themes concerning finding one’s vocation and answering God’s call, as long as there are personnel involved to whom these things are current concerns. A person who has drawn much from that emphasis and moved on in life conscious of a sense of calling will relate that consciousness to those earlier thoughts and experiences so long as a sense of calling remains pertinent to that person’s experience. Similarly, that person will also relate that sense of calling to the life of other congregations which she experiences, and may become indignant or disaffected if ideas of vocation do not have the prominence thought proper. On the other hand, should that person remain in the original congregation she will reinforce its self-understanding as a nurturing congregation through her own testimony and presence. Over time that contribution will change as her own life experience shifts from the necessary decisions of early adulthood towards the responsibilities of later life. In these circumstances her estimation of the memory of calling will inevitably change. If the congregation has a relatively constant flow of younger adults it may well succeed in maintaining its sense of being a nurturing and vocational body, but the estimation of what that means for those who remain within its orbit from earlier years will not be the same as that of those who are much younger. If, as is probably rather more common, the congregation does not replace each young adult group by another, or indeed ceases to attract young adults at all, the memory will change from a sense of ongoing lived practice to one of nostalgia, or even loss.

In such circumstances the task of preachers becomes a difficult one of negotiating fading memories and present social realities without reinforcing disengaging nostalgia or guilt. Changed experience changes both the individual’s and the group’s memories, and the preacher needs to work with those movements.

7.7.3 Renovation.

As was noted above, Halbwachs understands the individual’s conscious and unconscious reworking of memory as the person’s quality of relationship with the group changes as being one of renovation. Halbwachs’ use of the term predates by several generations the notion of ‘reconsolidation of memory’ now widely used by brain scientists (Rose, 2003: 380). Both concepts, from their differing perspectives, point to the fact that remembering requires an active re-making of memories. In Halbwachs’ understanding, the processes of renovation mean that a person cannot completely clarify remembrances until that person is a full and actual part of the group; and, furthermore, that the group’s remembrances must have some connection with events that are part of the person’s own past (Halbwachs, 1980: 73). In other words, a person may well have an inkling of memories that are significant to a group, but it is impossible to make those memories fully one’s own prior to becoming incorporated into the group. Before that incorporation, those memories are little more than observations or a generalized awareness that something is significant to the group; after incorporation, the same perceptions take on new power as their significance to the group is reinforced in the newcomer’s own experience of being part of the group. The social framework supporting memory is at its most powerful when its significance is shared via participative belonging. In that participation group remembrances become part of each person’s own past in a way that is altogether more emotionally and intellectually involving than simple assent. Renovation is, therefore, a profound and deeply significant process that makes effective in remembering social bonds that have come to be of vital importance to the individual, and vice versa, those bonds are made all the stronger by being part of remembering.

It is not difficult to see the outworking of memory renovation in the experience of social groups, although its prevalence is often masked by other more readily acceptable group processes. For example, the existence of organizational cultures (or perhaps, more accurately organizational sub-cultures) is widely understood in people management (Hofstede (1994); Brown (1998); Daft (1988)). Consequently, the need to incorporate new workers into an organization’s culture via familiarization and induction mechanisms is recognized extensively. Similarly, coping with the pressures of adaptation, as required in response to an organization’s changing circumstances, is also often analysed in terms of cultural change and how it might be managed. Some management texts acknowledge that dealing with organizational culture involves memory work (for example, Brown (1998)), but many do not. Halbwachs’ theory suggests that, whether memory renovation is acknowledged or not, in any group that is truly significant to the individuals involved such memory work will inevitably and invariably take place. Renovation, whether it is subtle and involves only a colouring and reordering, as it were, of memories, or whether it is of a more radical and reconstitutive character, is as much a part of the social aspects of memory as reconsolidation is in the mechanisms of the brain.

7.7.4 Memory and space.

Another invariable aspect of collective memory upon which Halbwachs insists is that of its spatial framework. He writes:

Space is a reality that endures: since our impressions rush by, one after another, and leave nothing behind in the mind, we can understand how we recapture the past only by understanding how it is, in effect, preserved by our physical surroundings. It is to space-the space we occupy, traverse, have continual access to, or can at any time reconstruct in thought and imagination-that we must turn our attention. Our thought must focus on it if this or that category of remembrances is to reappear. (1980: 140)

In associating memory with space, Halbwachs is, of course, following a very ancient tradition that goes back to the Greek era: although its first written account is in the Roman Cicero’s (106-43 BCE) description in his De Oratore (ii.86) of its discovery as a mnemonic technique useful for public speaking (Yates, 1966: 17-18). According to Cicero, the poet Simonides of Ceos (c. 477 BCE) was engaged to recite a lyrical poem in honour of a Thessalonian nobleman named Scopus at a banquet the nobleman has arranged. In the performance, Simonides gave more prominence to Castor and Pollux than pleased the host, so he determined to pay the poet only half the agreed fee and told him to get the rest from the twin gods he had so praised. Later, Simonides is told that two young men are outside wanting to see him. He goes out, but can find no one. Whilst Simonides is away, the roof of the banqueting hall collapses crushing Scopus and all his guests. The relatives of the victims are unable to take them away for burial because the bodies are so mangled as to be unidentifiable. Simonides, however, is able to recall just where each guest had been sitting and is, therefore, able to identify each body. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, thus, in effect, handsomely paid Simonides for his poem by saving his life and putting him in a position to discover the art of memory (see Yates (1966)).

That the story of Simonides reappears frequently in Medieval and Renaissance texts concerning mnemonic techniques can easily divert attention from its direct connection of actual space with memory. Similarly, Cicero’s account goes on to talk of location memory as being like inscribing letters on a wax table-a storage metaphor which, as stated earlier, underplays drastically the dynamism of memory-but that should not obscure the point that his interest in the craft of memory discloses the importance of physical location (De Oratore, ii.88). Homileticians have often only referred to memory in terms of mnemonic techniques for recalling a sermon script as it is presented, or as ways of making the content of that presentation more memorable to the hearer. In that usage they place themselves in that long tradition going back to Cicero and beyond. It may well be the case that serious attention to the long mnemotechnic tradition would benefit homiletic practice in our own day. If preaching, as I have repeatedly insisted, has artistry to it, then surely the ancient arts of memory (Yates, 1966) remain pertinent even in our technological and consumerist age. As fruitful as that possibility might be, the focus in these concluding remarks is on memory’s relationship to the world of space and objects. Halbwachs’ interest in location is not about how remembrance can be enhanced, but rather about spatial relationships as an ever present aspect of collective memory. That said, Ciceronic categories do figure in Halbwachs’ discussion because his notion of the representation of space is much more extensive than just referencing those who currently share the same physical location (for example, 1992: 123). What Halbwachs means by representation of space requires some amplification because he sees it as particularly important to religious memory.

By spatial framework, Halbwachs means spaces and mental representations associated with a group’s activity and purposes, as well as the shared physical location in which a group exists and operates (1980: 156). In other words, alongside the physical distribution of a group’s members within a given area there are also other places where the group’s existence and activity, and the memory that goes with it, are marked in space. Halbwachs cites several different examples of this: ownership is not only about that which is owned but also about other places marked by the relationships of ownership or its absence; economic goods acquire a value when offered in some kind of marketplace, and ascertaining that value needs memory work that involves places of trade wider than where the goods actually are; and finally, in an example most pertinent to the present study, the spacial framework of religious groups extends beyond the particular building in which a group meets to other locations associated by things such as type, historical continuity, or the distinction between sacred and profane.

Spatial frameworks, according to Halbwachs, work in a way not unlike the mechanism employed by the classical methods of memory training. As he writes:

The reason members of a group remain united, even after scattering and finding nothing in their new physical surroundings to recall the home they have left, is that they think of the old home and its layout. (1980: 130)

Halbwachs, however, does not view the mental representations of space as a first concern but rather as a consequence of the experience of actual locations. His understanding is that memory is written, as it were, into the very physical environment we inhabit. He writes:

Religions are rooted in the land, not merely because men and groups must live on the land but because the community of believers distributes its richest ideas and images throughout space. (1980: 139)

As a physical being a person inhabits zones of relationships where the very contours of the material world operate to support and maintain memory-the process Halbwachs terms ‘localization.’ Using religion as an example of the process, Halbwachs writes:

The believer entering a church, cemetery, or other consecration place knows he will recover a mental state he has experienced many times. Together with fellow believers he will re-establish, in addition to their visible community, a common thought and remembrance formed and maintained there through the ages. (1980: 151)

This localization is not about any particularly religious understanding of the world, and Halbwachs would not have any sympathy with interpretations that link place and memory in mystical or spiritual terms. His is an understanding that is entirely about social relationships and how these are territorialized by their attachment to place. In this way, social memories are ‘objectivized’ and given credibility that both extends further than an individual’s remembering and at the same time supports that remembering, individually and socially.

In terms of preaching, these spatial and locational processes should prompt a renewed attention to the physical environment in which sermons are heard and the mental structures of location that might strengthen their contribution to collective memory. If spatial relationships (both physical and mental) are ever present aspects of collective memory, then the disregard of those relationships by preachers can only further undermine the very memories they are striving to maintain. For example, the restructuring of sermons into short ‘slots’ in the manner of television presentation, may so disrupt the locational shape of the liturgy that its ability to sustain collective memory is damaged. Similarly, the physical reordering of buildings in which preaching takes place can, by the shifting of the way things are marked in space, be detrimental to the collective memory. This should not be heard as a justification for an unchanging conservatism in homiletic practice, but rather as a call to recognize the significance of spatial frameworks and the power of localization.

7.7.5 Memory sets.

When we recollect memories from the far distance ‘we have a habit of recalling them in organized sets’ (1980: 70), that is, the ordering is a function of memory, not a recalling of events in the order they actually took place or in the relationship of different components that applied when the event took place. For example, time may be concertinaed-early school experience recalled as belonging together when in order of occurrence they were separated by months, and the like. Some remembrances stand out very clearly, but in the process of recall they are associated with other elements that may, or may not, find their origin in the same event as that which is clearly recalled. Halbwachs uses the example of the way a person’s reading of factual or fictional accounts of a child entering a class for the first time become entwined with the reader’s own experience of actually entering a class for the first time (1980: 70). That entwining eventually means that what a person may hold as beyond doubt a personal memory has in actuality come to be composed of other people’s testimonies and stories. As Halbwachs puts it, ‘the past as I once knew it is slowly defaced’ (1980: 72).

The remembrance of religious experiences is, undoubtedly, as much subject to such processes as any other area of human activity. That admission has particular significance for the preacher, in that the sermon has often been characterized as the part of Christian practice that explicitly relates the canon of Scripture to contemporary human experience. In performing that task the preacher will often be aware of organizing sets in a congregation’s remembrances, and the power of memories that are not necessarily related to firsthand experience, whether individually or more socially perceived. Indeed, negotiating the interplay of such things, and utilizing their significance in what is said in sermons, and how it is said, is widely perceived as a core skill in preaching, albeit usually expressed in terms of engagement, relevance and context rather than memory. Halbwachs’ ideas, however, extend somewhat further than merely underscoring the significance of this part of the preacher’s skill. That extension requires an acknowledgement of how the preacher is as much subject to collective memory processes as are the congregations she or he serves. Because preachers generally receive training in skills, and are often authorized and vetted before being allowed to exercise their homiletic functions, it is easy to assume that collective processes weigh less heavily on them, or that they are somehow more objective in their use of Christian tradition than the average worshipper. Applying Halbwachs’ thought to the preaching practitioners puts a question mark against that assumption.

In Halbwachs’ understanding, the renovation of memories by way of organizing memory sets and the entwining of other elements from a person’s wider knowledge and experience is further complicated by what he terms ‘zones of technical activity’ (1992: 180). By this Halbwachs means the formal procedures, abstract rules, and technical decisions to which members of a group consistently adhere. In other words, the things that might nowadays be more frequently called the competences, procedures and codes of practice by which a person skilled and qualified in a particular area operates. For Halbwachs, despite the fact these rules and practices appear rigid and technical they are part of the relationships that compose the social frameworks of collective memory. The example he cites is that of the legal system, in which he suggests, rules and procedures appear entirely impersonal but, in practice, technical decisions fit with the personal, ‘localized’ and situated judgements that are part of the legal functionary’s social frameworks. As Middleton and Brown put it, according to Halbwachs, ‘the local and particular [then] absorb and modify the general and the impersonal’ (2005: 169). Interestingly, Halbwachs’ discussion of technical activity is part of his analysis of the traditions of social classes since he sees these common processes of social life as invariably mediated through ‘the tastes, preferences, and prejudices-recent or antiquated-of a social circle or class’ (1992:163) and, consequently, deep-seated and profoundly significant in how the structures of society operate. Needless to say, the point is contentious and a matter of debate (see, for example, Misztal (2003); Middleton and Brown (2005); Wertsch (2002)). Although that discussion is beyond the scope of this study, the concept of zones of technical activity is mentioned here because it is another indication of the power that social frameworks have over remembering (and forgetting). Halbwachs insists that even in social infrastructures where technical thought apparently dominates, the processes of social remembering still operate. By this insistence Halbwachs is underscoring his claim that collective remembering embraces a far wider area of human activity than might appear at first sight.

As far as preaching is concerned, this aspect of Halbwachs’ thought underscores the necessity that in a community whose very purpose is sustaining the memory of faith, those who preach as part of that purpose must recognize their own need to be continuously formed themselves by that memory. The critique homileticians must subject themselves to, for the good of the memory community they serve, concerns not only the veracity and authenticity of the tradition they seek to expound and their competence in communicating it, but also their own appropriation of traditions of memory.

7.8 Preaching in a society desensitized to tradition.

The church has, of course, always required a deep appropriation of its faith tradition by those authorized to preach. What has changed, this thesis has argued, is the nature of the social supports that enable such appropriation to happen. It is clearly the case, as the work of numerous sociologists suggests, that social structures outside the churches that support Christian remembering have weakened substantially in the United Kingdom, as in other Western European countries (and indeed in some measure in North America as well). The factors that are less clearly understood are the consequences of that weakening for those who remain practising believers. This study has sought to shed light on some of those consequences by focusing closely on one area of Christian practice. Contemporary Christian preachers in the UK not only labour at a task widely considered to be of less and less social significance, but also do so in an environment stripped of the social supports that would formerly have undergirded both their Christian memory and that of the congregations they serve. This is about more than a social forgetfulness of the tenets of the Christian faith and the narrative and content of the Scriptures. The inability to handle the things of tradition in ways that maintain the processes of tradition touches believers as well as unbelievers. As Halbwachs’ writings make plain, memory work is much more than the assimilation of knowledge, and preachers as memory workers have to inhabit the Christian collective memory if they are to promulgate it effectively. In an amnesic society that mnemonic habitation often appears as too difficult and too time consuming, so the preacher faces, as does every believer, a constant temptation towards nostalgia, entertainment or shallow technique.

Church gatherings that once acted as social frameworks for collective memory such as Sunday schools, men’s fellowships, family outings, church associated sports clubs, youth clubs, women’s circles, etc., have either disappeared or are much reduced in influence. Such decline in participation has a direct bearing on memory, according to Halbwachs. Participation and the self-identification of a group as important in a person’s life facilitates remembering; non-participation and non-identification with a group does not. Accordingly, Halbwachs’ theory suggests that where little else besides gathering for worship supports the self-identification of the group as important, the need to make that gathering significant becomes all the more pressing in terms of maintaining the Christian memory. If this is indeed the case, and the increase in the numbers of religious congregations with sharp boundaries between themselves and the communities in which they are set suggests it is, the repercussions on how religion is expressed are likely to be intense. For the subjects of this study, the narrowing of participation has a paradoxical consequence; as preachers’ general social status based upon homiletic practice declines, so the significance of that practice in terms of the church’s memory increases. It is not only that as communicators preachers must now compete for attention in a mass media environment saturated with communication, but also that they have to operate in an atmosphere where their vocalization of the Christian memory is heard as strangely isolated-a hard to hear whisper in an ocean of raucous voices-even by those who are believers. If, as Hervieu-Léger suggests, the ability to expound the true memory of the group is what constitutes religious power, then this isolation is highly problematic. Preachers are all the more literally bearers of the collective memory in their very selves, but that responsibility of itself challenges their ability so to do.

Again, there is a correspondence here with a similar thought in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. MacIntyre makes the point that a person’s answering of the question ‘What am I to do?’ is dependent on the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ (1985: 216). Or, to put it another way, a person’s understanding of the overall purpose, direction and goal of life, whether expressed philosophically, socially or individually, determines in large measure what that person considers to be right or appropriate action. That sense of purpose, direction and goal does not arrive in a person’s perceptions in vacuo but is rather, in one way or another, a formation born of what has gone before; it is an inheritance. As MacIntyre puts it:

What I am … is in key part what I inherit, a specific past that is present to some degree in my present. I find myself part of a history and that is generally to say, whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not, one of the bearers of a tradition. (1985: 221)

According to Halbwachs, the privileged position of the past in Christianity is more than historical, and, as has been discussed earlier (see section 3.5.1), he insists on a clear distinction between history and memory. MacIntyre’s use of the term ‘history’ at this point is arguably closer to what Halbwachs understood as collective memory since it concerns that inherited sense of belonging to an ongoing social tradition that is fundamentally about social memory. History in this usage prioritizes lived experience over a distanced appreciation of what occurred in the past. It is the past present, in the sense of the presentist orientation of collective memory in Halbwachsian terms, not the past past as that which once happened and is now only available through a systematic process of historical analysis and discernment. This past present is the substance of the memory or tradition that the person carries, whether that person, as MacIntyre puts it, likes it or not.

It may be assumed that preachers will indeed ‘like it’, since as trained, authorized and commissioned representative speakers they have volunteered themselves for this role. That ‘personalitism’ required of the preacher by Phillips Brooks in his 1877 lectures is effectively reasserted in a new and more burdensome way by the preacher’s new responsibilities in memory maintenance. The concept of collective memory suggests that the bearing of tradition is all the more onerous than it was previously-even in the recent past, let alone in Brooks’ day. That means that alongside the general reduction in the social status afforded religious functionaries like preachers, and the other societal changes detailed earlier (see sections 2.1 and 2.2) that press on the Christian religion, must be added the consequences of those changes for the mechanisms of collective memory not only socially but personally. If personal memory is as closely related to the people and places of a person’s current experience as Halbwachs and others (e.g. Casey, (1987); Connerton, (1989); and Fentress and Wickham, (1992); amongst the many who could be cited) then personal memories, and the ways that those memories are deployable, are profoundly affected by social changes. The preacher’s role as bearer of memory may have an enhanced significance because of collective memory loss, but the practices that enable that memory bearing are at the same time eroding the preacher’s facility actually to remember. To return to Davie’s terminology (section 4.7), ‘precarious memory’ is an everyday reality and ‘extinguished memory’ a real possibility (Davie, 2000a). Or, in Hervieu-Léger’s terms, the chain of memory-that mechanism which makes the individual believer a member of a community, in the sense of a belonging that gathers together past, present and future members-is being strained to breaking point.

In Hervieu-Léger’s analysis, European societies are less religious because they are less and less capable of keeping memory-chains in working order. There is a subtlety in that thought that is often overlooked since it refers, in the first instance, not to the forgetting of Christian collective memory but to the decaying of the mechanisms that in earlier times made collective remembering possible. Keeping memory-chains in working order is not a bad description of what this thesis advocates as a principal task of homiletics. As was established earlier in the discussion (section 4.4), Hervieu-Léger’s concept appears at first sight as tantalisingly simple, but as it arises in a discussion about the vexed problem of a sociological definition of religion, that simplicity soon evaporates. Given that concern, it is inevitable, as we have seen, that Hervieu-Léger’s text addresses issues about what traditions are legitimate, how the authority of a tradition is established, and in what sense the believing community exists. These issues are directly echoed in this study’s advocacy of the preaching role as one of repeatedly delineating the boundaries of the tradition. Since the mechanisms of incorporation in the links of the memory-chain are so crucial, judgements about which chain-links should be included, and which criteria are employed to make those judgements become key homiletical tasks.

7.9 Christian remembering when memories are weak or conflicting.

To return again to Davie’s terminology (2000), all the variations of memory she delineates have a bearing on the contemporary preacher’s tasks and problems: ‘precarious memory’ and ‘extinguished memory’ are all too obvious, and it is more and more difficult for the preacher to be a bearer of ‘vicarious memory’, but the other elements of her typology must also figure. The preacher has to weigh what ‘alternative memories’ might be quarried as possible new frameworks to support gospel imperatives, as well as determinedly resisting those that cannot be so used. Likewise, the preacher must be aware of ‘memory mutation’ and change that threatens to destroy connections that were previously part of a particular inheritance, tradition, or commemoration. In coming to those judgements the preacher will be all too aware of ‘conflicting memories’ or ‘ruptured memories’, and will, therefore, find difficult and contested choices to be an increasing part of the everyday repertoire of the homiletic task.

Of course, all these aspects of memory work are things that in varying degrees face every believer, but they impact with particular force on preachers because of the simple fact that they of necessity must give voice to the Christian tradition in a representative way. Furthermore, the character of that representative way is less supported by common social frameworks than previously. Consequently, preachers find themselves with fewer memory resources from their own specialist arena of discourse to support their efforts to keep the tradition of faith lively whilst the overarching society-wide power of the mass media to mediate memory seems ever more powerful. Add to that the mass media’s ability to foster symbolic representations that create new ‘symbolic memories’ (for example, turning older forms of social activity into spectacles in things as diverse as the New Year celebrations in London, Princess Diana’s funeral, or competitive ballroom dancing), and what the preacher can achieve in the minds and emotions of a congregation appears almost flimsy. Countering such an estimation of preaching’s frailty is the motivation underlying the argument presented in this thesis.

As was noted earlier (section 4.8), few homileticians have directly addressed memory work in their theoretical analysis of the preaching task. One notable exception to that judgement is John McClure in his Other-wise Preaching: A Postmodern ethic for homiletics (2001). It will be remembered that McClure (2001: 29) identifies three forms of memory traditionally at work in the interpretative process of preaching: kergymatic, mimetic and historicist. Kergymatic he understands as fundamentally oral, imagination dominated and naive in that it avoids technical difficulties about cultural change, transmission and historiography (2001: 31). Mimetic memory is about an imitative representation which inevitably recognizes the distance between the biblical text and current experience and so tends towards a sense of incompleteness (2001: 33). Finally in this typology comes a historicist memory that is vigorously academic and systematic in tone and works towards an objective reconstruction of the past (2001:37). McClure makes the point that the historicist preacher cannot help but be influenced by the presuppositions that stem from kergymatic and mimetic uses of memory (38). The preacher as one situated within a living tradition finds it almost impossible to step outside the Christian community’s shared pre-understanding. Habitus asserts itself, and an anamnesis coloured to varying degrees by its kergymatic and mimetic characteristics wins out over systematic reconstruction every time. Accordingly, for those wrapped, as it were, in the chains of memory, the power of collective memory is awesome. Applying McClure’s typology then becomes as assessment of how lively and available those kergymatic and mimetic memories are.

The argument developed in this thesis, however, suggests that McClure’s analysis, as welcome as it is in examining so directly preaching and memory, is altogether too sanguine. It has been argued at length here that social changes in contemporary Britain have made it more and more difficult for all believers, preachers included, to inhabit Christian tradition in the way McClure describes. It is, perhaps, the case that it remains relatively easier to do so in the United States of McClure’s own ministerial experience, but even there more and more voices suggest otherwise (for example, Taylor, (2007); Miller, (2004); Berger, et al., (2008)).

What McClure’s typology does, however, is lend support to the recognition that the continually reconstructivist aspect of memory work is never worked out on a tabula rasa. Ward is surely correct in his judgement that Christian speech is constructed out of whatever cultural materials are at hand (2005: 47). Christian utterance is, as he puts it:

Not homogenous but always hybrid, improvised, syncretistic and implicated in networks of association that exceed various forms of institutional, individual, or sectarian policing. Furthermore, since Christians are also members of other associations, networks and institutions, what is both internal and external to Christian identity (and its continuing formation) is fluid. (Ward, 2005: 47)

It is unavoidable that personal memories are steeped in the associations and understandings born of collective memory, but even for those highly committed to the Christian faith the relative weight of memories related to the Christian gospel as against memories located in other discourses has diminished. The issue now is not the preacher’s ability to step outside the Christian pre-understanding, but rather the opposite. In McClure’s terms, it is not simply that a strictly historicist approach is impossible, but that the kerygmatic and mimetic aspects are just as muted as the historicist by what has been forgotten of the Christian inheritance.

Social memory processes are always at work; so where the Christian memory no longer figures prominently other memories are supported by the action of whatever groups have replaced that experience formerly provided via the local church. If, in Terdiman’s (1993) evocative phrase, memory is ‘the present past’, the past now made present has less and less connection with the remembrance of the Christian faith expressed through Christian institutions and practices. This state of affairs can only be made worse by reluctance on the part of Christians to admit the crucial importance of tradition in faith. Hervieu-Léger observation that religious symbols are now free-floating and not dependent on institutions of believing (2000: 127) presents very particular difficulties to a role like that of preaching which is exercised within those very institutions of believing. As Hervieu-Léger also observes, this change in the social frameworks of symbols does not mean that that they are thereby entirely free of institutional linkages. Instead, other institutions, such as retailers, museums, and the nostalgia industry have become ‘holders’ of what was previously held by religion. The contemporary preacher has, therefore, to negotiate these changed linkages in order to re-establish connections now severed. As was argued in chapter six, this is not about making the Christian faith relevant to contemporary life, but rather about critically addressing changed memory frameworks in ways such that ‘thinking out of the tradition’ of the Christian faith can be heard anew. The contemporary preacher must be not only a memory manager within the church, but also a memory critic within the wider structures and discourses of society. Halbwachs’ account of the conflicted nature of religious memory resonates with the changed dynamics of religious expression. The difficulties and pressures of such criticism cannot be avoided.

Again, Ward in his book Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice (2005), makes a connection between cultural hermeneutics and social critique that is apposite to this aspect of the preacher’s task. He says it is impossible to begin with a reading of culture, of ‘the signs of the times’, without already being implicated in a cultural production. There is, he maintains, no outside of cultural production where the critic can stand. Furthermore, the interpretations the critic employs are always governed by what is available and what is recognized as legitimate (2005:62). The preacher as memory critic works with similar boundaries. There is no ‘outside’ of collective memory from which to assess how collective memories are operating. Instead, the complexities and subtleties of divergent memories, and how they are socially supported can only be teased out from within the orbit of social memory. That social memory mechanisms continuously operate within every discourse must be the rhetoric of memory work in every circumstance. As Ricoeur disarmingly puts it, ‘We have nothing better than our memory to assure ourselves of the reality of our memories’ (2004:2 78).

7.10 Preaching as re-membering.

O my God, profound, infinite complexity, what a great faculty memory is, how awesome a mystery! It is the mind, and this is nothing other than my very self. What am I, then, O my God? What is my nature? It is teeming life of every conceivable kind, exceeding and vast. See, in the measureless plains and vaults and caves of my memory, immeasurably full of countless kinds of things which are there either through their images (as with material things), or by being themselves present (as in the knowledge acquired through a liberal education), or by registering themselves and making their mark in some indefinable way (as with emotional states which the memory retains even when the mind is not actually experiencing them, although whatever is in the memory must be in the mind too)-in this wide land I am made free of all of them, free to run and fly to and fro, to penetrate as deeply as I can, to collide with no boundary anywhere. So great is the faculty of memory, so great the power of life in a person whose life is tending toward death! What shall I do, then, O my God, my true life? I will pass beyond this faculty of mine called memory, I will pass beyond it and continue resolutely toward you, O lovely Light. Augustine, Confessions, Book 10, chapter 17. (Augustine, 1997a: 254).

Augustine’s treatment of memory in books ten and eleven of The Confessions associates it closely with a sense of time and interiority. He speaks there of three tenses of the present. Since neither the past nor the future exists it cannot be true that there are three times, past, present and future. Instead, he refers to the present of the past which is memory, the present of the future which is anticipation, and the present of the present which is observation (Augustine, ET by Wills, 2002: 211). Human beings are caught in the constantly eroding present tense, but the Christian is also aware that eternity obtrudes on that present. In eternity there is neither past nor present, yet eternity determines both past and present (Long, 2009: 45). It is as if the things of eternity are constantly disarrayed because the present’s connection to it is all the time decaying. This discordance is made known to the human soul through memory. This is not to be understood as pushing God, as it were, out of any relationship with time into a disconnected sphere of timelessness. Augustine’s distinction between God creating the world ‘with time’ (cum tempore) as against ‘in time’ (in tempore) used in this context directs the preacher to remember that God remembers without turning either to anthropomorphism or abstractions. It is not so much a comment on the difficulties of relating time and eternity as a plea to keep close to a godly prolepticism that is always mindful of God’s promises in Scripture.

According to Augustine, memory is vast in the scope of the things it contains, and awesome in the way it also allows access to intelligible ideas. This vast power of memory is the power of mind-for mind and memory are one and the same (Wills, 2002: 53). Here, according to Ricoeur (2004: 94), begins the long tradition of interiority or inwardness that has so profoundly coloured both Christian thought and the Western intellectual tradition. Augustine’s usage finds its source in his own experience of conversion. It should not be assumed, however, that Augustine’s sense of his own inner realm can be indentified with modern notions of identity, self-consciousness, and subjectivity. To suggest otherwise would be wholly anachronistic-a point that Ricoeur (2004) stresses again and again. Augustine is, rather, making the point that- in contradistinction to an Aristotelian explanation of time’s passing wholly based on cosmic motion-time in his view is measured in the mind. This has a bearing on the notion of collective memory since Augustine’s view is not a rejection of public time as such, but a relating of it to his own remembering. In Ricoeur’s interpretation of Augustine this is seen as a conciliation ‘between the time of the soul and the time of the world’ (2004: 101). Ricoeur goes on to wonder whether a similar relationship cannot be applied to current concerns about individual memory and collective memory. If that suggestion is appropriately translated into an insistence on holding together memory’s interiority and its social frameworks in order to serve a continuing remembrance that profoundly touches both the individual and the world, then it describes what preaching as memory work is about.

In a social environment where discordance is all too apparent the preacher struggles to be heard as a voice of eternal verities. So much conspires towards a forgetfulness of the memory from which that voice speaks, and to which that voice gives enabling testimony. Yet the preacher still speaks: turning this way and that, between text, memory and world; striving, in a largely amnesic society to create something out of whatever materials come to hand; trying to shape in words that generative drive that is tradition’s gift; and exemplifying in that trying what is the calling of every believer-to live in the memory of Christ. In the words of Augustine, the preacher prays:

[Lord,] you have honoured my memory by making it your dwelling-place.

Augustine, Confessions, 10.25

(Augustine, 1997a: 261)

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Preaching as memory maintenance. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved February 6, 2023 , from

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