Collective memory as a concept is introduced in this brief article addressed to preachers, first published in the journal The Preacher No 144, January 2012
Preaching as memory work
‘Who’s Abraham?’ Every contemporary preacher will have had the
experience of finding that a common biblical name or idea simply doesn’t connect
with listeners. Knowledge of stories, names and associations crucial to our
expression of faith cannot be assumed. I’m told of a congregation where no one
was able to recite the Lord’s Prayer from memory, of Saint Paul named as one of
the twelve disciples, and of a confusion of Joseph son of Jacob with Joseph of
Nazareth. It seems that the child Jesus was used to seeing Joseph walk around
the house in ‘an amazing Technicolor dreamcoat!’ As funny as the confusions
might sometimes be, they disclose how familiarity with biblical ideas has
evaporated from everyday thoughts and conversations. Ideas and stories that once
might have been commonplace have been forgotten. We live in a society where
theological categories that were previously repeatedly rehearsed in ordinary
conversation, now no longer figure at all.
Ours is a profoundly forgetful society when it comes to the
things of inherited Christian faith. It is as if a language has been lost.
Social faith amnesia is not too strong a way of describing the world-view most
British preachers must now address. And this is much more than an issue of how
sermons connect with people. Forgetfulness is destructive of faith even amongst
those who are most committed; those who do know who Abraham is. The erosion of
the social memory of the faith has disastrous consequences for the Christian
collective memory. Here I want to make the case that preaching must always be
memory work, and that such memory work has its roots deep within the
Memory as what we do together
So what do I mean by social or collective memory? In common
parlance memory is something a person has, and the analogy that comes most
readily to hand is the idea that our memories are like the memory of a computer.
We key-in the right thought, as it were, and the needed memory pops up, complete
and usable. But is that really how it operates? I suggest that remembering isn’t
simple recall. It is, rather, an active process of organising and structure, and
that memory is more what you ‘do’ than what you ‘have.’ Think, for example, of
meeting someone you went to school with but haven’t seen for many years. In the
course of conversation you will remember many things that you wouldn’t possibly
have been able to remember prior to the conversation. And more than that you may
‘remember’ things that you weren’t part of at the time they took place. What is
remembered is accessed, so to speak, by the conversation and is useful to the
relationship that is being restored. And, unless you have further conversations
like the one in which you are now engaged, or you externalize the memories in
some way like writing them down, the memories brought to mind are likely to be
eventually forgotten again. Similar mechanisms are at play in all
In this way remembering is profoundly social, although the
memories remain lodged in our individual heads. We remember by communicating
with each other, and what we remember always serves our present needs. We
remember because the memory is in some way usable and purposeful now.
Participation is essential to remembering, and without it (or some clear
substitute for it) memories fade and die. This social dimension of memory was
first written about by the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945).
He it was who coined the term ‘collective memory.’ Although much debated in fields
like history, sociology, literary studies, holocaust studies, and journalism, the
essential point about the social dimension of remembering is well established.
No person remembers alone in an absolute sense.
If participation is essential to remembering, then declining
participation will cause the decay of the collective memory of faith. Is this
precisely what we see happening in the erosion of theological understanding and
the vocabulary that goes with? Without the knowledge, and the terms to talk
about life theologically, the inheritance that previously sustained such talking
dissolves: the collective memory is lost. The contemporary French sociologist
Danièle Hervieu-Léger analyses the Christian experience of her homeland and
other western countries in precisely these terms.For her it is as if the memories were held
together as links in an endless chain, but now those links are corroding and
getting ever thinner; indeed some of them, she says, are already broken. It
seems to me that preaching has to consciously serve the strengthening and
re-forging of those links. Such memory work is both vital to the crisis of our
times and a reassertion of biblical understandings of memory and
I’m indebted here to a brilliant book by the Norwegian theologian
Nils Alstrup Dahl, Jesus in the Memory
of the Early Church, published in 1976. Dahl makes the point that ‘to remember’ is used in the Christian
Scriptures in an imprecise way similar to our everyday usage. ‘To remember’ is
used not only of something in the past, but also of things in the present (e.g.
1 Thessalonians 1.2 or Colossians 4.18) or the future (e.g. Hebrews 11.22—here
Joseph literally remembered his own burial). The term ‘remembering,’ as in
conversational speech, refers not only to recollection but also to thinking of
someone or something, or to thinking about in prayer, or to keeping in mind (in
the sense of providing aid). Even when the object refers to the past, the
principal concern is often more than recalling an event. For example, in John
16.21 the woman who has given birth no longer remembers her anguish because of
the joy of bringing a child into the world.
Memory and action in Scripture
Dahl draws the conclusion that ‘to remember’ in the New Testament
‘signifies almost always to recall something or to think about it in such a way
that it is expressed in speech or is formative for attitude and action’
In other words, memory is intimately connected with human endeavour and
expression, and always has a performative aspect to it.
The linkage between memory and action is made even clearer in
biblical passages in which God is the subject. For example, when God hearing the
cries of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt remembers his covenant, he determines to act
to free them (Exodus 6.5); or again, when God receives his people’s confession
of disobedience he remembers the covenant, and that moves him to remember the
land for good (Leviticus 26.40-45); and similarly, Zechariah’s prophecy after
the birth of John says that the raising up of a Saviour is the consequence of
God remembering ‘his holy covenant’ (Luke 1.67-79). Likewise, when God no more
remembers his people’s sins he pardons them—an association of the act of mercy
with forgetting that occurs, for example, in Hebrews 8.12 and 10.17; Jeremiah
31.34; and Isaiah 43.25. God’s remembering and forgetting has direct
consequences for human lives. It is not an exaggeration to say that salvation is
a consequence of God’s remembering.
According to Dahl the close association of memory and action
meant that the great festivals of the Jewish faith and the associated ritual
actions operated as mnemonic signs. In these actions Israel ‘remembered’ Yahweh
and caused Yahweh ‘to remember’ his people anew, and ‘past salvation became once
again an actual and present reality’.
Similar expressions linking memory and action are repeated in the
New Testament, and is evident in Paul’s repeated use of the formula ‘just as you
know ...’ in 1 Thessalonians (1:5; 2:1, 5, 11; 3:3,4; 4:2; 5:1f); Jude’s use of
the expression ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (verse
3); and 2 Peter’s ‘I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you
already know them’(1:12). Dahl writes, ‘The first obligation of the apostle
vis-a-vis a community is to make the faithful remember what they have received
and already know or should know.’
Dahl also notes that the character of preaching varies through
the New Testament and that within the Christian gathering it often assumes a
memory restorative character (hypomimēskein) different from the proclamatory
quality (kēryssein) evident in evangelistic preaching (for example, 2 Timothy
2:14; Titus 3:1; Jude 5; 2 Peter 1:12; and 1 Corinthians 4:17). I don’t think it
is an exaggeration to say that Dahl establishes memory work as the very motor
that sustained the burgeoning life of the earliest Christian communities.
Shouldn’t our contemporary gatherings have about them that same mnemonic
Shaping sermons as memory work
And so to practicalities: what does preaching as memory work look
like? Above all it has to be intentional. This is preaching that crosses the
stale divides between teaching and narrative, between information and emotion,
between induction and deduction. Instead it is intentional soul work that
immerses itself in the Scriptures and tangibly shows how we learn and live out
of tradition. It will talk out of scripture rather than about scripture, and it
will never ignore scripture in a way that treats it as not much more than
wallpaper to cover the gaps in worship. This immersion will prompt imaginative
leaps that go beyond the obvious. The intention is to create links in the chains
of collective memory and allow their power and potential to be apparent. It will
dwell on what these scriptures and the tradition born from them means now, so it
will be essentially presentist in serving what God needs of us now. It will be
performative in the sense that it will in itself create what it aims to
demonstrate. And it will be productive in that it will make memories and show
how yet more memories can be made. As Dahl puts it, ‘To “remember Jesus Christ”
does not mean to preserve in memory an image of him but to let this memory form
our thoughts and actions’.
Saint Paul says ‘I have written to you rather boldly by way of
reminder’ (Romans 15.15). Let that be a spur to all of us who are preachers to
constantly have in mind our part in keeping the Christian memory lively in an
 Maurice Halbwachs, 1990, On Collective Memory(ed Lewis Coser), University of Chicago Press.
 Danièle Hervieu-Léger, 2000, Religionas a Chain of Memory, Rutgers University Press.
Nils a Dahl, 1976, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church, Augsburg Publishing.
ibid page 13.
ibid page 14.
ibid page 15.
More on collective memory and preaching at http://christopherburkett.blogspot.com/
ibid page 20.