Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday"

I was thinking some more about Bart Ehrman's position on the unreliability of eyewitness memory. I'm referring to his debate with Richard Bauckham. I have seen a library edition of Ehrman's new book, but the preview of his position he gave in the debate was so idiotic that I figure the book must be a waste of time.

At least in the debate, Ehrman thinks memory is either reliable or unreliable. He flattens memory. 

If, however, we reflect on memory, that's grossly simplistic. Take the question, "What were you doing in 9/11?" or "Where were you on 9/11?"

The question takes for granted that Americans of a certain age remember the 9/11 attack. The question isn't "Do you remember what happened on 9/11?"

Rather, the question presumes that because 9/11 was such a memorable event, not only will you remember the event itself, you will remember contextual details in relation to the event. To spell that out, because 9/11 was so memorable, that makes some otherwise forgettable details memorable by association. 

Or let's go back to the title of the post. That's the famous opening line of L’Étranger by Albert Camus. The first line is arresting because the death of your mother is a paradigmatically-memorable event. If you don't remember that, what do you remember?

For those of us who've lost loved ones, we don't merely recall the day they died. Rather, we are apt recall certain things we were doing on that day. The principle is that an intrinsically memorable event makes related incidents extrinsically memorable by association. 

This introduces another distinction. An event can be prospectively insignificant, but retrospectively significant. Take the day before your loved one died. Or the day before you heard about their death. Especially if the death was sudden, if the death was unexpected, you probably don't recollect anything you did on the day before they died. But if you had advance knowledge that they were going to die the next day, then the day before they died becomes instantly significant. That might be the last full day you will ever have with them. The significance of the day they die makes the day before they died significant, with the benefit of hindsight. And if you had the benefit of foresight, you'd be likely to remember what you were doing on both days.

Indeed, suppose the doctor tells you that your loved one probably has only a few days to left. That advance warning can make the days leading up to their death memorable. The foreboding. Spending extra time with them. Your loved one is now on a countdown. So you make the most of the remaining time. 

Suppose we apply that reasoning to the Gospels. Suppose we bracket inspiration. And suppose, for the sake of argument, we say the only historically reliable accounts in the Gospels are accounts centered on naturally memorable events. So what would those be?

For one thing, the miracles of Christ are memorable. In the nature of the case, a miracle is a memorable event. If Christ performed miracles, that's the kind of event we'd expect people to recall, and talk about. 

But it's not just the miracle that's memorable. As my other examples illustrate, a memorable event enhances our recollection of contextual details. We remember, not merely the event itself, in isolation, but we're apt to remember other things that were said and done in relation to the event. Where and when. Who was there. Normally, these contextual details might be utterly forgettable, but a memorable event is like a light that's not only luminous in its own right, but illuminates the surroundings. 

But even if all we had to go by were the accounts of dominical miracles in the Gospels, there's an awful lot of theology in those accounts. If those are historically reliable, because they're so memorable, that's quite a lot to work with.

Consider some other memorable events in the Gospels. The nativity accounts are studded with unforgettable incidents. 

Or Holy Week. That was a harrowing experience for the disciples. They couldn't bring themselves to believe that Jesus would be martyred. And when Jesus was arrested, they lost their protector. They became marked men. They were terrified that the authorities were going to hunt them down. What could be more memorable?

And what about the empty tomb? And the Risen Christ appearing to them? Not only is that unforgettable, but it's even more dramatic in light of their harrowing experience. 

The Gospels are interwoven with reported events that would be indelible to observers. And the events would make many incidental details stick in the mind. 

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